Armistice Day, 100 years ago Nov. 11: They met in a park in London; that was the story. My grandfather had recently been on the front. My grandmother a young woman living in London with her family and going to college, studying botany. When passing her sitting on a bench in the park he said to her, “Little girl, it looks like you’ve scuffed your shoes.”
It was a simple romantic story—a story about how they met and fell in love, then came to the U.S. separately. He returned to New Zealand at the end of the war to get a piece of land, sell it and return to England to marry her.
On his way back around the world, he was robbed in San Francisco. So that was the story about how they arrived in SF—how my grandmother joined him traveling across the ocean, and the country by train.
But the story about how he arrived in London was never told. That part that impacted his life, the lives of his children and the life of his wife, magically opened to me while driving in New Zealand along the black asphalt highway through rolling hills of bright green grass and sheep and tall dark green trees and waterfalls.
We were on the South Island, where he grew up. When he was born here in 1894, there were even fewer people and maybe more sheep. His mother had come from Scotland as a 14-year-old.
William Leslie (my namesake) Miles, Anzac. I knew nothing about the recent releasing of all war
records for the Great War, the First World War, the war that was to end all wars, of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Then I discovered ANZACS.
There it was, 45 pages of scanned history, stretching from his induction in the Veterinary Corps in 1914 to his release in 1918. I had heard a bit about racing ostriches in Egypt and his
love for horses; he sang and cracked bawdy jokes and could recite hundreds of poems by heart. I didn’t know when I was little, that he didn’t sleep in the same room as my grandmother because he was afraid of waking in a state and killing her with his bare hands. My father just told me that.
His induction was legible: Dunedin, 20-10-1914, born in Balclutha, worked as a farmhand. He
refused to list anyone as a next of kin. He was 20, among the 10 percent of the entire population of New Zealand that went to war.
He did serve for a bit in Egypt. The NZ Expeditionary force, vet corps, was known for horses that were the best stock and also the best cared for. He could ride anything.
He didn’t mention ever, to anyone, that his next post was Somme, France. Or that on the first day, 40,000 soldiers were killed. Or that he was there for 18 months and all of his beloved horses were killed. Or that halfway through that 18 months he was sent to London for shell shock and then was sent back in a month to the front. Or that he later went to Verdun, where he was gassed, or was it that he got tuberculosis? Tuberculosis was the next entry in the log of hospitals. Then back to the front, finally to return to London with tuberculosis and again to the hospital.
So that was the missing part of the romantic story of how my grandparents met in a park in
London. And it was not the war to end all wars…
Lesley Miles is a Morgan Hill resident and co-owner of Weston Miles Architects in the Granary District in downtown Morgan Hill.