WILLIAM JOHN OLIFF
Regimental number 23/864
7 December 1896 – 2 February 1918
Henry Oliff and Alice Turner, both born in England, married in the Wellington Registrar’s Office in 1890 when he was 20 and she was 27. At the time, he was working as a mariner. Over the next two decades they moved several times, but always close to the central city. In 1892–93 they were off Cuba Street in Arthur Street; three years later in Boston Terrace, a lane off Aro Street; by 1900 they had moved to Norway Street, Taitville, off the top end of Aro Street; and by 1914 they had moved again, this time to the top end of Holloway Road at number 112. Henry’s occupation varied: in some electoral rolls, he was described as a labourer and in others as a seaman.
William was the couple’s fourth child. His older brother, Henry, was born in 1891, and he also had two older sisters who both died as infants before he was born. Alice and Henry had three more children after William: Mary who was born in 1899 and went on to marry Joseph Swensson (daughter of the grocer in Holloway Road) in 1923, followed by Frederick, born in 1902, and Arthur, born two years later in 1904. School records are incomplete but it seems that the children gained most if not all their education at Mitchelltown School.
After he had left school William found work on Lands’ End, a farm near to the settlement of Te Wharau in the Wairarapa. He was working there for John Douglas, station manager, when on 28 May 1915 he enlisted at the recruitment office in Masterton. As reports from the Gallipoli campaign filtered back to New Zealand, ‘inflamed public sentiment … brought a surge of volunteers to the doors of recruitment officers’. Perhaps William was caught up in that fervour to serve the Empire, and perhaps too, as a young man, he thought that this opportunity for overseas adventure was too inviting to let pass.
Aged 19½ when he enlisted, William was a few months under the minimum age for recruits although he claimed that his year of birth was 1895, one year earlier than recorded in his birth certificate. He was five feet six inches tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and hazel-coloured eyes. He was declared fit for service and would have moved quickly to Trentham Camp to begin his life as a soldier.
William was posted to the newly-formed New Zealand Rifle Brigade, with the rank of rifleman. After completing some initial training with others in the 1st Battalion (The Earl of Liverpool’s Own), he sailed from Wellington on 9 October 1915 on the troop transport ship Maunganui, heading first for Suez. Despite shortages of paper and ink, the troops on the Maunganui managed to produce two editions of their own ‘unofficial mouthpiece’ which they dubbed The Periscope, an apt title for a publication produced by a group of riflemen. The second edition, printed in November 1915, includes a take-off of Omar Khayyam’s poem with the title ‘The Rubaiyat of a Trentham Rifleman’. It warns about army life to come. The opening stanza read:
Awake! The bugle calls, cease your drowse,
Turn first your mattress and then your colleagues rouse;
Place all in order exactly as you’re told:
You have nought to do with why’s or how’s!
The soldiers disembarked at Suez on 15 November 1915. Training began again, a combination of specialist instruction to develop skills, and route marches to build fitness and strength before a posting to Mersa Matrub, near Alexandria, and then transport by ship to Marseilles and by train north to Flanders. Arriving in Flanders in mid-April, the men of the Rifle Brigade had their first experience of being billeted, in the case of William’s battalion, initially staying in farmhouses close to the village of Steenbecque. The Official History reported that the inhabitants of the district were kind and obliging, and the soldiers could not help noticing that the work in the fields was mainly carried out by women or old men, working from daylight to dark during the week, and that most of the women and children wore mourning went they went to church on Sundays. Training continued, and it would have been a sobering experience that this training now covered the use of the newly-issued flannelette gas helmets.
The Brigade’s first tour of duty in the trenches in France began in May 1916, and the first task was rebuilding their section of trench. Using sandbags to raise the height of the earthworks was an early priority to provide more protection from sniper bullets, and to go with that, installing duckboards along the length of the trenches and on the surface of the dugouts along the way. In time, such construction and repair work became a regular part of the routine for riflemen like William: periods at the front line, when engagements with the enemy often took the form of reconnaissance patrols and raids into No Man’s Land, alternated with periods out of the line when digging and trench repair work became the order of the day. Patrolling was a prized activity, and the opportunity to take part in this experience was thought to be one of the factors contributing to the Brigade’s high morale. Spirits were also lifted by the blooming of poppies that covered ‘the whole countryside, including even some parts of No Man’s Land, …[with] a blaze of scarlet.’
In the first quarter of 1917, the Rifle Brigade was deployed around Boutillerie, a low-lying area where the ground was subject to frequent flooding. During this period, battalion schools were set up to provide instruction for additional specialists and to increase the proficiency of every rifleman: William had already undertaken such instruction when he attended a divisional grenade school in July 1916 and again later that year, during September.
In April 1917, the Brigade moved to the area of Messines and began preparing for the battle that opened in June. Taking the village after which the battle was named fell to the New Zealand Division. From the viewpoint of the Allies, the plan was implemented like clockwork and all objectives were achieved.
On 7 August 1917, William was evacuated to hospital with a gunshot wound and was away from his unit for almost two weeks. He returned in time to take part in the preparations for the much costlier battle for Passchendaele. These preparations included a major effort by all four battalions of the Rifle Brigade in burying large lengths of cable for the Signals Corps. The subsequent expression of appreciation from the Assistant Director, Signals, mentioned that it had been ‘an exceptionally heavy task to perform’, undertaken at a record pace, and frequently under heavy shell-fire.
The Brigade had rather less success during the attack on 12 October. Heavy rain that had turned the ground into a sea of mud, a field of wire not identified until the evening before which blocked the path of the assault, and a rain of gunfire from the German troops in concealed pill-boxes combined to turn the day into a disaster. William was one of the lucky survivors.
Later in October, William was once again admitted to hospital, this time with a case of trench feet which his Army file described as severe. Although he was discharged after a little more than two weeks, he then had a period of convalescence and was not fit enough to rejoin his battalion until 19 December 1917.
The Brigade was out of the line during heavy snow storms on Christmas Day 1917. The bands played carols during the morning, and the men then sat down to Christmas dinner which included turkey and plum pudding paid for from battalion funds, contributions from individual soldiers and gifts from patriotic societies. Even with the funds to hand, ‘quartermasters scoured the country as far south as Rouen’ to obtain the desired provisions.
From 14 to 30 January 1918, after another stint on the front, William spent time in the United Kingdom on leave. On 1 February, as soon as William had returned to duty, the Brigade returned to the line and within half an hour of taking over, the 1st Battalion captured a raiding party of five Germans who had lost their bearings. The Official History described the next day as a fine cold day. ‘There was great enemy artillery activity on parts of the sector’ including a two-hour intense bombardment with gas and high explosive shells. It was probably during that attack that William was killed. Although by then he would have been an experienced soldier, having served just over two years and eight months, he was still young, having turned 21 early in the preceding December. William Oliff was buried close to the scene of his death, in the Polygon Wood Cemetery at Zonnebeke, eight kilometres east of Ypres.
William’s older brother, Henry James Oliff, also served in Western Europe with the NZ Rifle Brigade. He followed William, starting his service as a rifleman on 18 September 1916. The Rifle Brigade had a practice of allowing friends and relatives to serve in the same unit where possible, and when he arrived in France in June 1917, Henry did join William in the 1st Battalion, C Company. Henry experienced some periods out of action because of illness, including much of October when both brothers were hospitalised at the same time, Henry for the treatment of rheumatism and William for trench feet. After William’s death, Henry continued to serve, although he had two more stints in hospital during 1918 and was wounded towards the end of that year. He returned to New Zealand and was discharged in March 1919. Henry died in 1966 in Gore.
Researched and written by Max Kerr
 https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/recruiting-and-conscription viewed on 29 August 2017.
 The NZ Rifle Brigade, initially made up of two battalions, came into being on 1 May 1915 as a response to the need for additional infantry. The prefix – 23/ – to William’s regimental number signifies that he was part of the 1st Battalion.
 The periscope; unofficial mouthpiece of the 1st Battalion, N.Z. Rifle Brigade (Earl of Liverpool’s Own) and Divisional Ammunition Column, published on board ship, 1915, p 13.
 The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, Lieut-Col W S Austin, L T Watkins Ltd, 1924, p 72.
 Ibid p 105.
 Ibid p 229.
 Ibid p.258.