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WW1 and German settlers

Many descendants of Germans in former British colonies were second or third generation settlers by the time of the First World War. Yet despite being naturalised some decades years before, cutting all links with Germany, declaring continuing loyalty to the British Crown and sending sons overseas to fight for Britain, local families could not escape a strong anti-German sentiment.    

One hundred years later, this prejudice is difficult to document as it was often suffered in anger and shame - with a common post-war sentiment that it should be forgotten as quickly as possible. The “Bensemann perspective” in the Nelson, New Zealand, region was fairly typical. People down-played their German links during the war and rarely complained officially or recorded instances of unwarranted treatment, even afterwards.

Royal and loyal links

Immigrants to Nelson in the 1840s and 1850s, who were generally from the far north of Germany, found it difficult later explaining to those of British descent that Germany as a country had not been formed at the time of emigration. Partial marginalisation was an especially bitter experience during the First World War because, while many in Upper Moutere spoke German, their strong allegiance to the British Crown went back generations. Similar links to the Kaiser did not exist.

Economic reasons are usually cited for mid-19th Century emigration from Europe, but in the case of German immigrants to Nelson, there were strong political forces too. By the early 19th Century, the Napoleonic and other wars had left German-speaking people in a mass of separate states, with some ruled by autocratic princes and kings and others under effective control by outside countries such as Austria, France and Britain.

As one Bensemann family historian[1], poignantly described it: “As they [far northern Germans] had been under British sovereignty for over a century... they had been more or less apart from the political turmoil existing in the Europe of that period and so wished to retain their allegiance to the British Crown. When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1836, the association... was broken as the laws of Hanover prohibited a woman becoming their ruler. This no doubt being the reason why Hanoverians tended to emigrate to British colonies rather than to the more popular countries such as USA and South America.”

Cordt Bensemann, the founding ancestor of New Zealand Bensemanns, first became interested in emigrating while in London as part of a guard of honour for the coronation, where he read about emigration schemes to the colonies. The Kingdom of Hanover had sent a regiment of soldiers to take part and according to family oral history the men were specially picked for their physique – none were less than 6’2”.

Like several other Hanoverian soldiers who emigrated, Cordt took a great risk as it meant deserting from the army. He was court martialled in absentia and sentenced to death. A pardon for such soldiers did not come until nearly two decades later.

Cordt’s military service, and those of his descendants, extended to New Zealand in the late 19th century.  In 1856, during the colonial wars, he was appointed Lieutenant of Militia in command of a volunteer defence force in the Moutere. Because of his close friendship with the Motueka rangatira or chief, Paaka, Cordt became a mediator between settlers and local Maori of Taranaki descent who were considering joining relatives in the Taranaki land wars. The alliance between Cordt and Paaka, and the numerous small hui they organised, is sometimes referred to within the Bensemann family, and occasionally on local marae, as pivotal in preventing bloodshed between local Maori and European settlers. [2]

The “Volunteers” remained active into the 1890s under command by a grandson of Cordt’s, Bill Wilkens. According to Lawrence Bensemann: “I more than once climbed into the branches of the school macrocarpas to watch the company of about two dozen doing their drill. The bayonet drill, with the very long bayonets of that period glimmering in the dim light, was impressive, it was accompanied by a vigorous stamping of feet and slapping of thighs.”

 Standing “shoulder to shoulder, man for man”

Under the Naturalisation Ordinance of 1844 of the General Legislative Council of New Zealand, most German settlers were “deemed and be taken to be and to have been from the 14th day of June 1843 natural-born subjects of Her Majesty as if they had been born within the realm of England”.

A letter to the Nelson Evening Mail by Upper Moutere’s Lutheran Church Minister G F Hoyer and three other community leaders, dated August 13, 1914 was headed Upper Moutere Residents and the War with subheadings  

Farewell to departing volunteers. Declaration of loyalty to British flag. It reminded readers of this naturalisation:

 “Over 30 residents were assembled in the hotel dining room, listening to patriotic speeches and songs, and expressing their good wishes to our departing boys, the New Zealand contingent and the Empire's forces on land and sea. The following toasts were honoured "The King"; "The Army, including our Contingent" "The Navy" and "Our Departing Comrades".

“At this gathering it was mentioned by various speakers that they had been questioned by a number of people outside the district about the attitude of the Moutere German residents, and that some doubts and misgivings seemed to be entertained as to their loyalty. The assembly therefore unanimously requested the undersigned (two of whom are English born and two of German extraction) to explain the matter through the press, and expressed the hope that this would once [and] for all remove any anxiety or misunderstanding that might exist. First of all we would like to emphasise the fact that the application ‘German’ to any resident of Moutere refers only to language. There is not a single person of German extraction in the whole district who is not a naturalised British subject...

 “The residents of German extraction... will stand shoulder to shoulder, man for man, with any other inhabitants of the colony to defend its shores and institutions, their homes and families against any foe whatsoever.”

The truth is that families such as the Bensemanns, while professing their backing to Britain had mixed loyalties during the war. Many Upper Moutere settlers had relatives in Germany they had been keeping in contact with. (These links, while broken for several generations, have since been somewhat restored. A number of young New Zealand Bensemanns have lived in Germany in recent years on exchange schemes, while German Bensemanns have visited and stayed with distant New Zealand cousins. These links, which have included recent intermarriage between German and New Zealand Bensemanns, have given local families a wider perspective about both world wars.)

While Rev. Hoyer and his congregation appeared to be unequivocal in their letter to the Nelson Evening Mail; in private the talk was very different. My uncle Hans recalled during the First World War listening to Hoyer and others at a small dinner party in the earth house that still stands at Mahana. Hans slept in the loft with his siblings but occasionally crept into the edges of the large downstairs fireplace beside the warm ashes, feigning sleep while listening to the adults talk. At the dinner party he heard Hoyer say to my grandparents in German, “Don’t worry, Germany shall endure”.

Defending family honour

Example 1: Johann Diedrich (Dick) Bensemann and family

In the early 20th century it would be fair to say there was a quiet pride among local Bensemanns about how they had helped clear and drain and then settle and farm parts of Nelson; especially around the mouth of the Waimea and the Moutere. As carpenters and sawyers they had built churches and the Moutere Inn and many homes including one at Nelson that Cordt built from the wreck of the immigrant ship Fifeshire.

This “family honour” at being an integral part of the province on an equal footing with English and other settlers was challenged during the First World War and caused much anguish. No-one perhaps had more cause for anger than “Dick” Bensemann who had shifted pre-war from Upper Moutere to set up a wheelwright and foundry business in Golden Bay. Three sons of Dick and his wife Maria (nee Eggers) saw overseas service in the war – Albert, Norman and Lawrence (all three returned).  

Lawrence, who was born on March 4, 1891, in Sarau (Upper Moutere) grew up speaking both German and English. He attended Nelson College from 1904 to 1906 and then shifted to Wellington where he had two constrasting jobs - one as an accountancy clerk and the other as a professional rugby league player. He was the only one of the brothers to become an officer, but it wasn't without controversy - all because of his German background.

On March 27, 1915, Lawrence left for Samoa with the NZ Field Artillery as part of the Samoan Relief Force, the second wave of NZ troops to this former German colony. Lawrence's language skills were in demand because the German population generally had stayed in Samoa and NZ needed to confer especially with German business owners and German administrators.

However Lawrence had his loyalty questioned, not by the army but by Motueka politicians. Motueka Member of Parliament Richard Hudson wrote to Defence Minister James Allen on April 30, 1918 saying: "I have been informed on very reliable authority that a careful watch should be kept on 19/307 Lieut. Lawrence Otto Bensemann.... who has lately been writing some of his friends in this neighbourhood that he is making fast friends amongst the Germans in Samoa. I believe this man's father got into trouble at the beginning of the Ware owing to his disloyal attitude and utterances".

No letter from Lawrence or any other evidence was produced but Hudson implied a relative of James Wallace, the Mayor of Motueka had seen it. Mr Hudson did not appear to know that one of Lawrence's tasks in Samoa was communicating with local Germans, nor that Lawrence had left Samoa 13 months before for French battlefields.[3]

Acording to oral history, Lawrence's father Dick, who was 6’6” tall and powerfully built, was infuriated by a man in the bar of the Takaka Hotel who called him a “dirty hun”. Dick lifted the abuser up horizontally over his (Dick’s) head and threw him through the hotel’s front window. Because of his sons serving overseas, he was not charged by the police. This may be an apocryphal tale but is regularly told within the family with some pride.[4]

Example 2 “E.C.” Bensemann

My grandfather Edward Christopher (“E.C.”) Bensemann who at one stage owned several hundred acres of land at Mahana and Mapua, was an advocate for local farmers; for example organising hop-growers into an association that could negotiate higher prices with brewers. He was also a pioneer of the local apple industry, writing a book on apple culture and conducting successful experiments on cool storage. When the war started in 1914, he tried to extend this leadership role to patriotic gatherings and was initially in demand as a speaker. However at one meeting (date and place unknown) someone in the audience called him “a bloody hun”.[5] He did not speak publicly again during the war and after the meeting gathered up old family records in the German language and burnt them in a bonfire.

His children were targeted also. Aunty Dorothy recalled waiting for the school bus by the side of the road at Mahana one day. The bus pulled up next to her but did not open the doors. Instead the driver and the other children shouted abuse at her and they all clapped when the bus left her behind. She had to walk to Mahana School and was told off for being late.[6]

Uncle Hans was held down on the ground in the school playground at Mahana by a group of boys who apparently were doing the equivalent of bayonet practice. They called him a “dirty hun” and stabbed his eye with a stick. His eye became infected and he lost it.[7]

Most people with German surnames in the Upper Moutere area kept a low profile during the war, and a few Bensemanns dropped the last “n” on their name to appear less German. However my grandfather had a strong sense of injustice and although he did not speak publicly again, he did lobby behind the scenes especially to the Nelson Evening Mail editor, arguing for more balanced coverage.

Aunty Dorothy said E.C was a follower of the pacifist British journalist and politician Edmund Morel, who had campaigned against slavery in the Congo Free State and then argued for neutrality by Britain before the outbreak of the First World War. Morel’s writing’s had appeared occasionally in the Nelson Evening Mail, but this stopped before he was imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1917. After the war Morel was director of the magazine Foreign Affairs, a significant voice of “the English left”. E.C. argued with the Nelson Evening Mail editor, asserting that Morel had provided the only balanced view of the war. Morel died in 1924 and in late February 1925, just after my father Ranginui Morel Bensemann was born, E.C. barged into the editor’s office and said, “I’ve just had a son, and named him “Morel” so take that!”[8]

E.C. and his wife Esther (nee Eggers) did however follow the general move in the Moutere to replace English in the home, school and church. Those of their six siblings who were born pre-war were quite fluent in German. Those born during and afterwards were not.

(With thanks to Hans, Lawrence, Ranginui and Roy Bensemann, Arnold Heine, Brian Hunter, Jeanne Macaskill, Dororthy Priest, Marjorie Shannon and Sam Stocker.)

[1] Original author unknown

[2] Lawrence Bensemann

[3] Hans and Ranginui Bensemann. Also previously secret documents in National Archives - released by permission NZ Police

[4] Ibid

[5] Lawrence and Ranginui Bensemann

[6] Jeanne Macaskill nee Bensemann

[7] Hans Bensemann

[8] Dorothy Priest nee Bensemann

Stories wanted:

This year is one for reflection for descendants of German families around the world and will recall some very difficult tales we heard from parents and grandparents. It is of course the 100th anniversary of the First World War. German settlers in "English" communities were often persecuted. In Nelson, NZ, I'm collecting such stories including of raids on settlements, searches of houses etc. These are part of our history but have until now been largely "swept under the carpet". Any info. welcomed. Thanks!

Recipes wanted:

Sadly, in the past few decades we may have lost many or most of the old family recipes of our German colonists, although there may be one or two Bensemann family members still with information.

Elizabeth Eltze eelt001@aucklanduni.ac.nz, a student at the University of Auckland, is researching the German connection with New Zealand, through the German department there. She has sought help through the website on the food culture that would have come to New Zealand with the early German, Swiss and Austrian settlers, especially things like recipes, beer brewing traditions, food preparation traditions and so forth.

Anyone have any old family recipes or other info. they could give her? Send through me story@actrix.co.nz if you want as it would be great to have a few on the site too.

My uncle Hans Bensemann had our grandfather Edward Christopher Bensemann's old wallet and in the 1980s showed it to me and the only thing inside was an old recipe brought over from Germany for making mettwurst or German salaami. I gave it to my Dad and he tried the recipe at our farm in the Motueka Valley using farm-killed meat. We didn't get to taste the mettwurst because he hung it in the chimney to smoke as per instructions but the woodstove chimney was too hot and it turned to charcoal!

I can't find the recipe now and fear that it was in a small suitcase of
family papers and photographs that disappeared when my father died.

Paul Bensemann 021 2142665

Bits and pieces:

New book Lost Gold features Bensemann descendants. Many family members were gold-miners (and hapless dreamers!) in Alaska, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

See new tribute to Vietnam War casualty Don Bensemann.

New thatch installed on old earth Bensemann home. See Cottage

Death of Carol Bensemann - see http://notices.nzherald.co.nz/obituaries/nzherald-nz/obituary.aspx?pid=159325864&fhid=12785#fbLoggedOut

Donald, killed in Vietnam War, honoured on Auckland Museum cenotaph. Also see very poignant memory of his last days.

Chris Korte does some great research on German ancestors who settled in NZ, including Roses (who intermarried with Bensemanns).

Few Bensemanns emigrated from Germany to the United States in late 19th Century but the main group arrived in 1883 according to ancestry website.

Hear review of new book about Leo by Harry Broad on Radio NZ in which Harry describes Leo as "a scion of the great Bensemann family" of the Moutere.

Page Jews or Nazis? Reader feedback poses serious questions. Also about origin of name Bensemann.

Old photo of Bensemann Band found in Motueka and Districts Historical Assn records.

Bensemann descendant and amateur historian Brian Hunter finds a third Bensemann crest. See Family Crests


Band Cottage Ancestry Lifestyle About us

Links to notable Bensemanns (including early settlers):

Cordt Bensemann

Anna Heine (nee Bensemann) also check her photo on Nelson history page about German Settlement.

Leo Bensemann (NZ artist)

Walther Bensemann (Football pioneer)

Scott Bensemann Family tattooist

Bensemann Boating

Cordt (top) and his five sons, with names anglicised. Lower left is Christopher Frederick and lower right, Johann Diedrich (or "Dick"). 

(For Nelson Museum World War 1 Exhibition:)

Bensemann, Lawrence Otto

(1891-1969)

Occupation:

Accountancy Clerk

Rank:

Lieutenant

Service Number:

19/307

Force:

NZEF

Family

Lawrence (also spelt "Laurence"), the tenth of fourteen children, was born on March 4, 1891 in what was then the German community of Sarau (Upper Moutere). His parents Johann Diedrich ("Dick") Bensemann and Maria Johanne Eggers and his grandparents were all of full German descent and he grew up speaking both German and English.

Late in his life Lawrence wrote of being impressed as a boy with the Bensemann family’s military heritage. His grandfather, Cordt Bensemann, Sarau’s founder, had arrived in Nelson in 1843, after reading about emigration schemes while in London as part of a guard of honour for Queen Victoria’s coronation. The Kingdom of Hanover had sent a regiment of soldiers to take part and, according to Lawrence’s account, the men were especially picked for their physique – none were less than 6’2".

In 1856, during the colonial wars, Cordt was appointed Lieutenant of Militia in command of a defence force in the Moutere and these "Volunteers" remained active into the 1890s under command of a first cousin of Lawrence’s, Bill Wilkins. Lawrence wrote; "I more than once climbed into the branches of the school macrocarpas to watch the company of about two dozen doing their drill. The bayonet drill, with the very long bayonets of that period glimmering in the dim light, was impressive. It was accompanied by a vigorous stamping of feet and slapping of thighs."

One older brother of Lawrence’s, Albert, and one younger brother, Norman, also served overseas in the First World War. All three returned, but Albert was wounded. Lawrence was the only officer of the three.

Pre-War

Lawrence attended Nelson College from 1904 to 1906 and then shifted to Wellington where he had two contrasting jobs – one as an accountancy clerk for J. B. McEwan & Co and the other as a professional rugby league player. He was a "second rower" (ie number 11 or 12) during the era of contested scrums and represented New Zealand against New South Wales in 1913.

 

1915-1917

Lawrence started his overseas service on March 27, 1915, when he sailed on the

Talune with the NZ Field Artillery from Auckland to Apia as part of the Samoa Relief Force. Western Samoa had been a German colony from 1900 to 1914 but New Zealand troops took over, just after war was declared in August 1914, without a shot being fired. Lawrence’s German language skills were in demand because the German population had generally stayed in Samoa during the war,

and New Zealand needed to confer especially with German business owners and those German administrators who had been kept on in their positions.

1917-1918

On March 27, 1917, Lawrence left Samoa for New Zealand, arriving on April 3, 1917. After leave and further training he left on the

Athenic on December 31, 1917 as part of the 33rd Reinforcements Specialist Company, NZ Expeditionary Force, arriving in Glasgow on February 25, 1918. From there he went to France.

Despite the ongoing service of the Bensemann brothers and others of German descent, paranoia continued about local German-speaking families, including the Bensemanns. Lawrence’s family had by now shifted from the Moutere to Golden Bay where his father "Dick" Bensemann had set up a wheelwright and foundry business. According to oral history, Dick, who was 6’6" tall and powerfully built, was infuriated by a man in a Takaka Hotel bar who called him a "dirty Hun". Dick lifted the abuser up horizontally over his (Dick’s) head and threw him through the hotel’s front window. Because of his sons serving overseas, he was not charged by the police. This may be an apocryphal tale but is regularly told within the family with some pride.

Lawrence too had his loyalty questioned - by Motueka politicians - in correspondence with the military and with Defence Minister James Allen. Motueka Member of Parliament Richard Hudson wrote to Mr Allen on April 30, 1918 saying: "I have been informed on very reliable authority that it is highly desirable that a careful watch should be kept on 19/307 Lieut. Lawrence Otto Bensemann, Field Artillery, Samoan Relief, who has lately been writing some of his friends in this neighbourhood that he is making fast friends amongst the Germans of Samoa. I believe this man’s father got into trouble at the beginning of the War owing to his disloyal attitude and utterances." No letter from Lawrence or any other evidence was produced, but Mr Hudson implied a relative of James Wallace, the Mayor of Motueka, had seen it. Mr Hudson did not appear to know that one of Lawrence’s tasks in Samoa was communicating with the German population, nor that Lawrence had left Samoa 13 months before.

Mr Allen checked with the Commander-in-Chief in Samoa, Colonel Robert Logan, and then wrote back to Mr Hudson on July 1, 1918 saying the officer under question had left Samoa a year before and was now in France. "It would

appear therefore that there was no foundation for the statement that he had lately been writing to some of his friends stating that he was making fast friends amongst the Germans in Samoa."

The suspicion at home had not prevented Lawrence’s promotion from Sergeant to Lieutenant while in Europe.

Post-War

After the war, Lawrence settled back in Wellington with his wife Charlotte (nee Newbury) and returned to his accountancy career. He died on September 23, 1969, survived by two sons and eight grandchildren.

The previous year, on November 16, 1968, one of Lawrence’s great nephews, and Dick’s great grandsons, Lance Corporal Donald Bensemann, 41383, Royal NZ Infantry Regiment, was shot to death in Vietnam during an engagement with the Viet Cong.

Links:

www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/record/C38393;

www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Bensemann;

Feedback:

Please send any feedback, eg historical or financial contributions, criticisms or abuse to

webmaster at: story@actrix.co.nz or paul@bensemann.org.nz

Many thanks to Adelaide Bensemann, Hans Bensemann, Lawrence Bensemann, Alan Bensemann, Ranginui Bensemann, Desiree Bensemann, George McMurtry, Jenny Leith, Jenny Briars, Marj Shannon, Brian Hunter and others who have provided information for this site.