What internet research can tell us: The story of Pte. C.D. Burgess

Poppies (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Poppies (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Following my previous post about the importance of research for writers, I thought it timely to mention just how access to the internet has revolutionized the act of researching something.  Of course, students from primary school through to tertiary education take this for granted, but mature students like me can remember a time when, not very long ago, research was a lengthy and often arduous task.  Nowadays, almost anything is available to us at the click of a mouse. This was brought home to me when I decided to find out a little about a soldier who died in the First World War.  I had attended the moving ANZAC Day dawn service on 25th April, along with over 5,000 others. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the representative of the Turkish Ambassador to New Zealand read, first in Turkish and then in English, the words that Mustafa Kemal Attatürk wrote in 1934 to the mothers of fallen ANZACs buried at Gallipoli:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

The centre of the stadium was filled with white crosses, one for every soldier from this region who fell in WWI. As I have no knowledge of any direct family links to fallen ANZAC soldiers (my grandfather and great-uncles fought in the European theatre in WWI), I decided to try and find out a little about 67516 Pte. C.D. Burgess, in front of whose cross I found myself standing during the service. The following is what I discovered:

ANZAC Day Centenary memorial crosses in Nelson, New Zealand, 25th April 2015 (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

ANZAC Day Centenary memorial crosses in Nelson, New Zealand, 25th April 2015 (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Charles David Burgess, 1st Bn. Wellington Regiment, NZ Expeditionary Force, was the son of David and Ellen Ada Burgess of “Sunnyside”, in Wakefield. At the time he enlisted (or was called up?) his occupation was that of farm labourer, which possibly explains why he signed up in the last year of the war. He embarked on 2nd May 1918, aboard the ship Balmoral Castle.

David (as he was known) had been born in Reigate, Surrey on an unknown date, but he was 25 when he was killed in action at Le Cateau, France. The action was part of the Pursuit to the Selle, during the Hundred Days’ Offensive. The date was 11 October 1918, and Pte. Burgess is buried in the Romeries Communal Cemeteries.

That he died when the war was so nearly over must, in later days, have seemed a cruel irony to his parents in their quiet, rural corner of the South Island of New Zealand. I have no idea whether the Burgess family had other sons, but it seems unlikely that David’s family remembers much about his story, because his British War Medal with Victory Medal was auctioned by Dix Noonan Webb as part of Lot 208 (23 WWI medals) that sold for £180 in February 1998.

To know the villages and farming area where David was working before he joined up, and to imagine him leaving the farm there and finding himself in the battered, shelled-out villages of Northern France in the final months of WWI, never to return, is just so unbelievably sad.

Derelict farmhouse near Brightwater, NZ, the area where Pte. Burgess lived before he enlisted in 1918. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Derelict farmhouse near Brightwater, NZ, the area where Pte. Burgess lived before he enlisted in 1918. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

In researching the facts about Pte. Burgess so that I could write a little about him for my journal, I accessed websites of the New Zealand Army, the War Graves Commission, newspaper archives, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand and, for information about the Pursuit to the Selle, Veterans Affairs Canada.  Had I wanted to spend more time, I could have used my account on http://www.ancestry.com to access Census information to find out more about the Burgess family before they left England.  I could probably even have tracked them down on passenger lists to find out the name of the ship in which they sailed to New Zealand.  Quite amazing, really!  Below this post you’ll find a photo of some soldiers moving artillery during the Pursuit to the Selle; I was only able to save it as a separate post.

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