Voices from the Past

Commemorating Passchendaele


The Museum’s textiles collection has a small yet powerful object used by a young man in the First World War.  Bright Ernest Williams from Rissington, Napier, enlisted with H Company, 3rd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade in 1916, and embarked overseas with the 5th Reinforcements.  Like many young men, he was eager for adventure, ‘enhancing’ his 19 years at enlistment. 

As fate would have it, 14896 Rifleman Bright Williams would become New Zealand’s last locally born survivor of the Great War.

At both Messines and Passchendaele in Belgium, Bright Williams worked in the dangerous role of the battalion messenger-runner, running communications often across open ground, always vulnerable to enemy attack.  At around 8.30am on 12 October 1917, his luck ran out. He was cut down and would be one of 2700 wounded on that day.  This particular battle had gone tragically wrong, resulting in the death of around 240,000 Allied lives including 845 New Zealanders.

The wounded Williams endured 24 terrible hours in a ditch or crater with decomposing Germans as companions.  He had sustained three machine gun wounds to his left thigh, the last metal souvenir of which was not removed until 1999.  Hospitalised for two years after the battle, Bright was finally able to return home, settling down to farm and occasionally speaking about his and his comrades’ experiences.

It is almost impossible to overstate the bravery and efforts of the men of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade – the ‘Dinks’.  For Bright, recognition came in the form of the British War medal, the Victory medal and the Légion d’Honneur.   But this little scrap of material speaks just as loudly as medals… this was an extraordinary life lived, incredibly, for very nearly 106 years.  Bright Williams passed away in 2003, the last New Zealand-born WWI veteran.

By Textiles Curator, Pip Harrison

The image shows the armlet of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade (Earl of Liverpool’s Own),  with its distinguishing patch of a black triangle, which we understand was worn by Rifleman Williams at Passchendaele as well as at Messines Ridge, fought on the Western Front earlier in 1917.