During April I visited Belgium. I travelled with two other historically-inclined New Zealanders, and one very accommodating Englishman who adeptly managed the change from left to right-hand driving whilst enduring lengthy discussions about New Zealand’s place in WWI. We were in Ieper (or Ypres), West Flanders, primarily to understand New Zealand’s connection to that small part of the world.
Over three days we visited cemeteries, memorials, museums, and battlefields in and around Ieper. There is a lot I could say about our visit – what I thought when I stood at a memorial to New Zealand soldiers at a deserted crossroads in rural Flanders; how it felt to see pieces of metal and other war detritus placed outside fields where, 100 years later, it is still rising to the surface; what it meant to go for lunch in Passchendaele and wind up being shown WWI maps and photos by the café proprietor, to whom they clearly meant a great deal. Instead I’m going to tell just one story, about a young New Zealand soldier named Victor Spencer.
During a visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper, I spotted a waka huia on display. Familiar items have an almost irresistible pull when you’re across the world from your own country, so I made a beeline for it. The waka huia belonged to a soldier named Private Victor Spencer, whose young face peered at me shyly from a photo displayed beside his taonga. The waka huia contained a hei tiki, a biography of the owner, and a pardon from the New Zealand government. Private Spencer had been executed for desertion in 1918.
How did a young man who volunteered to go to war end up being executed by his own? I decided to find out more about him.
Victor Spencer was born in 1896 in Ōtautau, Southland. He was descended from Waitaha, Ngāti Mamoe, and Ngāi Tahu. He enlisted at age 18 (though he claimed to be 20, the minimum age requirement for enlistment at the time), and joined the Otago Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Spencer served at Gallipoli, and was later moved to the Western Front. He was part of an ill-fated raid on German lines at Armentières, France, where his battalion suffered many casualties. The men remained at the front at Armentières for a month without respite. Many soldiers suffered shellshock after this campaign, Spencer among them. He was admitted to hospital but was returned to duty within the month. He almost immediately went missing. He was found, arrested, and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with hard labour. After serving 9 months he was returned to his unit, and soon went missing again. He was discovered and arrested 4 months later. Spencer was court-martialled again, and this time he was sentenced to death.
In his statement to the court, Spencer noted that his nerve was destroyed following his experiences at Armentières. He attributed his desertion to shellshock combined with a problem with alcohol. Today, Spencer’s shellshock would likely be recognised Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. At that time, though, there was limited understanding of the condition. No mitigating or medical evidence was presented to the court, and there was no recommendation for clemency for Private Spencer. At dawn on 24 February 2018, he was executed by firing squad.
During WWI, New Zealand soldiers were subject to British military law, so any death sentence imposed on a New Zealand soldier required confirmation from the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. In contrast, death penalties imposed on Australian soldiers were subject to confirmation by Australia’s Governor-General, and this was never permitted by the Australian government.
In 2000, Spencer was officially pardoned by the New Zealand government under the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000. This Act of Parliament pardoned Spencer as well as the 4 other New Zealand soldiers who were executed during WWI for military offences. In 2006 the UK Parliament followed suit, including Private Spencer in a mass pardon for British Empire soldiers of the Great War under the Armed Forces Act 2006. Today the executed men are recognised as victims of war.
Back to Belgium, then. We decided to track Private Spencer down. We found him in the Huts Cemetery, a small cemetery near a village called Dikkebus in West Flanders. In April it was bitterly cold and surrounded by endless muddy paddocks, giving us a very small taste of what a Belgian winter must have been like for soldiers on the front line. Private Spencer is one of 19 New Zealand soldiers buried in the Huts Cemetery. His grave stood out from the others around it as it was marked by a bright wreath of poppies. Victor’s family had been to visit.
Te Karaka, Issue 33, Summer 2006
Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000
Private Victor Manson Spencer: Online Cenotaph He Toa Taumata Rau
Spencer, Victor Manson: Archway – Archives NZ
Armed Forces Act 2006
Tamara Patten, Communications Officer, National Services Te Paerangi