Topic: Sapper Michael Tobin
4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin, NZETC. First NZEF death on Western Front.
The first Member of the NZ Expeditionary Force (NZEF) to die on the Western Front was not a victim of shellfire or an enemy bullet.
Michael Tobin of Tauranga was sadly a victim of pneumonia.
The first NZEF casualty in WW1 was Ludolph Edwin Wynn West. West died August 25 1914, within a week of entering camp and like Tobin, Gnr West, aged 19, died of pneumonia (and pleurisy). Based on CWGC records, Tobin was the first of eight who would die in France from sickness before a soldier was killed as a result of action. The first death as a result of action on the WF was 13 May 1916, two days short of a month from when Tobin died.
Sapper Tobin was a miner from the Public Works Department in Tauranga who, along with several others from Tauranga, responded in 1915 to a call for men with mining experience to enlist in a specialist NZEF tunnelling company.
Military records of the NZ Engineers Tunnelling Company describe him as 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighing 11 stone 8 pounds, of fair complexion, with fair hair and blue eyes. He was a Roman Catholic and, like many other tunnellers who enlisted, his teeth were in poor condition.
Although his attestation records state ‘Apparent age 30 years’, church records indicate Tobin was born 28 July 1880, making him 35 on enlistment. The upper limit for Tunnelling Company men was forty years of age.
In April 1916, a month after the NZEF landed in France, the Tunnelling Company was in an area just north east of Arras. Entries in the unit diary record that on April 7 enemy miners blew a camouflet (counter mine) which, while unsuccessful in doing major damage, filled part of the NZ workings with gas. It was reported that ‘the ground at the surface above was slightly disturbed’.
On the 10 April a section was re-opened and it was found that the German camouflet had caused more damage to the New Zealand central galley than initially believed, however the right and left branches were not affected.
Mining continued at all faces despite ‘a number of men off on account of bad colds and a few with measles’, says the unit diary.
On the 14 April 1916, Tobin was admitted to hospital. A day later, on the 15 April, he died of Bronchial Pneumonia. His is the only New Zealand Burial at Beauval Communal Cemetery, Somme, France.
In November 1916 the Tunnellers moved to Arras and over the next five months extended and developed existing underground systems in preparation for the Battle of Arras in April 1917.
The following year, in 1918, Lt Colonel J. D. Holmes who embarked with Tobin and who also worked for the Tauranga Public Works, was in charge of another well-known feat of the NZETC, the construction of a bridge over Havrincourt under difficult circumstances (Holmes was a Captain at the time he was involved in Havrincourt bridge). For this he was awarded a DSO.
Michael Tobin’s name can be seen on the Tauranga Domain Memorial Gate. Visitors will note that the date of Tobin's death has been incorrectly recorded as 1915. This is symptomatic of errors which occurred post war as communities worked to put together information, not always having family members or accurate sources to draw information from.
This article is a summary of research carried out by Tobin family member Anne McLellan and Sue Baker Wilson, NZETC Researcher http://www.nzetc.co.nz
NOTE: The first NZ fatalities in World War 1 were certainly suffered at Gallipoli in 1915, and there may well have been New Zealanders fighting on the Western Front as members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) prior to 1916. However the NZ Expeditionary Force did not reach the Western Front from the Middle East until after the Tunnellers in early 1916.
While apparently safe from bullets and shelling, tunnelling was an extremely hazardous occupation as miners on both sides worked as silently as possible digging under No Man’s Land to place huge explosive charges beneath enemy positions - never knowing when and where the other side was doing likewise. A number of Tunnellers did die as a result of shellfire and Gun Shot wounds. They were on the Front Line constantly for two years, working in hazardous conditions both above as well as below the surface.