Bright Ernest Williams would achieve a special place in New Zealand’s World War One history but his story begins when Bright, a son of a Blacksmith was born in Taradale on 27 February 1897 and as soon as he was old enough, he began working on farms as a shepherd in and around Rissington (northwest of Napier).
When war broke out in 1914, Bright was working as a farm labourer and it wasn’t until March 1916 that he enlisted at the age of 18 (having lied about his age). He then had six weeks training in New Zealand before leaving Wellington on 26 June 1916, bound for Devonport, England aboard the Tahiti.
After a period of training at Sling Camp, 14896 Rifleman Bright Williams left for France with the NZ Rifle Brigade on 19 September 1916.
Missing the attack on the Somme, Bright Williams began a period of training in France including two months with the Working Battalion before re-joining his unit and seeing action at Messines in June before his war would come to an end on 12 October 1917 at Passchendaele, Belgium.
During this fateful attack, Bright Williams was used as a battalion messenger/runner and as he scampered over the battle ravaged land, he was hit three times in the upper leg by machine gun fire.
He was taken off the battlefield by stretcher bearers of the No. 1 NZ Field Ambulance and then transferred to the No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station before ending up at the No. 5 General Hospital in Rouen and being operated on. From there he was transported to England.
Bright Williams was then admitted to the NZ General Hospital at Brockenhurst in November for further treatment.
He recalled years later “For 24 hours I lay where I was. I crawled on my tummy a bit, but I couldn’t use my left leg so I sort of half-rolled, half-crawled”. The last of the shrapnel would be removed in 1999.
Bright Williams returned to New Zealand aboard the hospital ship Marama on 21 November due to the wounds he sustained in battle, arriving back in New Zealand in late December 1917.
Bright Williams was discharged from the New Zealand Army on 19 March 1918 as “no longer physically fit for service on account of wounds received in action.”
Back in New Zealand, Bright Williams ended up running two farms in Rissington until the mid 1980’s when he retired. He married and had two daughters and a son.
What made Bright Williams unique was that he lived until he was 105 and on his death on 13 February 2003, he was our last New Zealand survivor of World War I. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark stated it was “truly the end of an era for New Zealand … We of a younger generation can only marvel and also be horrified at what these men went through and it is important that we never forget the contribution they made”.
Bright Ernest Williams was New Zealand’s “Last Man Standing” and his WWI map and ‘runner’s’ armband is in the collection of the National Army Museum in Waiouru.