Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Remembering a Veteran: Bernard Cyril Freyberg

Freyberg: Champion Swimmer
Unlike many of the historic figures of 1914–1918, Bernard Cyril Freyberg had a fascinating pre-WWI career. He was born in London in 1889, his family immigrating to New Zealand when he was two. A championship swimmer as a youth, he left school early but qualified as a dentist after serving an apprenticeship. Not enthused by his new profession, Freyberg worked on the Wellington docks as a strikebreaker and then "hit the road" for San Francisco looking for some sort of adventure. He eventually made his way to Mexico, where he is thought to have had some participation in their civil war. But in the midst of his North American enterprises, a certain archduke was assassinated, and Freyberg's life, like the history of the world, took a different turn. Hearing of the outbreak of the First World War in August, he immediately left for England to volunteer. He secured a commission in the Royal Naval Division's Hood Brigade. By September 1914 he was on the Belgian front.

Freyberg was awarded numerous honors for his actions during the First World War. Early in the Gallipoli campaign he won a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for swimming ashore and setting flares at Bulair. It was the evening of 24 April 1915, and the intention was to divert Turkish attention from the main landing. By 1918 he had added two bars to his DSO and also received the Victoria Cross through "splendid personal gallantry," during the fighting along the Ancre in the last week of the Battle of the Somme.

Freyberg: Seasoned Veteran

He ended the war as a temporary brigadier with the 29th Division but soon "settled into peacetime soldiering."  By 1934 he was a major general.  Freyberg "seemed headed for the highest echelons of the army" but was obliged to retire in October 1937 after medical exams revealed a heart problem. However, when the Second World War came such problems could be overlooked; he offered his services to the New Zealand government and was appointed to command the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and its fighting arm, the 2nd New Zealand Division. He led their campaigns in Greece, North Africa, and Italy.

Freyberg: After Two World Wars
Freyberg was criticized, particularly for his role in the fall of Crete in May 1941, and for the destruction of the Benedictine Monastery above Cassino in 1944. But he was also an admired figure at home and abroad, credited by his men for his concern for their welfare and readiness to be at the forefront of any enemy action, most notably, during the decisive second battle at El Alamein, which marked a major turning point in favor of the allied forces.

Following the war Freyberg was invited to be New Zealand's Governor-General. A popular choice for the post, he was our first Governor-General with a New Zealand upbringing. He left London on 3 May 1946, bringing with him material to assist in New Zealand government in its compilation of an official war history. On his return to England Freyberg frequently sat in the House of Lords, having been raised to the peerage in 1951. From 1953 until his death he acted as deputy constable and lieutenant governor in charge of Windsor Castle. He died at Windsor on 4 July 1963 following the rupture of one of his war wounds.

Adapted from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography 

1 comment:

  1. A great commander and man in two wars. Like many famous warriors, he was not always successful but learned from his mistakes.