Bernard Edmund Tibbs

Bernard Edmund Tibbs

Inland Water Transport, Royal Engineers

Accidentally drowned on active service, 9 January 1918 

Born in Auckland in 1888, Bernard Tibbs was one of Alice and James Tibbs’ six children. His father was a teacher at Auckland Grammar School and in 1893 became headmaster. Bernard was educated at Mt Eden and Bayfield Schools before spending three years at Auckland Grammar, where he excelled at swimming, winning a number of medals. He left school in 1905 and became a marine engineer, eventually working for the Shaw, Savill and Albion Company on the Mamari and the Karamea.

In January 1916, shortly after he was granted a chief engineer’s certificate by the London Board of Trade, Bernard joined the war effort. He was given a commission in the Royal Indian Marine and left England to join the British forces fighting against the Ottoman Army in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). He served in the engine room of a transport ship on the Tigris River.

After the British suffered one of their worst defeats of the war at the Siege of Kut in April 1916, the Mesopotamian forces were reorganised. Bernard was transferred to the Inland Water Transport, which was attached to the Royal Engineers. The transport worked to deliver supplies to the army in Mesopotamia and fought to keep the waterways open. The conditions were trying and Bernard worked in searing heat in summer and freezing cold in winter.

In December 1917, Bernard saved an Indian soldier from drowning in a dangerous section of the Tigris River. For this brave act he was recommended for the Royal Humane Society’s medal. One month later, on 9 January 1918, Bernard disappeared from his ship on the Tigris and was never seen again. He was presumed to have drowned while the river was in full flood. He was 29 years old.

Bernard is remembered on the Basra War Memorial in Iraq and on the family grave in Purewa Cemetery in Auckland. When his father was notified of his death in early 1918, he faced what must have been a difficult task, one he carried out for all former Auckland Grammar pupils who died in the war: reporting at the school assembly the death of his son in a distant land.

Further information:

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph record – Bernard Tibbs

Commonwealth War Graves Commission record – Bernard Tibbs

'Roll of Honour', Auckland Star, 2 February 1918, p. 4

'Roll of Honour', Auckland Star, 5 February 1918, p. 5

'100 Kiwi stories: baffling end in Tigris', New Zealand Herald, 11 September 2014 

Auckland Grammar School First World War memorial

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – James William Tibbs

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