“My poor boys, my poor boys!” Young Tom McGee stopped short in the doorway, bewildered and afraid at the sound of his big, strong grandfather’s plaintive crying and the sight of tears coursing through the weather-beaten fingers supporting his bowed head. Coming, as it did, in an era where males learned early in life not to show their emotions, the image of his grandfather’s grief remained with Tom for the rest of his life. As Tom recounted not long before his own death, it was the day his grandfather William Day Leslie learned that not one, but two of his sons had been killed in action during the WW1 Battle of Passchendaele, his first-born John George (Jack) and tenth child James Francis (Jim).
Tom had seen his uncles Jack and Jim dressed as soldiers and knew they had gone away to war. For what seemed like a long time afterwards, he and his brothers had played at being soldiers, but now, seeing his grandparents’ anguish before he was hustled from the room by an aunt, and learning the reason for their deep sorrow, gave him a vastly different perspective on what war represented.
The Leslie brothers grew up on the family property at Waiaua, an idyllic location that is now the site of the Kauri Cliffs luxury lodge and golf course. Described as farmers in their military records, they also worked felling bush on the property. They enlisted together in Whangarei on December 12, 1916 – their service numbers are consecutive. John was a 45-year-old divorcee and father of a teenage son Valentine, and James was 30, when in April 1917 they embarked on the troopship Pakeha bound for England and then the front.
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