Roland Blennerhassett was born in Auroa, Hawera on 3 May 1897. Coming from a large family of two girls and seven boys, six of the Blennerhassett brothers would find themselves enlisting for service before the end of WWI.
Roland enlisted in December 1915 while working as a teacher in Whanganui. He undertook his pre-deployment training at Trentham and Featherston Camp before embarking on 25 July 1916 aboard the Waitemata bound for Devonport, England. After entraining at Sling Camp, Roland arrived in France towards the end of the Battle of the Somme. He received further training at Etaples Camp and was part of the company involved in raiding German lines at Armentières.
He then moved up the line opposite Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, where he faced a horrible winter of snow, ice and mud while patrolling no-man’s land. It was here that his regiment was withdrawn from the front line and received intensive training for six months in readiness for the Battle of Messines.
At 3.10am on 7 June 1917, a series of underground mines laid by Allied tunnelers exploded under German-held territory near the Belgian village of Messines. Just moments after the thunderous blast and backed by heavy artillery support, New Zealand, Australian and British forces began advancing across no-man’s land to capture their objective, Messines Ridge.
Roland, serving with the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, was in the thick of the action at Messines. Despite the relative success of the attack for the Allies, he was not to make it through the ordeal unscathed. While fixing a trip wire under heavy artillery fire a shell exploded near him, knocking him unconscious and lodging a shrapnel fragment on the inside of his right knee.
He was treated at a Casualty Clearing Station before being sent to England where he spent three months recuperating at Hornchurch Convalescent Hospital. Roland described his time in recovery as heavenly, quiet and restful. He was later invalided back to New Zealand in March 1918 aboard the SS Remuera.
Below is part of what Roland wrote in his ‘recollections’, which he titled After Thoughts.
“How does it feel to be under enemy fire or resisting enemy attack? Well, there is fear, deadly fear of being blotted out, or worse, being mangled and alive! But many factors help one in the hour of stress. Perhaps the strongest is the fear of showing fear. Then there’s the example and comradeship of one’s mates, that something called esprit de corps. There’s the background of months of training, discipline and hard living. And finally there’s the job to do – one simply hasn’t time to think of anything but the vital need to carry out his job. This is specially true of officers and NCOs who have the responsibility of men under their charge.
Finally I found battle action itself awful but very thrilling – a tense urge to acquit myself reasonably well.
The worse phase is the waiting before hand – nothing to do but think and wonder while awaiting the enemy’s attack or one’s own zero hour. It is then one’s thoughts turn to home and those thoughts tend to break one’s nerves.”
Click below to view Roland Blennerhassett’s ‘recollections’ on the Battle of Messines.