‘Death was so sudden - I saw his face still smiling’
They were the closest of friends in pioneering Auckland, inseparable as children and, through an extraordinary coincidence, died side-by-side in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Bruce Morris tells the story of mates in life and death.
Ron McLean and Keith Hunter could not have been closer – young lives shaped in the wide open spaces of Mt Albert through pioneering times of hard graft and simple pleasures.
The boys were as inseparable as the closest of brothers in the late 1890s and the early years of the 20th century, when kids made their own fun on neighbourhood adventures.
The slopes of the mountain were their playground and the boys formed a bond that stayed as tight and warm as the firmest of handshakes right through their days at Mt Albert Primary and then Kings College.
Ron went to Kings in 1907 as a 14-year-old, followed a year later by his mate. Their partnership in the school’s rich history was sealed in 1911 when Ron became head boy (a position brother Neil would fill a year later) and Keith was appointed his deputy.
Ron and Keith were barely out of their teens when war broke out and they soon enlisted, thirsting to serve King and country and chase adventure in faraway lands.
Their war records show two different career paths when they answered the call - Keith as a law clerk on the way to a legal career and Ron set to qualify as a surveyor.
Each was able to cite three or four years in the college cadet corps and then time as Auckland senior cadets before earning junior officer status with reinforcement divisions of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Keith was first out of the blocks, leaving his country and best mate behind on the way to the Dardanelles in mid-1915, a tender 22-year-old with the rank of lieutenant suggesting an authority his rushed introduction to war must have struggled to match.
But he plainly had leadership skills beyond his years and experience and, after illness-forced hospital stays in Alexandria and Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos, was soon on his way to the frontline in France as a freshly-promoted captain.
Ron, meanwhile, hung on in New Zealand to complete his surveying qualifications, and his dad even wrote to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence to allow him the time to complete the qualification.
When he left New Zealand as a raw second lieutenant with the ninth reinforcements around the beginning of 1916, he hadn’t seen his great mate or brother Neil for perhaps seven or eight months. In his darkest moments, he must have wondered if they would meet again.
Back home, both sets of parents were no doubt proud of their boys, but it was surely a pride mixed with anxiety; their greatest wish was probably that the war would be over before the troopships landed in Europe.
The ugly realities of battle had already been brought home to Ron and Neil when they learnt from their distraught parents that the first McLean boy to wear khaki, eldest brother Raymund, was killed in the Gallipoli landing in 1915.
Isabella and Murdoch McLean, the then-mayor of Mt Albert and leader with his brother John of one of the country’s biggest construction companies, knew all about personal tragedy among their 10 children. They had lost a baby daughter in an accident in 1892, and son Glenallan was killed on the site of the Otira tunnel project the company headed in the Southern Alps in 1910.
The death of a son in battle – and the endless war-time worry over the danger to Ron and Neil, and young Keith Hunter, who they were very fond of – was a cruel blow, though Raymund fought under the Australian flag after crossing the Tasman to live following a dispute with his father.
They shared the fear of all parents that the next postman’s knock might, through the official dreaded telegram, bring more awful news that a son had been killed in the service of the country.
But personal letters from the frontline were treasured – at the very least telling them their boys were still alive and perhaps giving hope they were not at great risk.
It was that sort of letter Second Lieutenant Ron McLean wrote home from camp in 1916, ready to head back into battle in northern France after two months' recuperation in England. It was his last letter home.
He made no mention of Keith, who he had not seen for so long, but told of a chance meeting with brother Neil. Though the prospect of imminent action would have caused dismay, his breezy manner must have cheered his Mum and Dad, though the cynicism is rich:
“Dear Mother and Father,
“This is just to tell you of my luck in meeting Neil. We are so lucky. I couldn’t believe it. He marched along just past me. I was talking to a chap and just leaning up against a post when I saw someone like Neil. I rushed along, and it was Neil all right. He is off to an officer’s training corps… I am so glad.
“There will be only one of us in this stunt anyway. I have the misfortune to be going up today. Ugh, it makes me sick the idea of it. Still I did not come here to amuse myself in base camps. Just funny, in about a few days I shall probably be killing or capturing Huns. Oh it makes me laugh – I don’t feel at all in the mood for such amusement at present but, as I say, they don’t consult me.
“Dear old Neil. He looks in splendid health. Good on his pluck. He’ll be commissioned in a month or two. Am I not an old waster? Why I haven’t got a rise for years. Never mind I wouldn’t be forced back there [to the European battlefields] unless I was worth something.
“But honestly mother and father, this is going to try me some. You see it is a pretty big show we will go into. I am not trained like the first time I went into the trenches. I have endured non-hardships for two months or more and here I am being pitchforked into a real old slap up.
“I am no coward but I know exactly what I am going into and ignorance was bliss before. Shells don’t frighten you until you see them wounding and killing people.
“Anyway, on the whole I am glad. I must be with my old company and help them along. I am really fond of them.
“Goodbye, if I come through the next week or so without getting a trip to England [to recuperate in hospital] I shall be much surprised.
Love from your son Ron.”
Soon after, if standard military procedure applied, the telegram would have arrived. Ron was killed in action.
And a month or so after that came the news that an astonishing coincidence allowed him to share his final minutes on earth with Keith Hunter.
In a tragic twist, the two boys who grew up in Auckland would die alongside each other during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. Ron was 24; Keith a year younger.
The two young soldiers met in the fury of battle and ended up in a shell crater with a fellow officer, leading their men from the front.
A world away from the tranquillity of Mt Albert and 14 or 15 months since their paths last crossed, it was sheer chance the pair should shake hands again that day.
Part of the story came in a letter to Murdoch McLean from an officer in the New Zealand forces: “The New Zealand troops were advancing towards Flers, the 2nd Auckland Battalion having just captured what was known as Switch Trench.
“Your son and another officer named Hunter, son of the late Mr. W. Hunter, of Hamilton, and his 0C, Captain Grainger, were discussing the situation in a shell crater about 200 yards in advance of Switch Trench. Your son had just said that he was going on towards Flers when a shell landed among them, killing your son and Hunter, and wounding Captain Grainger.
“The latter told me that he was so dazed at the time he did not know your son had been killed. He thought he had gone off towards Flers before the shell landed.”
The officer writing the letter bluntly noted that he could not grieve for any man killed in action because: “I feel that no man could wish for a better deal than to fall in battle defending a righteous cause”.
“It is for you, his father and mother and his family that I feel sorry; your family has paid the full bitter price of Empire in giving your sons.
“To show you the regard in which he was held by those who knew him, I cannot do better than tell you what Captain Grainger had to say about him. He said he was one of the bravest men he had ever known, his courage was of VC standard.
“His fellow officers had the very highest respect for his work as an officer and for his general bearing, and the men of the company absolutely worshipped him.
“Captain Grainger is not the man to praise anyone unless the praise has been well earned, and I can assure you from my own observation of your son’s work and bearing in the trenches, that I can confirm in the fullest degree the tribute that Captain Grainger paid him.”
“It may be a comfort to the relatives to know that all the Auckland men of the 2nd Battalion [killed at the front] were buried together near the first trench they took.”
Grainger himself wrote to the families, explaining that he was a great friend of Keith Hunter: “We were in high spirits and it was just after lighting a cigarette that a 5.9 shrapnel shell landed right on our shell crater. Poor Hunter was killed instantly. Death was so sudden – I saw his face still smiling. He seemed to have died the happiest of all deaths for a soldier – 200 yards ahead of his men, [a born soldier] leading his New Zealand division.”
All the words were no doubt appreciated, but it is impossible to imagine the grief of a family that had so often suffered tragedy. They were spared the cruel news - unearthed decades later - that the fatal shell was probably fired from an Allied gun mired in mud and miscalculating the distance to the advancing troops. If truth is a casualty of war, friendly fire would have been high on the list of World War 1 deceit.
In a year, Murdoch McLean was himself dead, leaving his wife to bear 26 years before she died in 1943.
The McLean-Hunter story stays buried today in family histories, but it does have a more public acknowledgement: a century on, two stained windows in the chapel of Kings College provide a lasting monument to the battlefield tragedy.
Many students looking up at The Good Samaritan and The Pharisee and the Publican must be puzzled by the phrase “And in their death” beneath the first window that can only be completed by the words “they were not divided” on the second.
It may seem like a riddle, but it is living history – set forever by an early 20th century headmaster of Kings, Mr C. T. Major, who knew both boys and created a memorial to true and enduring friendship.
Over the decades, the obscure meaning of the tribute became lost, and 70 years ago a young Ian McLean - Ron’s nephew - kept what he knew to himself.
Ian was a pupil at Kings in the late 1940s and knew from his family what it all meant. But they were days when boys were seen and not heard and he kept the secret to himself, though it’s doubtful anyone was much interested in an unexplained and puzzling Biblical reference.
Everything changed 40 years later when Ian McLean went back to Kings as a teacher and resurrected the story behind the chapel tribute.