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Brothers in Arms

As war loomed in Europe the New Zealand government stepped up military training. The Boer War had stimulated interest in school cadets which was made compulsory for all boys. By 1914 25,000 cadets were trained. Among them were three brothers from Wanganui Collegiate - George, Douglas and Herbert Knight, the sons of Dannevirke farmers, Herbert and Ellen Knight.

In 1910 the government, acting on British advice had replaced the Volunteers with a Territorial Force. Thousands of men were in the Territorials by April 1914. One of them was Leonard Hart, son of lighthouse keepers Samuel and Caroline Hart. When war broke out Leonard and his two brothers, Harry and Adrian, would all sign up.

14,000 New Zealanders rushed to enlist in the first week. Watching the first Dannevirke recruits, George Knight told his parents he felt duty-bound. Ellen Knight feared all her boys would enlist.

Herbert and George Knight were part of the main Expeditionary Force to leave New Zealand in 1914. On Sunday 9 May 1915, just two weeks after the landing at Gallipoli, Herbert made a fatal decision. He volunteered to help bury a donkey and while doing this, he was shot by a sniper. George wrote the devastating news to his mother.

The Knight family nearly lost George as well on Gallipoli. He was on a break, lying on a beach, when he felt a thud on his chest. In a letter home he said that the Bible in his coat stopped the bullet.

In 1917 George, now an officer, was at the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. In his company was Leonard Hart. Just as the Knight brothers had done, all three Hart brothers were now serving in the war.

George Knight was shot in the chest and throat and was left where he fell. His body was never found. Leonard later wrote about his death to a mutual friend.

Leonard survived the slaughter of Passchendaele and, after taking his Paris leave, he returned to the front. He was caught in a poison gas attack that left him nearly blind.

On 1 September 1918 the sole survivor of the Knight brothers, Douglas, was killed in action. A comrade wrote a poignant letter to his mother.

In a twist of fate, all three Knight brothers who went to war had died while all three Hart brothers returned home.

Their original letters can now be seen in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.