Irish fighting for New Zealand

Paul Kelly writes about his Irish great uncle, Robert Edward Kelly, an Irish immigrant who fought in World War 1. Family members back in Ireland couldn’t understand why their New Zealand kin were so keen to fight for the British in the Great War.

A recent O’Kiwi blog had some notes about my Kelly family from Boyle in Co. Roscommon. The story of my great-uncle, Robert Edward Kelly, provides some more insights into the fortunes of New Zealand’s Irish migrants.

Robert Edward Kelly

Robert Edward Kelly fought at Gallipoli

Robert was the third son of my great-grandparents, John Kelly and Elizabeth Catherine Kelly (nee McCann) from Boyle. They had their children in quick succession – my grandfather John William Kelly was born in January 1886 and Robert was born in December the same year.

Robert was a reservist in the First Battalion of the Connacht Rangers G Company for seven years. The Rangers served in South Africa in 1900 and in India, stationed at Delhi, in 1911. Robert did not go to South Africa but was in India in his mid-20s. I have his prayer book. It gives his address as ‘Ferozepore, India’, which is in Punjab, about 100 km south of Lahore.

After returning from India, Robert joined his family in Invercargill. They had migrated here five years earlier. The address in the army records was 173 Leet Street, Invercargill, the home of his brother Patrick. Robert became a tailor but after the First World War broke out, Robert was attested (confirmed in the Army) on 22 August 1914, joining the 8th Southland Company, Otago Battalion, NZ Expeditionary Force.

Robert was in the 2nd Reinforcements that departed New Zealand on 14 December 1914. The army records do not list his name. However, they do show he was attested on 31 December 1914 ‘on the high seas’, on board HMNZT No 14. It appears he must have been turned down for active service so he stowed away. It was a fateful decision.

He arrived in Egypt on 29 January 1915 and was shipped with the NZEF to Gallipoli, Turkey in that year. He had been appointed lance corporal on 21 January and in March, he was promoted to corporal. Five months later, Robert, aged 29, was killed on the slopes of Gallipoli.

I have a copy of the letter sent to my great uncle, Patrick Kelly, dated 15 August 1915, by a Lieutenant Valentine. He wrote:

I regret to have to write this note to tell you of the death of your brother Corporal Robert Kelly who was shot while supervising the drawing of water on the morning of 6 August. A stray bullet hit him in the neck almost severing his jugular, so that death was happily instantaneous.
There was no one in my platoon, who was more ready to face his maker, his work was complete and he left everything in order. I am not of your religion but I know Corporal Kelly attended to his duties before going into battle and he was buried by one of your priests.
 His little odds and ends will reach you sooner or later through the Army Services Corps. I kept his watch and will send on separately. I have since been wounded the second time myself.

Yours Sincerely,

Lieutenant Valentine.

Robert is buried at the Chunuk Bair Memorial at Gallipoli.

Later another brother, Francis (Frank) Kelly, enlisted in the army. Copies of letters from that time the family have given me reveal that the Kellys still in Ireland could not understand why their brothers in New Zealand were so eager to go to the war and fight for the British.

Fortunately Frank survived the war. Robert was the only family member lost, although my grandmother’s brother, Albert Edward Wyatt, was killed in action in France in 1918.

My father, Robert (Bob) Edward Kelly, was born in 1920. His name honours the memory my great-uncle.

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