The sad story of Frederick McReynolds
On Boxing Day we tweeted about the sad story of Private Frederick McReynolds who committed suicide at Trentham Camp on Christmas 1915.
— Measuring the ANZACs (@MeasuringANZACs) December 26, 2015
A couple of other World War I twitter accounts picked up on the timely story (see the conversation here on Storify), and raised the question of when Private McReynolds passed away. The Commonwealth War Graves commission lists the date of his death as 26 December 1916, not 1915. One thing we’ve learned in our work with demographic data (and military records are demographic data) is that dates can be wrong. It’s easy to write one date down wrong, and propagate errors through many sources.
Looking at the whole of Private McReynolds’ file supports our initial story that the date of his death was 26 December 1915, but also hints at what must have been an incredibly sad story.
Frederick Thomas McReynolds was born in Auckland on 11 September 1882 to Mary Ann and Thomas McReynolds (you can find his birth certificate details at the NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages site under registration 1881/10210). A brother, William Higgins McReynolds, was born to the McReynolds 4 years later (registration 1885/604). Ancestry.com searches show him in the New Zealand electoral rolls, living in Onehunga in Auckland in the early twentieth century, and working in a workshop, and then as a “carter” in 1914. There is no record of a marriage in New Zealand, and the electoral rolls show him living with his parents in 1914, on the eve of the war. His brother meanwhile had married in 1907.
On Christmas Eve 1915, Frederick McReynolds attested for service.
He was still living on Trafalgar St in Onehunga, and working as a driver, a natural extension of his previous job as a “carter.”
His attestation was voluntary, with conscription yet to be introduced, though it was being vigorously debated at the time. When McReynolds enlisted a national war census had just been taken, requiring all men between 17 and 60 to register. The pressure on men to enlist was heavy, though we do not know what it was like for any individual man. But the fact that McReynolds was single made him more likely to be a target of pressure to enlist voluntarily.
Although just overweight (161 pounds on a 5′ 7″ frame) McReynolds was otherwise judged healthy and fit to serve, after examination on the 20th of December.
The details of McReynolds’ suicide are scant. The file notes that his death was due to “suffocation caused by self-inflicted wound,” having cut his own throat.
A telegram was sent to the family, apparently by Captain William Edward Vine. Although the file does not give any other details of Vine, there was only one man named Vine in the NZEF who reached the rank of Captain and was present in New Zealand at the time of McReynolds’ death. Several pictures of Vine later in the war can be seen in PapersPast, the National Library of New Zealand’s excellent digitized newspaper collection.
There are no named mentions of McReynolds in the New Zealand newspapers, nor in official papers. But the official reports from the Defence Forces show several other suicides in New Zealand’s military camps in 1916 and in 1917. We know little about these sad stories. Military authorities were understandably not keen on publicizing them at the time, and like other stories of suicide, suicide in military service may be hidden by family members as well. There is little scholarly literature on suicide during service in World War I, despite official attention to the question of soldiers’ suicides in nineteenth century Britain (see this chapter by Janet Padiak).
As we progress with Measuring the ANZACs we will uncover the stories of the other men who took their own lives while in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, just as we will uncover the stories of all others who served. Let us remember Frederick McReynolds.