Alan Duncan Stitt

Portrait of Major Alan Stitt

Rank

Second lieutenant

Roll title

13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, NZEF

Convoy ship

Stitt after a gallop around Ismailia, Egypt.

Courtesy of Sue Dobson

Alan Stitt was born in the small town of Ashburton in the province of Canterbury on 11 June 1894. He was the second child of Matthew and Margaret Stitt, and brother to Grace Rhoda and Douglas Matthew. Sadly, Stitt’s mother passed away when he was just 12 years old.

Stitt and his brother Douglas went to boarding school at the prestigious Christchurch private school, Christ’s College. Stitt enrolled in 1909 and Douglas joined him the following year. It was there that Stitt met his lifelong friend, Donald Dobson, with whom he would serve throughout the First World War. Stitt graduated in 1912 and went on to study agriculture at Lincoln College, just outside the city of Christchurch.

Like many young men his age, Stitt served in the school cadets while at Christ’s College, rising to the rank of a second lieutenant. When he left school he joined the 13th (North Canterbury and Westland) Regiment, a part-time Territorial Force unit, keeping his junior officer’s rank from the Christ’s College Senior Cadets. He was not officially given this promotion until 1915 (although it was backdated to November 1914).

He enlisted in the NZEF and was posted to the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, in Rangiora on 14 August 1914.

Stitt’s friend Dobson also joined the Canterbury Battalion as an officer, but was assigned to the 1st (Canterbury) Company. The pair served in different branches of the same battalion as officers throughout the war. 

School friends Donald Dobson and Alan Stitt in their Canterbury Infantry Battalion uniforms.

Courtesy of Sue Dobson

Officers of the Canterbury Battalion before the departure with the Main Body forces. Stitt is fourth from the right in the back row, beside Dobson (third from the right).

Courtesy of Sue Dobson

Panoramic view of the NZEF Main Body in Wellington Harbour on the eve of departure, 15 October 1914.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, PA6-413

On 2 October, the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company departed from Lyttelton Harbour on board HMNZT Athenic, bound for Wellington. The rest of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion accompanied them aboard HMNZT Tahiti. Outside the harbour, the two vessels met the transport ships Ruapehu and Hawkes Bay, which carried the men of the Otago Infantry Battalion and Mounted Rifles Regiment. The ships arrived in Wellington Harbour the following day, where they joined the rest of the NZEF Main Body. The men expected to leave Wellington immediately; however, they were delayed for several days until additional battleships arrived to help protect the convoy from German raiders roaming in the Pacific area.

The official history of the Canterbury Regiment gives some detail about the journey of the ships from Wellington:

The ships for the escort arrived on October 14th: they were HMS Minotaur, and the Japanese warship lbuki. The following day the Auckland transports came into harbour, and during the night the remaining transports left the wharves and joined the Auckland ships in the stream. HMS Psyche and Philomel completed the escort, and the whole fleet left Wellington harbour at 6 am on the 16th. On clearing Cook Strait the convoy formed up in two columns eight cables (1,600 yards) apart, and with the ships in each column three cables (600 yards) apart. The first column or ‘division’ consisted of HMNZT No. 3, Maunganui; No. 9, Hawke's Bay; No. 8, Star of India; No. 7, Limerick; No. 4, Tahiti: and the second of HMNZT No. 10, Arawa; No. 11, Athenic; No. 6, Orari; No. 5, Ruapehu; No. 12, Waimana. The Minotaur steamed six miles ahead, the Ibuki and Psyche were at the same distance on the starboard and port beam respectively, and the Philomel as rearguard was four miles astern. At night the escort closed in to 4,000 yards' distance.

HMNZT Athenic arrived with the Main Body in King George Sound, Albany, on 28 October 1914. On 1 November 1914 the New Zealand and Australian ships departed as the First Convoy. The unit history of the Canterbury Regiment describes an important part of the journey to the troops – the meals:

The food was good, and was usually much more varied than that supplied in camps; but there is no doubt that, on practically every transport that left New Zealand, food was occasionally spoilt by cooks who had plenty of good intentions but little skill in their art. On the whole, however, the men were as well fed as conditions of life on a transport admit. It is true that there were often complaints; but it is also notorious that the monotony of a long sea-voyage breeds grumbling, and naturally both the Main Body and every reinforcement had its share of grumblers. The meals were served in a special mess-room, which was not used as sleeping-quarters, though it was usually available in the evening for amusements.

On 3 December 1914, after several weeks at sea, the Athenic arrived at the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Between Aden and the Suez Canal, the New Zealand troops had been informed that they would not be going to England or the Western Front, but would instead wait in Egypt until further notice. 

Egypt

During their stay in Egypt the NZEF set up camp in Zeitoun, seven kilometres outside of Cairo. The Canterbury Battalion soon settled into a life of constant training interspersed with brief stints of garrison duty along the Suez Canal. However, the dull routine of camp life could sometimes be broken by an off-duty visit to the nearby bustling metropolis of Cairo, noted for the diversity of entertainment on offer.  

The Athenian Lyre, the troopship magazine produced on board HMNZT Athenic and printed at various ports of call during the voyage from Wellington to Egypt.

Courtesy of the National Library of Australia 2043208

The Athenian Lyre, the troopship magazine produced on board HMNZT Athenic and printed at various ports of call during the voyage from Wellington to Egypt.

Courtesy of the National Library of Australia 2043208

HMNZT Athenic.

Courtesy of the Western Australian Museum MHK D1 146

Stitt at his tent, probably in Zeitoun Camp near Cairo.

Courtesy of Sue Dobson

Stitt at an officers’ club in Cairo.

Courtesy of Sue Dobson

A line of landing boats being towed towards the shore during the 25 April landing.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H03546

On the morning of 25 April, Stitt left Lemnos Island with the Canterbury Battalion for Gallipoli.  The four companies were split across two transports. The 1st and 2nd Companies were among the first New Zealanders to land on Gallipoli, reaching the beach at 12.30 pm. Meanwhile, the transport carrying Stitt’s 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company and the 12th (Nelson) Company did not arrive at Anzac Cove until 5 pm. Once ashore, the two companies were sent to Walker’s Ridge to join the 2nd Canterbury Company. They arrived around 9.30 pm and spent a long night under heavy fire, attempting to hold the line in makeshift trenches.

Stitt participated in all the major battles of the Gallipoli campaign and was wounded three times.  The first occasion was on 12 May 1915, when the Canterbury Battalion was at Cape Helles. He was evacuated to hospital in Mustapha to recover and did not return for a month.

Stitt was next wounded on 7 August during the August Offensive, though it was a slight wound and he remained on duty. The third wound he received later that month was much more serious. It was probably inflicted while Stitt was with his company at the Apex, a volatile forward position that the Canterbury Battalion had moved up to garrison that day with the support of the Maori Contingent. Stitt was sent to Alexandria to convalesce and did not return to the Anzac sector until late October 1915.

After a relatively quiet few months, a decision was made in November 1915 to abandon the peninsula. Secret orders for the evacuation were issued to officers on 15 December, indicating that all New Zealand and Australian soldiers were to be evacuated in three main groups.

On the night of 17–18 December, 10,000 Anzac soldiers were evacuated completely undetected. The remaining men, including the 1st and 13th Companies of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, were split into A, B and C Parties. Stitt was among the 600 men chosen to form C Party. This would be the last group of men to leave Anzac, and competition for a spot in it was fierce, as many men, particularly those who had come ashore on 25 April, felt they were honour-bound to remain until the very end. While A and B Parties departed late on the 19th, the C Party men anxiously waited until 1.45 am on 20 December before beginning a slow, precisely timed withdrawal down to the beaches. By 4.10 am Anzac Cove was completely clear.

Having survived Gallipoli, Stitt moved on to the Western Front.

The landing on Gallipoli. By 8 am 8,000 men were ashore, and twice that number by day’s end.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P00196.001

George Lambert, Anzac, the landing, 1915 (c. 1920–22, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 370.2 cm).

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial ART02873

Sick and wounded troops await evacuation from Anzac Cove.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial C00425

New Zealand troops occupy a newly dug trench during the battle of the Somme, 1916.

Archives Reference: ACGO 8398 IA76 7/13 H474 Archives New Zealand. The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

When the New Zealand Division was formed in March 1916, Stitt was assigned to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment, and promoted to captain. In April, he and the division were sent to France and posted to the Armentières sector. Stitt’s first large-scale battle on the Western Front was the attack on the village of Flers between 15-22 September 1916, during the Somme Offensive.

At Morval on 27 September, Stitt, acting as adjutant of his battalion, distinguished himself when he took over command of the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company after its commanding officer and second-in-command were both wounded. Stitt remained in command of the company for the rest of the battle, displaying exceptional bravery and tactical skill for which he was later awarded the Military Cross. 

Messines

Stitt confirmed his reputation as a brave and capable young officer at the battle of Messines in June 1917. Having been appointed as temporary major in April, he was given command of the 1st Canterbury Battalion for the assault.

Stitt had been heavily involved in his brigade’s preparations for the attack at Messines, as explained in the Canterbury Regiment’s official history:

On May 10th [1917] the 1st [Canterbury] Battalion... marched to billets at Nieppe.... During this period a brigade school was established at Bonanza Lines, between Romarin and Nieppe, and Captain A. D. Stitt was appointed commandant and chief instructor. Platoon commanders and senior non-commissioned officers from all battalions attended for a week's course, which was devoted mainly to the use of maps and compass by day and by night message writing, and minor tactics. A model platoon was established and billeted at the school, and was used for carrying out the tactical exercises.

The weather during May was wonderfully fine and warm, and enabled preparations for the attack to be pushed forward unceasingly … there was very great activity in other directions behind our lines. Our preparations could not be hidden from the enemy: the country swarmed with men building gun positions, new broad and narrow-gauge railways, light-railway marshalling yards, and dumps for ammunitions, rations, and materials of all kinds, laying buried telephone-cables, improving old roads and building new ones, and engaged in the hundred other activities which must precede an attack on a large scale.

It would have been waste of labour and time to attempt to hide what we were doing… it is impracticable to attempt to hide work on a large scale. So our preparations went on openly, and with very little interference on the part of the enemy. Yet the element of surprise was not precluded from the attack: for though it was evident to everyone that an attack was going to be made, the secret of the date and hour was successfully kept until the last moment. The evidence of prisoners goes to show that the enemy expected us to attack on June 8th, and that our attack on the 7th was a genuine surprise to him.

At zero hour of 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 explosive-packed mines dug under the German trenches on Messines Ridge were detonated, destroying the German front line. Stitt’s battalion went over the top and advanced toward Messines Ridge. The Cantabrians quickly captured all of their objectives with relatively few casualties; however, they soon found themselves under heavy German artillery fire and counter-attacks. For the next five days, the soldiers of the 1st Canterbury Battalion successfully defended their new positions, but at a cost of over 300 casualties.  For his leadership of the battalion, and for his actions in follow-up operations in the St. Ives sector, Stitt was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The DSO was an award for gallantry and leadership restricted to officers, and in terms of prestige was deemed second only to the Victoria Cross. It was usually only awarded to those ranked lieutenant colonel or higher, but during the First World War it was occasionally awarded to majors, like Stitt, for particularly exceptional actions. He was just 23 years old.

Hear about Stitt’s courageous actions at Flers-Courcelette and Messines, for which he was awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order:

For his actions in the battle of Flers-Courcelette, Captain Alan Stitt was awarded the Military Cross. The citation read (in part): During the whole of the operations round Flers from 16–28 September 1916, this Officer has done excellent work as Adjutant of the Battalion. During the action on the 27 at Grid Trench, the Senior Officers were casualties and Captain Stitt was sent forward to take command and consolidate the position. This he did particularly well, sending in good reports and siting an excellent line. An excellent officer. For his actions in the battle of Messines, Major Alan Stitt was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The citation read (in part): Operations Messines – 7 to 12 June and operations in front of Ploegsteert 14 June to 19 June 1917. During the above operations Major Stitt was in Command of the 1st Canterbury Battalion and displayed exceptional qualities of leadership during that time. He was continually under heavy shell fire for five days and showed the greatest gallantry when superintending the consolidation of that part of the Messines Ridge allotted to his battalion. During the later operations opposite Warneton he again commanded his Battalion with conspicuous success and was responsible for establishing a line of posts in front of La Basse Ville which he personally reconnoitred and personally supervised the work during the night it was carried out. Later, during the latter part of July, when the 1st Canterbury Battalion were holding trenches opposite La Basse Ville, Major Stitt was again in command. The Battalion was continually subjected to a very heavy shell fire, under very bad weather conditions; Major Stitt, by his cheerful disposition and devotion to duty, maintained his Battalion in the highest state of discipline and efficiency.

Final battles in France

Stitt survived the German offensives in the first half of 1918 and then took part in the final victorious battles that the New Zealand Division would fight on the Western Front. He led the 1st Canterbury Battalion’s advance to Pont-a-Pierres on 23 October 1918, in the final stages of the battle of the Selle. A few days later on 4 November, Stitt and the 1st Canterbury Battalion reached the outskirts of the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy which the Germans were determined to defend. The town was taken on 4 November 1918, in a daring assault by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade which scaled the fortress walls with a ladder, liberating the town without damaging it with artillery fire. While this attack was taking place, Stitt’s battalion was busy sweeping through the Mormal Forest behind Le Quesnoy, eradicating the last-ditch German defenders hiding amidst the treesbefore the final German surrender occurred on 11 November. 

 

Officers of the 1st Battalion, The Canterbury Regiment in France, 22 April 1917. Stitt is fifth from the left in the front row.

Ferguson, Captain D 1921, The History of the Canterbury Regiment, NZEF, 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland, as made available by New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, accessed on 1 September 2014

Men of the 2nd Auckland Battalion in a German switch trench near Flers. Switches were used to connect the foremost trenches with reserve trenches.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 194)

New Zealand troops construct a trench by linking up shell craters near Martinpuich during the battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15 September 1916.

© Imperial War Museums (Q 184)

Soldiers of the New Zealand Division after the successful capture of Messines.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, 1/4-009516-G

Captured German trenches at Messines Ridge, Belgium, June 1917.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H08723

A 1918 newspaper article detailing Stitt’s Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Ashburton Guardian, 20 March 1918, p. 2, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

George Edmund Butler, Capture of the walls of Le Quesnoy (1920, oil on canvas, 153.2 x 122 cm)

Archives Reference: AAAC898 NCWA 535 Archives New Zealand The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

View of the City Park Cemetery in Nairobi, Kenya, where Stitt is buried.

Courtesy of Bob Barnes

As an infantry officer who volunteered at the outbreak of war, Stitt was very fortunate to see its end. At just 24, he finished his service as one of the youngest lieutenant colonels of the NZEF, commanding the infantry battalion he had joined as a junior officer in 1914. He had been wounded in action four times and mentioned in despatches twice in addition to his other gallantry awards, earning himself a reputation as an exceptional soldier.

Stitt spent most of 1919 in England. He was placed in charge of the steadily dwindling band of Canterbury and Otago infantrymen waiting to be transported back home to New Zealand and demobilised.

In October 1919, Stitt successfully applied to join the New Zealand Staff Corps (NZSC), the first step in becoming a full-time professional soldier in post-war New Zealand. However, upon returning home he was dismayed to learn that his transfer to the NZSC would require him to accept a demotion in rank to captain, and even this would only be a probationary instead of a substantive appointment. The NZSC was only a small group of permanent officers – just enough to keep a kernel of military expertise available for the part-time militia of the country’s Territorial Force to draw on when needed. There were very few positions available, and even for those offered one, like Stitt, the prospects for future promotion or career advancement were dim. Confronted with this gloomy reality, Stitt resigned in February 1920. He left New Zealand soon after, bound for England to marry his English sweetheart Mary Kathleen Harris. On 31 August 1920, the two were married at Holy Trinity Church in Shaftesbury, Dorset. Instead of returning to New Zealand with his new bride, Stitt instead decided to put his agricultural training to use and start a new life in Africa.

The young couple had their first child, Brian Alan, in England in 1921. Shortly after this they immigrated to the British East African colony of Kenya. There they established a farm in the small community of Eldoret, which they called ‘Aotea-roa’ (the Maori name for New Zealand). A few years later the couple had a daughter, Patricia Kathleen. There may have also been a third child, but records for this are unclear.

Stitt returned to active service during the Second World War, serving with the British Forces in East Africa. He died on 16 October 1950 in Nairobi, aged 56. He was interred in the City Park Cemetery, Nairobi, Kenya.

 

References

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, STITT, Alan Duncan, 6/849

Australian War Memorial

East African Cemeteries and Memorials, viewed 1 September 2014, <http://www.eamemorials.co.uk/>

Ferguson, Captain D 1921, The History of the Canterbury Regiment, NZEF, 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland

Imperial War Museums

Malthus, C 2002, Anzac: A Retrospect, Reed, Auckland

New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, New Zealand in the First World War 1914–1918, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-WH1.html

Te Papa Tongerewa, Museum of New Zealand

Anonymous

You were an amazingly brave man with incredible courage and leadership qualities. Thank you for all you did.

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Anonymous

Hi, Looks very scary. I'm glad you survived the war.;]

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Anonymous

You were a tireless and brave soldier who fought so hard for your country. Thank you.

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sienna awesomeness

Good job!

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Anonymous

Good on ya, Stittsy!

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Anonymous

Thank you for your service.

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Sofia Cheng

You are a true hero and you have shown me how you survived the war. LEST WE FORGET. RIP. xxxx

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Anonymous

You did well. RIP.

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Anonymous

I really like what you have done with your life. You are an inspiration to the world.

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kevin

Thank you for your service and leadership.

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Anonymous

Peace, a precious gift. Forever grateful. May you also now be at peace.

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Miss Murray

We will never stop loving you.

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makenzie

Good job for surviving the war.

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makenzie

Thanks for being in the war.

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Anonymous

I have heard about war and I am very sorry.

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paul farrell

Great work and inspiring.

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Anonymous

You are very brave.

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danielle

Thank you for your courage, selflessness and sacrifice. I hope you have found peace. God bless.

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me

It was really cool to learn about you and your contribution to making Australia a free country.

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Grace Hall

I am very sorry you didn't get to live for that long. I wish you had a great life when you were alive.

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Anonymous

Thank you for your bravery.

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Elle .V

Dear Stitt. Thank you for sacrificing your life for New Zealand. We are grateful.

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Anonymous

Dear Stitt, I think it's awesome that you survived the war. You are very brave and you had a tonne of courage to go to war.

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Anonymous

Thank you for your sacrifice.

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Anonymous

Thank you. It's because of your courage that I can raise my family in the comfort of freedom. xx

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jordie

Rest well mate. Great job. This country is very proud.

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Peter Matthews

Thanks for your service and bravery.

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kate

Thank you for being brave.

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Anonymous

We can't begin to understand the horror of your experience. Thank you for all that you did for us.

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Anonymous

Thank you for letting me read your story.

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sebastian

Thank you for letting us learn about you.

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chloe

Thank you for what you did and survived.

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Soyeon Park

Your story was very interesting. Thank you for your service and sacrifice.

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Anonymous

Thank you for going to war, saving our country and as today is just peace. Thank you Stitt.

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Anonymous

You are a great soldier and fought bravely for your country. Everyone in your country would be proud for what you've achieved, Major Allan Stitt.

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terri bunker

I enjoy learning about you. What a wonderful person you are.

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Demi

Lest we forget. xox

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Anonymous

We are proud of your sacrifice. xoxo

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Anonymous

R.I.P. STITT. THANK YOU FOR OUR FREEDOM.

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Anonymous

Thanks for your sacrifice.

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Anonymous

What a great life story!

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Jeanette Barnsley

THANK YOU FOR YOUR BRAVERY AND LEADERSHIP. WITHOUT MEN LIKE YOU WE WOULD HAVE GROWN UP IN A VERY DIFFERENT WORLD.

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Sue Doherty

Privilege to read your story.

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Anonymous

I admired your bravery and courage under the most horrific conditions imaginable. I am also from Canterbury, and visited Gallipoli and French battlefields, now peaceful.

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Anonymous

Glad to hear you made it through. You were very brave.

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pATRICE

WELL DONE MAJOR!

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Kayla Philipps

Thank you for all of your effort, proud of you. LEST WE FORGET :)

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Anonymous

Well fought and survived.

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Anonymous

You were very brave. THANK YOU!

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Anonymous

Your brave actions are greatly appreciated.

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