Sapper Michael Tobin is believed to be the first New Zealand soldier in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to die on the Western Front.
Michael worked for the Public Works Department in Tauranga as a miner and in October 1915 responded to the call for men with mining experience to enlist in a specialist mining corps with the New Zealand Engineers.
Michael and his fellow tunnellers arrived in France in early 1916 and by April they were in Arras where it was reported that ‘a number of men off on account of bad colds and a few with measles'. Michael was one of these men. He was admitted to hospital on 14 April and died a day later of Bronchial Pneumonia.
The Unit Diary reports that on 20 April 1916 mining was in full swing North of Scarpe and in two galleries in hand near Agny. It also records; ‘Received word to-day of first death among members of Coy. No 4/1639 Sapper M. Tobin, who died in Hospital on 15th inst. of Broncho-Pneumonia and was buried at Lucheux Military Cemetery’.
After the Armistice, the graves at Lucheux were moved to Rows A and G of Beauval Communal Cemetery – where Michael’s is the only grave of a New Zealander.
Tragically, just days after receiving news of Michael’s death, his brother James took his own life.
LETTER TO MICHAEL FROM HIS GREAT NIECE – ANNE
Today is 15 April 2016, the 100th anniversary of your death. The story of the N.Z Tunnellers is now being told and, as the first New Zealander to die on the Western Front, your name is becoming quite well known. What would you make of that?
This evening, the daily Beating of the Retreat Ceremony at the NZ National War Memorial, was in memory of you and Piana Pera, the second New Zealander and the first member of the NZ Maori Pioneer Battalion to die on the Western Front. To honour you both some top military brass attended the ceremony, including two serving Sappers. Did you ever receive so much honour when you were serving? I had the privilege of reciting the Ode to the Fallen at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, accompanied by Sylvia Pene, the G.G. niece of Piana. She recited the Ode in Maori.
In the preparation beforehand, we had been told that when we stepped forward to recite the Ode, we should consider that we owned the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. As I stood listening to Sylvia, the meaning of that ownership hit me. That became you, Michael, lying in that tomb, you were real to me, not just a name on a family tree and I had so much to say to you! I was still processing all this as I stepped forward to recite the Ode in English. I was so pre-occupied with the things I wanted to say, that I started to recite the words from partway through. When I realised this I stopped, took a quick breath, looked at the words in my hand and began again from the beginning.
It was Poppy Day and I had bought a poppy that morning which I laid on the tomb, acknowledging out loud, that I laid it in memory of you. I was a little sad that I could not stand there and talk to you then, but the ceremony had to move on.
When the ceremony was over, Sylvia and I hugged each other, both a little shaken with emotion. We then had a T.V. interview for a programme on Anzac Day. I went first. My mind was still so much on what I wanted to say to you that I was not concentrating on my answers. Think I have mucked that up too, especially as I had also wanted to share how the news of your death had affected James. With his death as well, this left only William to carry on the family name. About 4 years ago, his grandson, Jeff, made contact with me after reading that I was researching the Tobin Family of Pukekohe. We have now met on two occasions at events honouring the New Zealand Tunnellers.
Perhaps the real legacy of your death will be that the later generations reunite and heal a family split by grief and the Victorian, moralistic attitudes of those days.
After the interview, the custodian of the Hall of Memories offered to show us the relevant entries in the Book of Memories. When I saw your name on the page of that special book, I was once again filled with emotion. Unfortunately by then it was getting cold and dark and Iain was ready to drive back home. Know that next time I am back in Wellington, I will be standing at that tomb, owning it, and having that conversation with you!
Your great niece.
With thanks to Sue Baker Wilson, Project Manager, New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, Waihi Heritage Vision