New book tells Catlins diggers’ tales

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A new book detailing the lives of men from the Catlins who served during World War 1 will be launched on Saturday, a day before Armistice Day.

Written by Mike and Anabel McPhee, a Catlins couple, the book was an effort to shine a light on aspects of the war experience which they felt were often not well covered.

They documented the lives of about 400 soldiers from the Catlins area, detailing their upbringing, army service, war experiences and life when they returned home.

“We really wanted to tell the story of what happened to these men after the war, the ones who came back,” Mr McPhee said.

“Those who were shell-shocked or gassed or wounded had a hell of a time. It’s not always as obvious.”

He said many men had kept their wartime experiences close to their chests, telling only their closest family members.

“A lot of them likely had survivor’s guilt .. many of these stories have never seen the light of day.”

The research involved not only going over military records and journals, but visiting the homes of the descendants of the men who went overseas to fight.

“That was fascinating, far more than the actual writing of the book, just sitting with these people and hearing the back-stories of the men they knew, or had the stories passed down to them.”

The mammoth effort to complete the book took about five years, which Mr McPhee noted was longer than the war itself.

During their research, Mr McPhee also encountered an interesting story which struck closer to home, about a man he knew during childhood.

“Bill Friend was our neighbour on Ryley St. He was an elderly man then and used to keep an eye on all us Ryley St kids. A lovely man.”

Mr Friend would often visit Mike McPhee’s parents.

What he did not know is that Mr Friend was actually Sergeant William Friend, who had been wounded during the war, and was the recipient of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, one step down from the Victoria Cross as a medal for gallantry.

He received the award when what was intended to be a reconnaissance mission resulted in his shooting an enemy German soldier and taking about 80 prisoners single-handed.

Mr McPhee said it was hard to imagine his elderly neighbour as the young soldier who took part in such daring exploits.

The book launch will take place at 4pm on Saturday at the Owaka Museum.