4/1577 Sapper Benjamin Herbert Poole, NZETC
Sapper Poole was born 24 June 1884. His father was also called Benjamin and through him Ben junior could trace his family line back to New Zealand's first permanent European families.
In 1915, when Sapper Ben Poole enlisted to fight overseas in the NZETC, his paternal family line had been in New Zealand for 100 years. Poole was descended from Captain Hansen, who bought the Brig Active and its missionary family passengers to the Bay of Islands in 1814.
A descendant of New Zealand's 'First Families' was a member of the first unit of NZEF men on the Western Front, the NZETC.
Ben provided his sister's address details to officials for recording on his file. Sister Ava was married to NZETC 4/1591 Corporal William James Stanley. Ben's brother in law had enlisted alongside him. Ben nominated his mother as his next of kin and her street address was the same as her daughters. Although it's not known if they actually lived with each other, no doubt the women in Ben and William's life leaned on each other for support while their menfolk served overseas.
Poole's military file notes he was a labourer not a miner. He would have qualified as one of the less skilled assistants required by the NZ Tunnelling Company.
Poole was of fair complexion, light haired and with blue eyes. His teeth needed attention and he had varicose veins. Poole needed an operation for his veins and his papers show that at first he was deferred on account of this and his teeth. This is then crossed out and he was declared 'Now Fit'. It's unclear whether his veins were operated on, although it is known that large numbers of tunnellers had their teeth repaired in order to serve. At 31 years of age, like many other tunnellers, he was older than the average New Zealand enlistment. His most notable physical attribute was his height of 6 feet 4 inches. At 12 stone 12 pounds, he must have been a striking figure.
Sapper B H Poole was in the 1st Reinforcements, who left with the Main Body. This was divided into different sections (as was the Main Body), Reins consisted of Headquarters and four groups of men, Relief No 1-4. Poole was in the Headquarters section. The officers in the Reinforcements HQ were Lieutenant W M Durant, Mining Engineer and 2/Lt James Campbell Neill. In 1922, Neill wrote the book The New Zealand Tunnelling Company 1915-1919. This is considered the official NZETC History. Lieut Durant was killed participating in a raid against the Germans.
Like many tunnellers, Poole was no stranger to disciplinary charges. A charge of drunkenness in May 1916 earned a fine of a day's pay.
As Sapper Poole was a very tall man, the 4ft 6in high size of the tunnels first worked by the New Zealanders on their arrival in France would not have provided ease of movement. Underground work for Poole would have been extremely taxing even without dealing with the constant dangers of counter mining. The difficulty of being forced to work on their knees was given by another New Zealand tunneller as one of the reasons for the later change to a more kiwi size tunnel when the Kiwis adopted their own methods of tunnelling. The tunnel height was now 6ft 3in but even at this height Ben would have been physically challenged working underground, being an inch taller still.
Preparing for the Battle of Arras in the Arras cavern system may have held more appeal for Sapper Poole. Some of the Ronville caves were huge caverns twenty to forty feet high. In both the Ronville and St Sauveur systems the main connecting gallery that had been driven was 6 feet 6 inches high. Sapper Poole would have found this height much more to his liking.
In May 1917, Poole was hospitalized with scabies. Half the admissions to hospital from the armies in the field in World war One were attributed to lack of cleanliness and to infestation of vermin. Scabies, caused by a parasitic mite, was by far the most common of these diseases. Lice carried trench fever, relapsing fever and typhus. Even after serious cases of fever were treated, like Poole, the men usually returned to their units. The infestations were continuous and created a virtual war of their own.
in J C Neill's publication on the NZETC, the author writes about the early days on the western front and a humourous introduction to lice.
'The infantry the holding the Labyrinth were the 51st division Highland Territorials, perhaps the most famous fighting division in the British Army. Splendid fellows they were, cheery, tactful, and very helpful to the Company so brand new to war: as when a tunneller, wandering along the trench, encountered a brawny Scot sitting on the firestep stripped to the buff and subjecting his shirt to a minute scrutiny and enquired the reason thereof. Jock regarded him with a long look of amazement not unmixed with pity, finally ejaculating WHAT, have ye nae wee beasties yet? then solemnly holding out something between fingers and thumb, Ah weel, here's twa to make a stairt wi.
Sapper Poole was in and out of hospital or the Casualty Clearing Station a number of times throughout his time overseas. Trench fever as well as bronchitis took their toll. Working underground in the Arras caverns in the cold wet winter air and the following 1917/18 winter months appear to have finally caught up with Poole.
By early 1918, he was constantly needing medical attention and in June was sent to England where he was classified as unfit with rheumatoid arthritis. Poole returned to NZ, arriving home in October 1918. It is unclear whether he went straight to a hospital. His files initially record Kamo Sanatorium, Whangarei, but this is crossed out and replaced with an Auckland address. By June 1919 we know he was back in hospital.
While in the Rotorua King George V Military Hospital and three years after his 1916 charge for drunkeness Poole rounded out his time in the army by a further similar charge. On this occasion, his previous fine was doubled and he was fined one pound.
A month later, in July 1919, Sapper Poole was finally discharged from army life.
After a period of 2 years and 310 days overseas, his files noted Poole was no longer physically fit for war service due to rheumatism and arthritis.
Poole would never return to full employment.
In 1928, now aged 44, Poole married Mabel who took care of her semi-invalid husband and together they raised two sons.
His granddaughter Denise Poole says her father, who carried the name Benjamin into a third generation, remembered his own father as an infirm man who was often confined indoors.
Benjamin Herbert Poole died in 1954.
Special thanks for help with research for this article
The Poole Family
Kath Hansen, see her book In the Field: Mud and Blood on the Western Front for more information
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