John Casey was probably born in 1888, the 4th of John and Honoria Casey’s 11 children. Although his military enlistment documents record that he was born on 30 Oct 1886, other sources such as his enrolment at school, military records of his death, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the family plot at Fortrose cemetery all suggest that he was born in 1888. To complicate matters, John’s parents did not register his birth. In fact, they registered the births of only two of their 11 children and didn’t register their marriage. John’s medical check on enlistment tells us that, as a young adult, he was was 5’ 5” tall (165 cm) and weighed 148 lbs (67 kg). He had blue eyes and fair hair. At the time of enlistment he was a cheese maker in Waikaka, about 100 km from his parents’ farm in Otara on the Southland coast.
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and soon after John traveled to Milton where he enlisted on 17 August and he was made a Private (8/182) in the 1st Battalion, 14th Company, of the Otago Infantry Battalion. He was a volunteer – New Zealand didn’t introduce conscription until August 1916. Like many young men, he may have thought war was an opportunity for adventure and to experience the world beyond lives constrained by hard physical work, distance and difficult transport options.
John was among the first embarkation of soldiers from Port Chalmers to the Middle East, leaving on 16 Oct 1914. He disembarked at Alexandria on 3 December 1914 and was based in the New Zealand camp at Zeitoun, Cairo. On 12 April 1915 John and other soldiers in the Otago Infantry Regiment embarked for the Dardanelles. The records don’t tell us anything about when he landed there but he may have been among those soldiers who landed at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915.
In May 1915 John was evacuated back to Egypt where he was admitted to Ghezireh Palace Hospital in Cairo, the Australian General Hospital No. 2. He had synovitis of the knee, an inflammation of the membrane that protects the fluids around the joints and tendons. He rejoined his unit on 6 June 1915.
The Battle of Chunuk Bair, August 8-10 1915, resulted in the deaths of many New Zealand soldiers and injury to many more . John Casey received a shrapnel wound on his arm on 8 August, was evacuated to Egypt and admitted once more to Ghezireh Palace. Ghezireh Palace had previously been a large fashionable hotel, on an island in the Nile opposite Cairo. Its grounds were adjacent to the polo ground and racecourse of the British residents’ sports club.
Nine days later John transferred to Mena Convalescent Unit, also previously a hotel on the edge of the Libyan desert and beside the Great Pyramid. On 4 Sep 1915 he was again transferred, this time to the Montazah Convalescent Unit, Alexandria. This unit was comprised of a number of buildings on the shore of the Mediterranean, allowing bathing, fishing, and boating. He remained in Egypt until 31 October when he was sent back to the Dardanelles. Given that he was away from the front for almost three months, it seems likely that his wound was serious.
While John was recovering in Egypt, many New Zealanders were withdrawn to the Greek island of Lemnos in mid-September. They returned to the Dardanelles in early November and John rejoined them at Apex Gully on 9 November. This was another poorly planned and fruitless military exercise. Rain, icy wind and snow lashed the peninsula and the soldiers’ health was poor. A huge storm at the end of November flooded trenches and caused many deaths. The men were again withdrawn and, John disembarked in Alexandria on 26 December, 1915. He was stationed at Moascar, about 100 km north east of Cairo, where they prepared for the war in Europe.
On 17 February 1916 John was AWOL from 6.30 pm roll call on the 15th to 11 pm 17th – 3 days. He forfeited 15 days pay and received FP (Field Punishment) for 7 days. Field punishment varied but he could have been placed in fetters and handcuffs, sometimes attached to a post for two hours a day, plus hard labour. AWOL was not uncommon, often occurring when soldiers went on leave, got drunk, and failed to return on time.
The Otago Infantry Regiment joined other New Zealand units and formed the NZ Expeditionary Force and embarked for Europe on 6 April, 1916. They landed at Marseilles and then took a three day rail journey to northern France where they entered the defensive line south east of Armentières.
The final chapter in John’s story was on 14 May, 1916 when he was reported as having died of pneumonia. He was buried at Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery, a cemetery maintained by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
While John’s military records tell us of his wounds and illnesses and of his being disciplined, there are no records of his involvement in battles or campaigns. More general accounts of New Zealand forces in this war refer to particular military units and officers but, while “the men” are occasionally counted as numbers of wounded or killed, they are rarely mentioned by name.
John Casey’s war showed him a little of the world beyond Southland but much of it was on battlefields or in hospital or convalescent units. His adventure came at the cost of being treated for injury and wounds, being punished for a brief AWOL, and ultimately dying of pneumonia.