Harry's war: Chess set unites a family

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Whitireia lecturer Alice Moore and reporter Jamie Morton, with chess pieces carved by their great grandfather Harry Bourke in Belgium, 1917. Photo / Mark Mitchell

By Jamie Morton

Harry O'Donel Bourke spoke little of his year in the trenches.

We might have known nothing of it had it not been for his letters home, and the rich accounts he left in his war diary.

It has allowed me to picture, with at least some small measure of detail, the hell my great grandfather endured on the battlefields of France and Belgium.

Each year on April 25, I think of him, rugged up in a snow-covered sandbag dugout, jotting out a quick note to his mother on Christmas Day, 1917, back behind the lines outside Polygon Wood in Flanders.

A makeshift fire is crackling away in the corner and a cobber named Scotty is busy writing his own letter home to his girl.

Outside, puddles have frozen over so thick that the ice can hold a man's weight.

A dinner of turkey and duff is coming later, but Harry's heart is back home with his family in Hawke's Bay.

"There is a military band outside playing When Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night, and it is mixing me up a bit," he wrote home.

"It seems great to hear carols being played with the snow falling and the guns booming away not far off."

I know he spent one birthday crouched in a wet shell hole in no man's land, listening out for the enemy, and the next recovering from a blast that killed most of his mates.

I try to imagine his horror at seeing a cobber strike a boot, attached to a body, while clearing out the bottom of a trench, or his joy at discovering his brother foraging up a cherry tree behind the lines.

Despite some close calls - one hunk of shrapnel tore through his overcoat and tunic but stopped short of his flesh - he made it through some of the bloodiest fighting our country has ever known.

Of New Zealand's darkest day on October 12, 1917, when 846 Kiwis were killed in a single day on the Bellevue Spur, while attempting to capture the Belgian town of Passchendaele, Harry's summary was blunt.

"It was bloody awful and will go down in history in that way.''

He remained around the Ypres area before being moved across the country to Archeux in April 1918.

It was just three months shy of the November Armistice when Harry finally got hit.

His eight-man machine gun team was tasked with helping the New Zealanders capture a small town, "about the size of Taradale'', he described it, in the Somme area.

Harry Bourke's war diary has offered his descendants a rich perspective on life as an Anzac on the Western Front. Photo / Supplied
Harry Bourke's war diary has offered his descendants a rich perspective on life as an Anzac on the Western Front. Photo / Supplied

A shell landed in the thick of them, killing most of them outright.

"When the smoke and dust had cleared, one chap and myself were still on our feet. The rest were all down," he recounted.

"I had a bit of shrapnel in my eye socket and was bleeding freely, but I could see alright. There was another bit in the tummy."

Stretcher bearers were too busy to take him out, leaving him to wait another 24 hours and face the prospect of a German counter-attack.

Somehow, he managed to drag his bloody body several hundred metres through the mud, back to the nearest dressing station.

It was little wonder that, after the war, he chose one of the quietest, most remote corners of Hawke's Bay to make a peaceful life for himself.

His family's first home was a totara slab hut with earth floors, built amid a rugged area of native bush north of Napier, with little to hear but the song of tui and bellbirds.

In his later years, Harry, a warm, kind man, loved to spend time with his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren.

He died two years before I was born.

But, growing up, I often asked of his exploits.

I wanted know about the time he made his way down from the bush to help out in the wake of the devastating Napier Earthquake.

Or about his claim of having heard ghostly voices and the wheels of a phantom coach rattling along a long-disused Napier to Taupo road, that had once passed near the back of his farm.

Chess pieces carved by Harry Bourke in Belgium, 1917 and examples of missing pieces reconstructed by his great-granddaughter, Alice Moore, using 3D printing. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chess pieces carved by Harry Bourke in Belgium, 1917 and examples of missing pieces reconstructed by his great-granddaughter, Alice Moore, using 3D printing. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When my wife and I married at nearby Lake Tutira, I asked my grandmother to read one of her father's poems about the place.

Baby Harry was born the following summer.

As it happened, I wasn't the only one of his descendants who felt a connection to him.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting online with my brother when he pointed me to an article about a Whitireia design lecturer.

She'd been using 3D printing to recreate an old chess set a young soldier had carved in the trenches near Passchendaele.

Continued below.

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Accompanying the story was a familiar portrait.

There was Harry, posing in his uniform with that long, haunting stare, ready to ship out to France with the rest of the 9th Hawke's Bay Company.

Harry Bourke, pictured before shipping out to France. Photo / Supplied
Harry Bourke, pictured before shipping out to France. Photo / Supplied

The first time I met Alice Moore was this month.

We sat down at a little cafe down the road from Parliament to share stories about our families and our great-grandfather.

Just as with our side of the clan, copies of Harry's diary had been passed down through the generations of hers.

She used it to learn to read, covering a page each night.

But her family also inherited something even more prized: Harry's chess set.

It was first given to Harry's daughter Rita, then to her father, Tim.

I'd been told about the chess set, but, until now, had no idea of the remarkable tale behind it.

Out on the line, German raids typically came at night, leaving Harry and his fellow soldiers with little to do during the day.

"It turned out that we could all play chess," Harry recalled.

Harry Bourke, part of a Lewis Gun team on the Western Front, survived two bloody battles at Passchendaele, pictured. Photo / File
Harry Bourke, part of a Lewis Gun team on the Western Front, survived two bloody battles at Passchendaele, pictured. Photo / File

"There was no hope of getting a chess set, so I had a go at carving one, with the help of a sharp pocket knife, and some willow wood growing nearby.

"We made a board out of a square of oil sheet and a bottle of ink, and we used to play in our spare time."

The set should have been forever buried in France, as he'd lost it when the shell hit his team.

But it somehow found its way back to him long after the war, along with the shrapnel-pocked, blood-soaked kit bag he'd kept it in.

Harry Bourke's platoon in 1917. Most of his machine gun team was killed by a shell blast. Photo / Supplied
Harry Bourke's platoon in 1917. Most of his machine gun team was killed by a shell blast. Photo / Supplied

All that was missing was a single pawn.

Growing up on a Pahiatua dairy farm, Alice spent many hours playing games on it with her family.

They'd used a piece from another set as a substitute for the absent pawn - and this was something she figured her skills as a designer could tackle.

In 2012, she used 3D modelling programmes Maya and ZBrush to digitally recreate the basic shape and texture of the missing chess piece, before using a 3D printer at Victoria University to print it off.

A few years later, she returned to the piece with a desire to create a more accurate model, and did so with 3D scanners and a full colour CMYK ceramic 3D printer at Ink Digital in Wellington.

Harry Bourke's diary. Photo / Supplied
Harry Bourke's diary. Photo / Supplied

She wanted every detail of it - the grooves, the contours - to match precisely what Harry had fashioned with his pocket knife in those cold, rainy days on the front.

"It's a responsibility," she put it to me.

"My kids know all about the chess set and have seen what I've done, and they know I'd like to pass these stories down to them: we do have a responsibility to the past."

Alice still has Harry's kit bag, too.

Harry Bourke in his later years. Photo / Supplied
Harry Bourke in his later years. Photo / Supplied

Seeing those shrapnel holes, and our great grandfather's faded blood stains, had a visceral effect on both our perspectives of his experience.

"In his diary, he talked about death, but it was a little bit glossed over ... it's why playing chess must have been so important, because it gave them that break from it all."

It must have been so trying, Alice told me; the rain, the cold, the bitter homesickness, the ever-present menace of death.

The untold misery and trauma of the wholesale slaughter that was Harry's war.

The murky, sodden, view, Harry had remarked in a poem; the mud, the filth, the heartbreak.

"I don't think any pen, least of all mine, could do justice," he said.

"The overall picture is pretty grim, but it had its bright and sometimes humorous spots, and I suppose we tend to remember these ... and forget the more ghastly ones."

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