Son of Otago lies where he fell in a French battlefield


Brian Vernon Dillon was born on what was to become
a very significant day, April 25. He was born on that day in 1893 at Blackstone Hill in Central Otago, the third child of what would be seven in the family.

He was the son of a gold miner/part-time farmer, Thomas Dillon, who had left the family-leased farm in County Clare, Ireland aged 21 to come to New Zealand in 1875.

B. V. Dillon was to grow up initially on the bare brown farming landscape around the Blackstone Hill area until 1903 when his mother, Francis Elizabeth (Lily) Dillon [nee Mackin] returned to teaching at the nearby district settlement of Kyeburn Diggings. It was there that Brian continued his schooling in the country until the end of 1908. Then, by 1909, his father had established a family base in Dunedin for the older siblings and he joined them for a final year at school at Otago Boys’ High School. There he studied
mainly English, Mathematics, Science and interestingly, French.

In 1910, he moved into employment at Ross and Glendining, a well-known warehouse firm of the times in Dunedin. He was to continue there for a year or so, but he was a country boy at heart and did not enjoy city life. But if he counted city life as perilous or unsettling, he was soon to face much worse.

By about 1912, he had obtained an apprenticeship to become a cheesemaker at a cheese factory at the country town of Menzies Ferry (Wyndham today) in Southland. There he fitted into life back in the country.

While he sought a return to the joy of a country life in New Zealand, tensions were rising half a world away in Europe. On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany and loyal New Zealand followed. Ten days later cheesemaking was put on hold as Brian became Private B.V. Dillon 8/190 when he volunteered for the Otago Infantry unit of the Army. He was just a few months past his 21st birthday.

Several weeks of training in New Zealand was undergone
before travelling to Alexandria, Egypt, where
they arrived on December 3, 1914, to be followed by
further training in a totally foreign environment.

After many weeks of training, he set sail with the rest of his comrades on April 12, 1915 heading for the Dardenelles (Gallipoli). For his 22nd birthday present on April 25, 1915 he was delivered to what is now known as Anzac Cove and struggled ashore under Turkish fire.

Conditions were obviously very tough for the soldiers despite their many weeks of training. Could anything prepare them completely for the realities of Son of Otago lies where he fell in a French battlefield war? His military records note that, within a week or two of making it to Gallipoli, Private Brian Dillon was taken off and admitted to hospital back in Alexandria on May 5 with the soldier’s scourge of dysentery.

On May 26, he was sent off again and rejoined his unit at Gallipoli on June 6 where he endured the hardships, including a minor wound suffered there, for another few months. Then, on August 26, he received a hand wound which saw him sent back to a military hospital at Cairo. However, the wound turned septic and he was then shipped off to England to a hospital in Bristol, where he was admitted on October 15, 1915.

There he had some respite from the war for a few months while his wounded septic hand received treatment. By late December, he was repaired well enough to be sent off again and rejoined his unit in Egypt by January 23, 1916. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign had been abandoned by that stage and instead the unit was engaged in fighting Turkish forces in the Egyptian theatre of war for several months.

On April 1, he was promoted to Corporal and within a few days was transferred to the 2nd Battalion which, on April 9, embarked from Egypt to head to France. A month later, on May 13 in France, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

At first, they were stationed in a comparatively
quiet section of the front line at Armentières in
France before the New Zealand Division was sent on
a long march to the front line in the Somme region
of Northern France near the town of Longueval in
September, 1916.

It was here, in what had been before the outbreak
of the war a peaceful piece of French countryside, that
he was to be killed.

Leading the charge starting at 6.20 am on September 15, 1916, on the first morning of what became known as the Battle of the Somme, Sergeant B.V. Dillon 8/190 shortly afterwards was shot and killed at the age of 23. He was buried on the battlefield. As reported in an official document. “Buried in one of several scattered graves 1/4 miles North of Longueval and 3 miles WestNorthWest of Combles.” [DGRE 3715 G (Report of Longueval 69.1)]

More than 2000 New Zealand soldiers were either killed or wounded in that first day of engagement.

A little over a month later, this description was given by his commanding officer in a letter to his older brother (Stephen Owen Dillon) who was in Egypt training new recruits.

28 Nov 1916
To Sapper S O Dillon
Signal Troop
Sgt Dillon met his death in the first advance NZ made
at the Somme. I was not with the company at the time but
the following are the particulars.

He was killed by a machine gun bullet in the head
after he had advanced about 200 yds. Death was
instantaneous. He was buried where he fell about 200
yds behind SWITCH trench, the German trench which we
took. He was buried by our own burial party under 9/?43
Sgt G. W. Smith-Hubert with a dozen or twenty
of his battalion, principally of his company and his mates.
Captain McLean, the padre, attached to us, 2 Batt Otago
Reg, read the burial service.

A cross was made by 24/627 Corp N J Woods & put up with his particulars cut into the wood and Killed in Action & RIP as is usual with all denominations in France.

A fence of rifles was made around the grave. I cannot tell you more except that he met his death in an action that has brought fame to the NZ Division. It is said that we have received in orders (?) more praise than any other division at the Somme and if a man has to die, no better death could he have than leading his platoon in a great advance.

If I can find anyone who can give a more personal narrative I will hand him your letter.

(Signed but indecipherable)
OC 14 ( S O ) C.
2 Battn Otago Reg.

More than a hundred years later, in September/October, 2018, his great nephew, Fr Nicholas Dillon, while on a visit to France, took the opportunity to visit the Somme area. He celebrated a Mass in memory of his great-uncle in the chapel which commemorates the Allied troops in the cathedral at Amiens. Then he proceeded on to the Longueval area and then to the nearby Caterpillar Valley cemetery which contains the memorial wall to more than 1200 New Zealand officers and soldiers who have no known grave.

Brian Dillon’s sacrifice on the battlefield is remembered with his name carved in that memorial wall at the New Zealand War Cemetery at Caterpillar Valley. The wall is a prominent feature in a neatly maintained graveyard where lie the remains of those many soldiers who do have marked graves.

His mortal remains, however, lie in an unmarked grave in a field in the French countryside near Longueval.

So this young man from the Central Otago countryside which he loved has been given a resting place beneath now peaceful farmland once again.

So he remains in the countryside but in the wrong country.

Lest we forget.

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