Dec 2nd 1918
… All that can be done is being done….As regards having Dick taken home I don’t think that they will allow it because if they allow one, thousands will want theirs from all lands Gallipoli, France and they couldn’t do it….It is very hard for you mum, and I wish we could do more…
From your affectionate son Stuart
Louisa Seddon was one of over eighteen thousand New Zealand women to lose a son in the Great War. The bodies of all of these men lie buried overseas in graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This brass plaque at Old St Paul’s was empty consolation for a grieving mother.
Louisa was the widow of Richard John Seddon, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the son she mourned was one of her nine children, her eldest boy – Richard John Spotswood Seddon, known to friends and family as Dick. He died in France in World War One, in August 1918, less than three months before the end of the war.
Dick Seddon, in 1907
Although the Imperial War Graves Commission argued that the men themselves would wish to lie alongside their comrades, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain, many families disagreed and sought desperately to have the remains of their loved ones repatriated. Louisa Seddon had more means and contacts to do this than most, and pursued this with desperate and sustained determination over many years. As a focal point for her grief it was a painful choice, as the War Graves Commission held firm. No exceptions to the repatriation rule were made.
Louisa did everything she could to bring her son’s body home. Directly after the war she travelled to England and France, and visited her son’s grave, with the hope of bringing Dick back with her on her return. George Spafford Richardson, New Zealand’s military representative in London, wrote to Louisa in December 1918. He had endeavoured his ‘utmost’ to the get the War Graves Commission to grant her request, but was forced to concede that in this matter he was ‘absolutely powerless’, as he reflects, the War Graves Commission was well aware.
Louisa and two of her daughters at Dick’s grave in France. Notice the decoration and fence around his grave, as opposed to the other much simpler cross markers for other graves.
Over the following decade Louisa wrote to everybody she could to beg their assistance, including the New Zealand and British Prime Ministers. All were sympathetic, and at times she must have felt her goal almost within grasp, but years passed and the ban on repatriation remained in place.
In 1924, Louisa made an appeal to the United Kingdom’s incoming Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. His office replied with ‘greatest sympathy’, while reasoning with her to understand how ‘manifestly unfair [it would be] that those who can afford it should be able to bring back the bodies of their dead, and that the sons of those who cannot so afford be left behind’ and ‘how impossible it would be to bring back some 800,000 dead who are scattered all over the world, and to re-bury them in the hundreds of towns and villages from which they went’. Louisa refused to be moved by these arguments and wrote in reply ‘I resent strongly that my boy’s body is resting in Foreign soil away from all who loved him’.
Realities of war
World War One was a conflict on a scale not experienced before, with new warfare techniques and vast loss of life. Dealing with the aftermath of such a conflict was an administrative task equally as large. It required, if not a dispassionate outlook, at least a routine and disciplined approach. To allow land in France and Belgium to be returned to arable use, bodies that had been buried where they fell were now collected together and military cemeteries created.
Demand for photos of the graves of loved ones was high and the War Graves Commission found itself apologising to grieving families for the delay in delivering even this smallest of consolations. For the families of some 9,000 New Zealanders, approximately half of those killed, it was a consolation unable to be delivered at all, no matter how long the wait, as these bodies remain unidentified. In this regard Louisa was one of the lucky ones, although the knowledge of where her son lay, and hence the technical possibility of bringing him home, only served to increase her frustration and feeling of powerlessness.
Seeking to do whatever she could, Louisa concerned herself with details of Dick’s burial, and sought any scraps of information about his wartime experience. Her third son, Stuart, who also served in the war, identified Dick’s body and erected a cross on his grave. Louisa’s daughters also made enquiries about their late brother. The accounts they received are matter of fact, plainly stating horrific circumstance, that in this conflict were of the everyday. ‘I buried your brother where he fell’, wrote one, and marked his grave ‘with a rifle, with his name, rank and unit plainly inscribed’. Dick’s battalion had been ordered to begin their attack at 5am, and it was while waiting in the pre-dawn that the ‘shell struck him from the small of his back to his knees’.
Having earlier resigned from the army, Dick may not have served at all in World War One, but his own willingness to enlist and New Zealand’s policy of conscription saw him back in the ranks.
Perhaps picking up on his father’s imperialist enthusiasm, Dick made the army his profession and upon leaving school trained as a cadet. The outbreak of the South African War (1899-1902) very soon after, proved an excellent opportunity for career progression. Richard Seddon Sr., serving as Premier, and from 1900 also as minister of defence, took it upon himself to personally appoint officers. Despite his son’s lack of experience, he assigned him the rank of lieutenant, and later replaced another man with his son in order to give him a command post. When he left for South Africa with the fourth contingent, Dick was still just shy of his 19th birthday.
Premier’s privilege: mother and son at camp in South Africa, 1900. When it came to spending time with a son while he served overseas it helped if your husband was the premier.
After his return from South Africa he served as private secretary to his father in his role as minister of defence. After his father’s death in 1906, he joined the defence staff at headquarters. However, with his chief sponsor gone, Dick found his experience in the army less rewarding than in former times. The army likewise, found its relations with him a challenge.
In 1911 he was one of a number of officers to be sent to England for training. When on his return in 1913 he was not given the promotion he had hoped for, he resigned claiming harsh and unfair treatment. After the considerable expense incurred in sending him to England the army was less than happy, but decided to cut its losses and let him go. During his first five months in England he had not attached himself to a battalion as requested; he routinely argued over expense claims, was generally dissatisfied with his pay and rank, and often sought favour or special allowance from those he had no authority or permission to write to. ‘I can only conclude’ wrote the colonel commanding the New Zealand forces in England, ‘that Captain Seddon, by his action and in his ideas is not worth keeping in the service…’.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Dick made moves to enlist. Understandably the army was not anxious to have him back, and at first refused his offer, but by 1916 volunteers were in short supply. The New Zealand government, wanting to keep up a steady flow of manpower for the Empire, introduced conscription. In November of that year Dick was called in the second ballot. After again arguing his rank and commission, and on completion of further training, he left New Zealand in August 1917. He sailed first to Egypt, where he again kept army administrators busy; this time with correspondence regarding disputed expense claims for taxis. On 17 August he arrived in France ready to see his first action of the war – four days later he was dead.
‘Trodden by strangers’?
Dick’s grave as it appears today in Hebuterne Military Cemetery, France.
In a letter to the British Prime Minister, Louisa expressed her fear that ‘as the years roll on the cemeteries in foreign lands, with interest in them dimmed by time, will sooner or later be uncared for and trodden by strangers’. Far from these fears being realised, the War Graves Commission continues to look after the sons of the commonwealth, in the countries in which they lie. Today these cemeteries are immaculately tended, and receive an increasing number of visitors. Nor are these visitors indifferent strangers, but seekers of history and family connection.
Dick’s brass at Old St Paul’s is not the only memorial he received in Wellington. The Seddon Memorial and family tomb in Bolton Street Cemetery bears a marble plaque with his name. Inside the tomb hangs the wooden cross from Dick’s grave in France. It was removed from the grave when a uniform headstone was erected, and was brought home to New Zealand by one of his sisters. While the family tomb was the resting place Louisa so desired for her son, Dick Seddon is caught in a larger story, and although his grave is no more distinguished than those beside him, he should not be ashamed to take his place there.
Seddon Memorial and family tomb. Dick’s memorial plaque sits between those for his father and his mother as pictured above.
Sources: Seddon family papers, MS-Papers-8792-03; MSY-2026, MS-Papers-1619-122, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Richard John Spotswood Seddon’s war service record and ‘War Graves – Exhumation and removal of bodies and ashes to native countries’, R10764185, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge, New Zealand’s First World War Heritage, Wellington, 2015.
Images: 1907 image, Ref: 1/2-110941-F, South African War image, Ref: PA1-q-162-70, Alexander Turnbull Library. 1918 image of the cemetery are from MS-Papers-1619-122, Alexander Turnbull Library. Modern photos of Hebuterne Military Cemetery, France: http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/richard-john-spotswood-seddon