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SA9 Trooper (Joe)  Joseph Louis Gestro – 1st Contingent, New Zealand Mounted Rifles 
 
(The Gestro Brothers from Paremata - Part One)
Giuseppe Luigi Gestro was born in Italy in 1845 and arrived in New Zealand in the 1860’s. In New Zealand his name was anglicised and he became Joseph Louis Gestro. It is possible that he was based, with other Italian immigrants, as a fisherman in Island Bay, Wellington. Joseph was often called Joe or Luigi.
Gestro family records list a marriage between Joseph and Francis ‘Fanny’ Mullins and the couple had nine children.[i]
The Manawatu and Wellington railway line was constructed in the mid 1880’s and connected Wellington to Palmerston North, thereby making accessible the rich fishing grounds around Porirua. Gestro family history indicates that the Gestro family moved to Paremata in 1880’s and Joseph is first listed as a fisherman based in Paremata in a letter to the Evening Post on the 20th September 1893:
          ‘                       To the Editor
            Sir – We poor fishermen of Paremata have a few words to write
            in answer to the letter of the so-called monopolists. We have never
            received eightpence for our bundles of fish – not even Sixpence;
            because, thought the nominal price is sixpence, the middlemen
           deduct those bundles they say they have not been able to sell.
           We have to take their word for everything, because we are
           slaves. . . . . .
           Thanks to the profits made from us, they are able to build steamers.
           Some time ago Mr Fernandos offered us 1d a bundle for a quantity
           of fish. We revolted at the idea. He said “Take it or leave it.”
           The Paremata beach stank for days.
                                                We are &c,
                                                            J. Barber
                                                            A. Paris
                                                            G. Peters
                                                            L Gestro
 
            Paremata, 18th September, 1893.            ‘
 
The fishermen had families to feed and among Joe’s large family were Joseph Louis (Joe), born in 1875, and a younger brother Leonard Lewis (Lulu) Gestro born in 1880. The brothers and others siblings are listed in the Pauatahanui School Roll with Joe Gestra (Gestro) and a sister Elizabeth in 1882.[ii] Lulu Gestro is listed as starting at the school in 1886.
 
Both brothers enlisted in New Zealand Contingents that were sent to support the British in the 2nd Anglo – Boer War. 
The first to enlist was Joe who enlisted to join the ‘Firsts’ the 1st Contingent.  Joe had served with the Heretaunga
Mounted Rifles and as a member of a part-time Volunteer unit, qualified for selection. The selection criteria was based on the men’s physical condition, their ability to ride and shoot and they must be a member of the permanent New Zealand forces or be part of the part-time Volunteers. Joe is listed as being employed as a baker, a trade that would be useful to the contingent.  Joe sailed from Wellington on 21st October 1899 as SA137 Private Joseph Louis Gestro, 1st Company, 1st “First” Contingent. Also sailing with the “First’ was SA9 Lance Corporal Charles Bould who, as a teen, would have known Joe in Paremata. Also sailing with the 'firsts' were three troopers from Tawa, SA79 Charles Newman, SA82 Denis Joseph Ryan and John Nathanniel Cumings.
 
After arriving in Cape Town Private Gestro wrote, on 18th November 1899 to Captain Loveday of the Heretaunga Rifles and quoted in the Evening Post of 16th January 1900.[iii]
 
 "All the Heretaunga men are quite well, and are settling down
 to soldiers' life. I am sorry to say that we are not all together.
I am with the South Island contingent, which required some men
to make up its number. I am in the third division of No. 2 Company,
under Lieut. Canavan, of the Marlborough Mounted Rifles. I must
give you great credit for the way you drilled us. We can hold our own
against any of the others on board, and although we have only had a
few drills, we know as much as, and some of the drill better than
those who have been in mounted companies for five years.
Our friend Jack Cummings has gone as a farrier."
 
Private Gestro remained with the 2nd Company as the British forces conducted offensive operations against the Boer Forces. The awarding of clasps to his Queen’s South Africa medal show how Private Gestro progressed with the ‘Relief of Kimberley’ in February 1900, the ‘Paardeberg’ February 1900 and the ‘Driefontein’ in March 1900. The Battle of Driefontein opened the approaches to the capital of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, which was captured on 13th March 1900.
 
It was while they were at Bloemfontein that Trooper Gestro wrote on 19th March 1900 to his brother in Hastings and part of that letter was reproduced in the Hawke’s Bays’ Daily Telegraph on the 8th May 1900.[iv]
 
          ‘I made up my mind to see what a real war was like, and said to
            myself, if I am shot, it will be fighting for my Queen and country,
            and will let the outside world know the New Zealanders are as
            brave as any others. I am proud to say that we have proved to the
            British Generals and soldiers that we do not intend showing the
            white feather. We have just now completed five months hard
            fighting, and have had five killed and one wounded, and two
            down with fever. We are sometimes out from three in the morning
            till twelve at night, with little to eat and no sleep. I don’t mind
            the war, and have got used to the flying bullets, but would like
            more to eat. On January 15th we fixed bayonets and charged the
            the Boers, who were trying to make a rush at us. The order was no
            sooner given that it was obeyed, and you should have seen the
            Boers go! They don’t like the “log knives” as they call the bayonet.’
 
This is a modest statement on a bayonet charge against the Boers on a hill, later renamed New Zealand hill, at Slingersfontein farm in the Northern Cape. Soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment and the 1st NZ Contingent were under attack from a large Boer force and were in danger of being overrun when the NZ Captain William Maddock saw the
danger and rushed forward calling on his men to fix bayonets and with 12 men, charged the advancing Boers. Two of the charging force was killed but the Boers retreated. Listed as one of the attacking forces was SA137 Private Joe Gestro.
Captain Maddock was reported to have had his hat shot off by a bullet as is illustrated in Auckland Weekly News of the period.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The following extract from the Evening Post special correspondent sent from Bloemfontein on the 3rd April 1900 was printed in the Evening Post on 16th May 1900:[v]
 
          ‘within the last day our two our rations improved and fresh
          meat was served out with tinned vegetables. Our cooks
          (Townsend and Gestro) by intercepting farmer’s carts,
          obtained potatoes and other vegetables, and we revelled in
          the luxury of fritters and puddings. After biscuits and bully beef
          and dirty water from the now foul-smelling Modder, this
          luxurious menu came as a wholesome relief.’
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Trooper Gestro (Wellington) and Townsend (Dunedin) preparing the officer’s mess at Bloemfontein Camp. (March – April 1900)
         
The 1st Contingent, as part of the British forces continued to push the Boer into the Transvaal with Trooper Gestro being awarded two more clasps the ‘Transvaal’ and the ‘Wittenberg.’
The ceremony to celebrate the annexation of the Transvaal was held on 25th October 1900, following which the majority of the 1st Contingent left Petoria for Cape Town and the return to New Zealand.
Trooper Gestro was discharged from the army on the 25th February 1901 and on the 29th April 1901 the Evening Post indicated that ‘Trooper Gestro has obtained an appointment in the Post Office in Palmerston North.’[vi]
In Palmerston North Joe continued in the volunteer forces becoming a member of the Palmerston North Rifles, the Palmerston North branch of the South African Veterans’ Association and the Palmerston North Fire Brigade.
 
In 1907 he married Violet Stewart Wrighton and they had two sons. The marriage did not last and in 1914 the couple parted with Violet and the boys going to Australia and Joe selling up and moving from Palmerston North to Nelson.
 
Joseph (Joe) Louis Gestro died in Wellington on the 17 August 1962
 
Notes:
Thanks to wider Gestro family members for details on the family
 
References:
AngloBoerWar.com
Joseph Louis Gestro: Wikitrees.com
Archway Archives New Zealand – Military Files: SA137 Trooper Joseph Louis Gestro
School Rolls Pauatahanui – privately published
 
Photos:
The Bayonet Charge at Slingersfontein: NZ Herald Archives
Preparing the officer’ mess at Bloemfontein Camp:  Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19000525-2-1
 
 
[i] Oral history: Steve Shepherd
[ii] Pauatahanui School Roll
[iii] Our Second Contingent (16th January 1900) Evening Post
[iv] A letter from the Font (8th May 1900) Daily Telegraph
[v] News of the War (16th May 1900) Evening Post
[vi] News of the War (29th April 1901) Evening Post
  
 
Preparing the Officer's Mess at Bloemfontein Camp 1900