Topic: The Friis Family’s War by Barbara Dobson

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

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Barbara Dobson


The Friis Family’s War


During the years 1914–16, Mathea Mitchell (formerly Friis) farewelled four sons as they departed from Dannevirke for the war in Europe. In the years to follow she welcomed back just three: one a broken, shell-shocked stranger, the second a sullen alcoholic, the third—with his bride at his side—the only one to live happily ever after.

This is the true story of four brothers who served overseas as soldiers during the First World War. A fifth brother also enlisted, but remained in New Zealand.

The Friis brothers—Alfred, Bertie, Douglas, Ernest and Franklyn—were the sons of Danish immigrant Lauritz Friis and his wife, Norwegian-born Mathea Christoffersen. They grew up in the small pioneer community of Dannevirke where life was challenging and tough physical work the norm. Timber felling, bridge or road building, farm labouring, sheep shearing—the Friis brothers moved from job to job, taking whatever work came their way.

Hardship and tragedy had already impacted on their lives prior to the outbreak of World War 1. They had lost both their father and grandfather through suicides, while an uncle had died in a forestry accident and two cousins in a tragic fire. Their mother Mathea was widowed when she was six months pregnant, with four young children still at home—one of whom was disabled. She had faced incredible adversity before remarrying in 1913.

As war was declared in August 1914, the possibility of losing her sons in that distant war became a reality.

The Compulsory Service Bill was introduced in 1909, requiring boys aged 12-14 to join junior cadets, and those aged 15-21 to serve in the Territorials. Douglas, Ernest and Franklyn had served in the Territorials, taking part in the annual camps held in the district.  When war was declared, young men inNew Zealand—as did their counterparts in other British colonies—enlisted without hesitation. Prepared by their involvement in the Territorials or cadets, they willingly seized the opportunity to confront a real enemy. The Friis brothers were no exception.

Franklyn, just 20 and the youngest of the four, enlisted immediately. As a soldier in the 1st Battalion, Wellington Infantry, Franklyn left New Zealand by ship in October 1914. After training in Egypt, he was one of the thousands of New Zealanders and Australians to land at Gallipoli.

The horrific reality of war was soon to hit home. No longer was this a simulated training exercise, but the real thing—the bloodshed and pain, the casualties, the desperate struggle to survive—these were the daily realities. Back home in Dannevirke the news of casualties began to trickle through—28 from that small town in the first year alone.

Franklyn Friis survived Gallipoli. In June 1915 the brother closest in age to him, Ernest (22) enlisted and arrived in France with the 7th Reinforcements in April 1916. Perhaps his enlistment was spurred on by news from the battle front or perhaps by the mounting pressure on all young men to sign up and join their peers.

Ernest may well have succumbed to this pressure, as it would seem that his disposition might have been unsuited to the soldier’s life. After just one month in France, Ernest was admitted to hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown.

1916 proved to be a horrendous year for the Friis family. Older brothers Alfred (34) and Bertie (32) joined the growing numbers of enlisted men. Alfred arrived in France in August 1916, while Bertie was in England with his regiment, the New Zealand Engineers No.1 Field Company, where they were stationed at Sling Camp with the New Zealand reserve group. A serious case of measles and two hospital admissions meant that he remained in England for 9 months. Douglas Friis had also enlisted by this time and remained in New Zealandwith the 2nd Reserves.

Bertie Friis, NZ Engineers 1917 - back row, right, with New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Egypt


By now the number of obituaries in the Dannevirke newspaper had increased, and the Friis family waited apprehensively for letters from the front or worse—a telegram. And there were several telegrams to come.

Firstly, the news of Ernest’s hospitalisation for a condition referred to as ‘confusional insanity, precipitated and aggravated by the stress of active service.’ Next, the news that Alfred had received an abdominal wound and was being treated in hospital. And then the horrific news that youngest son Franklyn had been killed in action at the Somme on September 21st 1916. He was 21 and in his two years with the 1st Battalion had served in Turkey,Greece and finally, France. He is buried at Amiens.

Bertie Friis, 2nd from left, in Egypt

How did the three brothers still in Europe take this news when finally it reached them? Were they able to later visit their brother’s grave? Perhaps Ernest’s condition meant he was unaware of the event, while the news would have reached Alfred while he was being treated for his wound. Bertie—who was always close to his mother—may have thought first of how she would cope with such news.

Early in 1917, Alfred rejoined the 4th Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade inFrance, only to be wounded a second time a few months later. This time he was away from his unit for less than two weeks. At the end of August he was wounded a third time—receiving shrapnel wounds to his back and legs.

Meanwhile, Bertie, who while in England had met and become engaged to an English girl, also embarked for France in May 1917. Although he had left New Zealand twelve months previously, this was to be his first encounter with the enemy. He was sent to Etaples, but was only to have two months of active service. On July 29th a shrapnel wound to his head and arm saw him shipped back to England. His injury was such that he was classified unfit for further service.

In September 1917 he married his fiancée, Margaret Woodward in Bournemouth, and together they sailed for New Zealand aboard the Ruahine.

Alfred—now three times wounded but still on active service—remained in France. His records indicate that he was by no means a model soldier. From time to time he was reportedly absent without leave and was also accused of insolence to his superior officer. However, he was always there at the battle front, and later his sentence was remitted because of his courageous actions in battle:

 ‘During the recent operations against Messines this soldier rendered particularly good services. Later during the extension of our line east of Ploegsteert Wood to the railway line near the River Lys he acted as a stretcher bearer rendering valuable services. On one occasion whilst removing a wounded man through a belt of gas, in order to get him through quickly he removed his own respirator and as a result was himself slightly gassed.’

 Despite all his injuries, it was the worsening of a pre-existing condition, a varicocele, which saw his eventual discharge. By this time, the war was over, and in January 1919 Alfred arrived back in New Zealand, where he was reunited with his family and the two brothers who had returned before him. He had served overseas for two and three quarter years.

But the story does not end there.

Both Ernest and Alfred never recovered from their wartime experiences. Ernest was described in his medical report as being:

 dull, listless and apathetic…in an unoccupied lethargic condition showing no interest in anything and does not speak to or associate with any of his fellow patients…His case is suggestive of Dementia Praecox [premature dementia].’

 Ernest was admitted to hospital on his return and spent much of the remainder of his life in mental institutions. He died in 1963 at Lake Alice Hospital.

Alfred returned to whatever labouring jobs he could find. He, like many soldiers, turned increasingly to alcohol and never married. In 1939, at the age of 57, he committed suicide.

Bertie was the only one of the four Friis brothers to return from the war and lead a happy and productive life. He and his wife Margaret farmed at Reporoa and had six children. They retired to Mount Maunganui in 1942. He carried that piece of shrapnel in his skull until his death in 1958.

Over the four years of war, Dannevirke lost more than 120 of its young men—a significant number for that small town. The Friis’ were just one family among many in the district whose lives were irrevocably altered by the dramatic events of the First World War.



Official WW1 service records

MacDonald, Rob Dannevirke, the Early Years


This article was archived at Perma CC on August 9, 2016 (

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The Friis Family’s War by Barbara Dobson

Note:About the Author: Barbara Dobson is the grand-daughter of Bertie Friis. She grew up in Te Aroha, graduated from Hamilton Teachers’ College and spent many years living in Darwin, Australia. While her interest in writing began at a young age, her passion for genealogy developed in later years. This in turn led to a desire to write the stories of family members and share these with both family and the wider community. In 2010 Barbara published ‘Journeys’ the stories of 5 women in her family. She has had several articles published in ‘The Genealogist’ (the journal of the NZ Society of Genealogists). The School Journal has published 2 of Barbara’s factual articles for children.
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The Friis Family’s War by Barbara Dobson by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License