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23338 Private Oswell Hughes Bennett – Auckland Infantry Regiment

William Hebden Bennett was born in December 1855, six months after the death of his father George White Bennett. George White Bennett was the first lighthouse keeper of the Wellington’s Pencarrow Lighthouse and drowned in June
1855 when he was thrown out of the Wellington pilot boat as it crossed Barrett’s Reef.[i] William’s mother Mary Jane Bennett was subsequently appointed to the position of Lighthouse Keeper, the only women to hold a position as a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. In 1865 Mary Jane and her five children moved back to England, reportedly for the education of her children. The three boys, Frank, George and William returned to New Zealand in 1870.

William a trained surveyor was involved in the laying out of Palmerston North, later, like his mother and father became a lighthouse keeper.

William, in 1878, married Margaret Marian Hughes the couple had seven children with Oswald Hughes, the fifth child, born on the 11th May 1886 while William was the keeper at the Portland Lighthouse, Mania, Hawkes Bay.[ii]
 
Oswell’s   older brother Leo Percy Bennett served in the 2nd Anglo-Boar War as 5767 Corporal Signaller Bennett with the 8th Contingent New Zealand Rifles (South Island Contingent)[iii].

When Oswell enlisted in February 1916 a younger brother Hubert Warwick and older sister Ina Leslie Bennett were both serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Oswell Hughes Bennett attended the Manakau School, Manakau, Otaki from 1894 – 1902[iv] his father had purchase land
in the district and went farming after he left the Lighthouse Service. Oswell farmed with his father at Manakau and also, when his father moved, at Russell, Bay of Islands.  Military files list Oswell Hughes Bennett was single farmer, his next of
kin his mother and he was living, at the time of enlistment, with his older brother Leo in Otaki.

23338 Private Oswell Hughes, on the 7th February 1916, entered Trentham Military Camp as a member of E Company,
13th Reinforcements. During basic training Private Bennett was allocated to the NZ Rifle Brigade on the 27th May 1916 Rifleman Oswell Hughes Bennett as part of E Company, 7th Reinforcements, NZ Rifle Brigade left for service on the
Western Front.

Rifleman Bennett arrived at Sling Military Camp on 27th July 1916 and was posted to the Reserve Battalion during basic training,  on the 12th August 1916 Rifleman Bennett was shipped to France.

In France Rifleman Bennett became Private Bennett when he was allocated to 15th Company (Northland), 1st Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment at Neuville, France. The preparations for the Battle of the Somme saw the 1st Battalion
moved up to the Mametz Wood where they remained in reserve.

Up until 24/25 September 1916, the 1st Battalion of the Auckland Regiment “had played a very small share in the battle. They had been in the line once for a short while only, and for the remainder of the time had been doing working parties
or waiting in the reserve areas. The battalion was now committed to exploit the advances made in the previous ten days with the aim of punching through the remaining German positions so that the masses of cavalry in the rear could be
used.”

Private Bennett’s regiment moved up into the Front occupying 750 yards of the Flers Trench system with Canterbury on
one flank and Otago on the other. No-Man’s land was wide at this point so a preliminary advance was made 25th September with little opposition and few casualties. The Zero Hour for the main assault was set for 2:15 p.m. 27th September with the New Zealand battalions following a creeping barrage. The Canterbury Battalion, with the wire in
front of them cut, was able to reach the Grid Trench with no major issues. The Auckland and Otago Battalions came up
to uncut wire, held up by this unexpected obstacle they were delayed and while the barrage passed on, were exposed to the German gunfire. There were desperate attempts by the Auckland Battalion to rush gaps but German machineguns
cut the attackers down. Eventually enough of the Auckland companies pushed through to force the Germans back to take the Grid Trench and the support trench but at a huge cost.[v]

Auckland Regiment Switch Trench October 1916

Eight hundred men had taken part in the assault with six 
hundred casualties. On 28th September 1916 the remaining
men of the 1st Regiment, Auckland Battalion, were relieved
from their positions and moved back into reserve. It was
while they were in reserve that Courts of Enquiry were
conducted for all those missing. Private Bennett was one of
thirty who were declared ‘missing believed killed in action’
by the court on 30th September 1916.[vi]

On Private Bennett’s Military Files there is a note that he had
was buried south of the Le Sara – Martinpuich Road, about
1000 yards NE of Martinpuich. The area continued to be
fought over so Private Bennett’s grave was not found at the end of the war, he is remembered on the Caterpillar Valley (NZ) Memorial, France and on Manakau School memorial.

Private Bennett’s Military Records contain a note that if he was a casualty his contact would be his sister, Sister Ina L Bennett, NZANS, No 1 Stationery Hospital, BEF. Sister Bennett was working behind the lines nursing the wounded from the Battle of the Somme when she was advised of her brother’s death.

William Hebden Bennett and his wife Margaret Marian Bennett (nee Hughes) moved to Plimmerton about 1920 to retire; their address was ‘Sonia’ Plimmerton. William Hebden Bennett was active in the Plimmerton community. He was involved in the building of St Pauls Church in Karehana Bay, establishing the Plimmerton Boating Club, the building of the Plimmerton Pavilion and Victory Park and the setting up of the Plimmerton Sporting Club.

Private Bennett’s medals were sent to his father at ‘Sonia’ Plimmerton[vii].

Note
22/14 Sister Ina Leslie Bennett, NZ Army Nursing Service
10/1416 Private Hubert Warwick Bennett, Wellington Infantry Regiment

References
NZ History Online: Pencarrow Lighthouse Keepers
NZ History Online: Auckland Regiment, 1st Battle of the Somme
NZ BDM
Paperspast Online
Archway Archives Military Files

Photo
Auckland Regiment in Grid Trench-Battle of the Somme: Alexander Turnbull

[i] Obituary William Hebden Bennett, 9 November 1929, Evening Post
[ii] Archway Archives New Zealand Military Files: 23338 Private Oswell Hughes Bennett
[iii] Archway Archives New Zealand Military Files: 5676 Corporal Signaller Leo Percy Bennett
[iv] O H Bennett: Manakau School Roll, Kiwi Heritage.
[v] Auckland Regiment, First Battle of the Somme: NZ Electronic Text Collection.
[vi] Archway Archives New Zealand Military Files: 23338 Private Oswell Hughes Bennett
[vii] Archway Archives New Zealand Military Files: 23338 Private Oswell Hughes Bennett
Auckland Infantry - Switch Trench - September 1917