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From Tauranga to the Trenches

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From Tauranga to the Trenches told the story of Private Reginald Watkins, a Tauranga man who led ‘an ordinary yet remarkable life’. In telling Reg’s story the remarkable lives of all those local men who served, some of whom never returned home, were told.

Reginald Watkins was a son and a brother. He was a Captain in the Salvation Army, a farmer and a fisherman. He was a fine sailor and owned a launch. He loved photography, taking and developing his own photographs and turning them into postcards for his collection. He spoke fluent Maori and lived and worked on Rangiwaea Island, his home was often a tent at Rangiwaea Pa.

When war was declared Reg had been living in Tauranga since 1911, the second of two spells assisting Captain Moore with Salvation Army work. His days were spent visiting and encouraging Maori families in his care, leading them in worship, and working beside them at the Te Ope Fish and Bacon Factory at Sulphur Point. He was by all accounts a quiet and thoughtful young man who was “held in great esteem” by all who knew him.

For Reg the decision to enlist was a difficult one. He wrote to Commissioner Hodder of the Salvation Army: “I am the only one free in our family who is able to volunteer for the war, and my people regard it as a stigma upon the family that they are not represented.” On 18 October 1915 Private Watkins signed the Oath of Allegiance and promised obedience under the Defence Act. 

Reg arrived at Trentham on 18 October 1915 and was given the number 12/3861. While in training he enjoyed good health, though this could not be said for some of his fellow recruits: “Beer has caused a few sick parades here lately and some never came back last night.” Reg wrote in his last letter from Trentham: “God is with me and I have no fear of the future come good or ill.”

Reg embarked from Wellington, January 1916, with the Ninth Reinforcements on HMNZ Maunganui. On the journey to Egypt he distinguished himself during an evening’s entertainment. A witness to the debate wrote: “I was present at this entertainment and was both surprised and pleased with the able manner in which Watkins spoke. He was full of wit and gave some splendid hits on the side of truth. Both Officers and men respected him for his pluck.”

Reg, now a stretcher bearer, wrote a few lines from the trenches on 12 July 1916: “to let you know that I am safe and sound here in France… My work consists in dressing and carrying the wounded from the firing line to the first field dressing station. We need all the nerve and moral courage we possess at the task and we hope and pray that our services will soon be not required… I hope I may soon be privileged to return to New Zealand to continue the work that I relinquished.”

His dream to return to Tauranga and the people of Rangiwaea was not to be. On Thursday 20 July, Reg went to the aid of a wounded soldier and while attending to him was hit by shell shrapnel. As he was taken to the Casualty Clearing Station he sang hymns in both Maori and English. A Chaplin at his bedside scribbled a note to Reg’s father: “He is badly wounded and anxious for me to send word. He sends his love to you and all.”

Reginald Watkins died of wounds at 1:30pm Sunday 23 July 1916. He was 30 years old.