Stories of the First World War: John and Donald Jessen

Stories of the First World War: John and Donald Jessen

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.

Looking closely at some of the pictures, it seems that the images contained on the museum’s glass plate negatives are not all original photographs.  Some were taken in their frames by family members to the premises of Berry & Co. in Wellington for copies to be made.  This would often have happened if the picture had been sent from family members abroad, or if the soldiers pictured had died.

Read more about the Berry & Co. collection

Two of the images which seem to have produced this way were each marked with the handwritten name ‘Jessen’, and although there are sometimes two or three images among the collection with the same sitter, these two were certainly not the same man.

Through using database records and military personnel files, I believe I have identified these two men as brothers John and Donald Jessen.  Both were members of the New Zealand Field Artillery who died while away at war in Europe.

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

Elder brother John Jessen was born in Mauriceville to parents William August and Christine in the same year as their marriage, 1890.  The family had moved to Wellington by 1908, when John joined the D Battery of the New Zealand Field Artillery Volunteers.  In 1914 he joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who departed for Samoa on the 8th August.  Returning from Samoa on the 22nd March 1915 he was discharged on his own request and went to work as a clerk in the New Zealand Government Thorndon Railway Station.  On discharge he held the rank of Battery Sergeant Major.

At the end of 1915 John Jessen was among a number of non-commissioned officers called up to join the 14th reinforcements for the Western Front.  He was killed in action in France during the Battle of Bapaume on the 24th August 1918, aged 28.  By this point he held the rank of Bombardier and was part of the 9th Battery.  He is buried in Achiet-le-Grand Communal Cemetery Extension in grave IV.P.3.

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

Younger brother Donald Jessen worked as a warehouseman in Wellington and also served in the D Battery volunteer force until 1915 when he joined the New Zealand Field Artillery as part of the 10th reinforcements.  He went into Trentham Camp on the 16th November 1915 and embarked on the Willochra or Tofua to Egypt on 4th March 1916.  His unit on embarkation was the No. 5 Field Battery (2nd Field Artillery Brigade).

Although he survived the war, Donald contracted a bout of influenza in 1919 which became pneumonia, and he died at Endell Street Military Hospital in London on the 23rd February 1919.  He is buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery, grave reference II.J.4.

Both soldiers were commemorated by their parents and sisters in adverts placed in the Evening Post.  They are just two casualties of an estimated 14,000–17,000 New Zealand citizens who were killed in action or died as a result of their wounds. New Zealand had one of the highest casualty rates as a proportion of the total population of all the countries involved in the war.

Read another ‘Story of the First World War’ here – Sergeant-Major Vandersluys

Read about Herman Rolfes, also killed during the Battle of Bapaume on the same day as John Jessen, 24th August 1918, whose personal effects are held in Te Papa’s collection


  1. Hi Adele,
    If you’re heading to Pahiatua Museum and it’s no trouble, leads for further research could be useful. Sadly my time as intern with the History Department at Te Papa is very short, and I don’t have much more time to dedicate to this project, but if I can leave information for someone else to take up in the future I’m sure they would appreciate your help, thanks!

  2. If you need a photograph of the Headstone.. I can assist there with a wonderful project in UK… also being Mauriceville, just up the road from me, wonder if any more on this family in Pahiatua Museum, I am calling in there on Sunday afternoon if you would like me to make enquiries?

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