William Gemmell: WWI amputee postively identified

Untitled [William Gemmell and eight other WWI soldiers sitting around sheep fleece at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England. Maker unknown. Te Papa

Untitled [William Gemmell and eight other WWI soldiers sitting around sheep fleece at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England. Maker unknown. Te Papa

Te Papa holds 28 sepia-toned photographs taken of New Zealand servicemen who were wounded during World War I. None of the men in these photographs are identified. However, thanks to Julie Gemmell of Waikouaiti, we now know that one of the men in two of these photos is William Clement Gemmell, Julie’s grandfather. In the photograph above, William is standing on the far left of the back row. In the one below he is third from the left, seated at the table.

William had his right leg amputated after he received a gunshot wound to his right thigh during the during the Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele. (Below the table you can see the bottom of his wooden leg below the cuff of his trousers.)

These photos show William learning to class wool with other convalescing soldiers and amputees. These lessons were part of in a vocational training scheme that was established for disabled New Zealand soldiers and gave William a less physically demanding alternative to farming, his pre-war occupation.

William spent from February to June 1918 at Oatlands Park, in Surrey, England, where the vocational training scheme was set up. The officer in charge noted that he ‘has put in an attendance of 55 full days with the Class and has a very good grip of the subject. Had he taken the Bradford course would have made an expert classer; as it is, he is quite proficient for ordinary shed work’.

Untitled [William Gemmell and nineteen other WWI soldiers posed around a display of graded wool samples at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England. Maker unknown. Te Papa

Untitled [William Gemmell and nineteen other WWI soldiers posed around a display of graded wool samples at Oatlands Park, Surrey, England], 1918, England. Maker unknown. Te Papa

Julie, her siblings and cousins all knew their grandfather well. ‘He was an influential person in our family’s life‘, she wrote in an email to me. She also shared details of William Gemmell’s long, full and prosperous life: he was ‘born into a farming family at Incholme in North Otago in 1883. His father had come from Ayrshire in Scotland. Following his return from WW1 with his disability the family farm was sold as he was unable to continue with the physical work.

My father had been born in 1917; my grandfather and my grandmother [Isabella nee Corrigall] had a daughter after he returned. My father and grandmother had lived in Duntroon during the war but the family made their home in Oamaru on William’s return. Although he couldn’t farm he was involved in various business ventures in Oamaru, my grandfather drove cars (slowly) that were specially modified for him, he had a small farmlet, with sheep that he managed and always a wonderful vegetable garden. He was an astute businessman and entrepreneur.’

Julie’s brother elaborated on this point. William Gemmell ‘was a major trader in livestock in North Otago. Apart from his own farm of 100 acres he also leased a lot of land and crops and turned over a huge number of lambs. He had his own livestock company. He was a significant businessman in Oamaru, with his own bank for funding house purchases and he owned the Ford car dealership.’

Julie also recalled: ‘My grandfather had been fitted with a prosthetic wooden leg that was unjointed so he walked stiffly and used a walking stick. As children my siblings and I were always very intrigued by his wooden leg and also the felted cloth covers for his stump. They would be hung to dry on the clothes rack above the coal range. My grandfather also had a spare leg that hung on the wall to one side of his bed. I don’t remember if he ever used it. He was as active as his leg would allow I think.

His vegetable garden was on a slope but he would anchor himself downhill with his wooden leg and work uphill. He grew lots of brassicas and also large areas of currants and gooseberries. He maintained a fernery, other fruit trees and a sizeable ornamental garden around the house.

He had many “cronies” with whom he socialised – whether or not they were war veterans like him I am not sure. He lived until he was 91 and for most of that time remained as physically active as was possible.’

This generous family remembrance reveals how one man, after the Great War and missing a leg, took his disability in his stride and accomplished many things besides the ‘ordinary shed work’ that was expected, in 1918, to be his lot after he returned home.

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