Stories from the First World War: Sergeant-Major Vandersluys

As an intern with the History Department at Te Papa, I have been given the challenging task of researching the sitters who appear in a number of photographic portraits held in the collection.

Read more about the Berry & Co. collection

My task is to try to identify the soldiers who appear in these photographs, using military personnel files, reference books relating to uniform and badges of military regiments, and online databases and resources.  Unfortunately, apart from an image of the person, the only other information I have to go on is the person’s family name, which is handwritten on the top of each negative.

So far, this is a slow process, but I have had some success.  Following an existing tentative identification, I have managed to bring to light quite a lot of information about this striking gentleman, who I believe to be Charles Vandersluys, a British national who became a Sergeant Major serving in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at home at Trentham Camp, but making some enemies along the way!  I am currently working on more research which includes the life of Vandersluys along with many of his contemporaries who were photographed by Berry & Co. in Wellington.

Black and white glass negative (Vandersluys); 1914-1920; Berry & Co; Wellington

Black and white glass negative (Vandersluys); 1914-1920; Berry & Co; Wellington

Charles Calab Vandersluys was born on the 22ndAugust 1871 in Hanwell, Middlesex, England.  Despite his Dutch name, Vandersluys was British for at least two generations, and throughout his life often travelled under the name of ‘Berrold’ as he hated being referred to as a ‘Dutchman’.  His father was a soldier in the British Army, and later worked as a clerk in the Pension Office.

On 4th September 1893, Vandersluys married Letitia Ayres in Dublin, before returning to England where he was employed as a Private in the Gordon Highlanders, a British Army infantry regiment drawn mainly from Scotland and the north of England.  Vandersluys served twelve years and 120 days with this regiment, including service during the second Boer War in South Africa.  See the image below for an example of what his Gordon Highlanders dress uniform would have looked like.  After peace was declared he was discharged on the 15th September 1902.  He then joined section D of the Gordon Highlanders Reserve in January 1903.  Four years later, he completed his service but remained living in London where he was employed driving meat vans and buses.

Gordon Highlanders uniform; 1880s - 1950s; Hebbert & Co. Ltd.; wool; London

Gordon Highlanders uniform; 1880s – 1950s; Hebbert & Co. Ltd.; wool; London

In 1910, Vandersluys and his wife travelled to Buenos Aires, where, apart from occasional trips to England, they lived for around three years.  After returning to England in July 1914, they continued almost immediately on a voyage to Australia, taking a 3rd class passage on the SS Ruahine, departing on the 10th August 1914, under the name of Berrold.   Their son and three daughters remained in England.  Spending only six months in Australia, the couple moved on once again to New Zealand, where, within a few days, Vandersluys enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Due to an attack of rheumatic fever, Vandersluys was judged to be unfit for active service.  However he was fit to serve at home, and worked at Trentham Camp, as a member of the Army and of the Military Police.  He was promoted during his service, earning the rank of Sergeant Major and a large amount of respect amongst his colleagues.

However, a case was brought against him in August 1918 by two recently discharged Privates, Fisher and Boosey.  Private Fisher had recently been arrested for assaulting Vandersluys, although the man’s statement maintained that the Sergeant had in fact started a fight with him, and enlisted the help of two corporals to give false witness statements.  He had then, along with his friend Private Boosey, been discharged as medically unfit to serve, in Fisher’s case due to shell-shock and mental disturbance.

The two men decided to report that on the occasion of Fisher bringing Boosey to the military office to enlist, Vandersluys had made a disloyal remark, saying “The Germans are going to give the British all they asked for”.  After investigation, the detective in charge of the case recommended that no action be taken, as Vandersluys argued that his words had been misquoted and taken out of context, and there was no further evidence to suggest a disloyalty to the Allied forces.

While the two men responsible for the accusation may well have held a grudge against the Sergeant, this demonstrates the level of paranoia and suspicion which was present during the war years, which was particularly high towards ‘aliens’ or those with foreign sounding names!   Many of these people spent the war years on an island in Wellington harbour – click on the object below to read more about their story.

Box; 1914-1918; Hansen, Hans; inlay of kohekohe, rewa rewa, and paua shell; kauri; marquetry; New Zealand

Box; 1914-1918; Hansen, Hans; inlay of kohekohe, rewa rewa, and paua shell; kauri; marquetry; New Zealand

Look out for more blog posts as I uncover more stories related to the soldiers who appear in the Berry & Co. collection photographs.

12 Responses

  1. Michael

    Hi, he is my great grandfather, my mum has the same picture of him at home.
    Thanks

    Reply
  2. Golf Fairway Wood

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  4. Adele

    Kiera, as its nearly the 100 year anniversary of the start WW1, will Te papa be having a display on about soldiers who went to War… I would love to be able to show you some of my research on soldiers who died at Featherston and buried there, so many died of influenza after fighting overseas

    Reply
  5. Conor Yardley

    Hello Kiera,

    I am a current serving member of the Royal New Zealand Military Police and am writing a Book on the History of New Zealands Military Police, I would love to speak to you about your reasearch can you please email my work address attached. I am based out of Trentham.

    Regards,

    Conor

    Reply
  6. Kiera Gould

    Thanks Lucy I’ve just sent you an email!

    Reply
  7. Lucy Jerram Moore

    Great stuff Kiera, fascinating stories. I would love to meet you at Te Papa some time, I’m on the Host team and also have an ongoing interest in NZ’s First World War history. I’m on the internal email directory on lucy.moore@tepapa.govt.nz

    Reply
  8. adele pentony-graham

    Screentime TV have some of my work for a programme next year, also Maori TV do some on Anzac Day… nice to be able to share it around..

    Reply
  9. theresacosgrove56

    Wow, this sounds like a wonderful project. Hope it goes well. x

    Reply
  10. adele pentony-graham

    You are going to find this project so very very interesting as time passes on, I am doing Featherston WW1 soldiers, and what I receive from descendants about their soldier who is buried at Featherston is wonderful to read, one soldier in particular was the Gt. Grandson of John King, Missionary to NZ in 1814. another one, is Benson Wyman, now what was received from a contact in Canada, wonderful… photographs of his family, grandparents, brothers…he was a Barrister in Auckland, sadly died of influenza, like another 149 that are buried at Featherston, hopefully one day I will have more on each soldier, their family history not military. So I can speak from experience.
    Best of British Luck… see I am ex Londoner! now a Kiwi.

    Reply
    • Kiera Gould

      Thanks Adele, your project sounds fascinating as well. I’m really enjoying the project, it’s so interesting encovering the personal stories. Hoping to write up some more posts soon. Best of luck to you too.

  11. Adele

    wouldnt waste my time, obvisouly a gremlin has crept in…

    Reply

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