Samuel Vernon

Samuel Vernon

Samuel Edward Portman Vernon, 4/1553, Tunnelling Company, New Zealand Engineers. Died of wounds, 21 June 1916

Sergeant Samuel Edward Portman Vernon is one of 18,058 New Zealanders who died as a result of First World War service and are listed on the Roll of Honour.

Born in 1880, Samuel Vernon was the eldest of four children of Laura and Edward Vernon, a miner then living in Roxburgh, Central Otago. He began mining at an early age, helping his father pan for gold and work water sluices along the Waikaia River in northern Southland. As a young man Vernon worked in the mines at Reefton on the West Coast of the South Island and served in the Reefton Volunteer Rifles. In 1907, aged 27, he married 42-year-old Margaret Campbell.

A tall man at five feet eleven inches with blue eyes and brown hair, the 35-year-old Vernon was working as a miner in Roxburgh when he enlisted in October 1915. Initially a sapper in the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, he was soon promoted to sergeant. He left New Zealand in December 1915 with the Tunnelling Company. They arrived in France in March 1916 and became the first New Zealand unit to fight on the Western Front.

The Tunnelling Company was initially engaged in counter-mining in a section of the line north of Arras on the Somme. They worked to foil German attempts to tunnel under Allied lines and lay mines. They were not always successful. In early June the Germans detonated several mines which buried two British soldiers. Vernon offered to dig them out and led a small rescue party which worked in broad daylight under enemy fire, freeing the trapped men.

On 24 June 1916 Vernon was on duty in the trenches when he was hit by a grenade fired from a rifle. When stretcher bearers commented on his weight, Vernon told them to throw away his leg as it was no longer of any use to him. He was admitted to the 14th Field Ambulance with multiple severe injuries and died a few hours later. Vernon was the first in the Tunnelling Company to die as a result of action on the Western Front, and many of his men wrote letters of condolence to his widow.

In a letter published in the Mount Benger Mail, Sapper John MacManus wrote: ‘He was the one man, I can safely say without exaggeration, whom I would have preferred to see the very last to go.’ [1] Vernon is buried at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras and is remembered on the First World War roll of honour in the Roxburgh memorial centre.

Further information

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Late Sergeant Vernon’, Mt Benger Mail, 20 September 1916, p. 3 (Papers Past) 

John Key reads letter from Tunnelling Company Sapper MacManus to Sam Vernon’s widow, Anzac Day, Wellington, 2012 (YouTube)

Sergeant Sam Vernon(NZETC)

Roxburgh memorial centre 

The Arras tunnels 

[1] ‘The Late Sergeant Vernon’, Mt Benger Mail, 20 September 1916, p. 3.

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