William Duncan Heenan’s war was beset by illness. Before he had even set foot in France he had been hospitalised three times. After enlisting in New Zealand on January 24th 1917, he was admitted to a cottage hospital near the camp at Trentham in March, suffering with gastro enteritis. Further hospital treatment was required in late June when he went down with influenza and then, having sailed to Devonport, England, he was admitted to a local field hospital suffering from measles in August.
On October 26, 1917 he departed for the Western Front, arriving at Etaples. In mid November he joined his battalion and was posted to the 10th company. But Dec 22nd that year saw him again admitted to hospital (for an unspecified reason), rejoining his regiment a week later.
The 1st Otago Regiment had been on the Western Front since April 1916 and had achieved a reputation as being among the best of the formations under British Command, fighting in many of the major actions of the war. Its strength had been depleted by its involvement in the Passchendaele Offensive of mid October which, in one day, had resulted in 121 deaths, 236 injuries and 56 men who were missing.
William Duncan was plunged almost immediately into the thick of the war himself.
November 25th saw the 1st Otago Battalion marched to Walker Camp, south-east of Ypres where they underwent training with the Canterbury Regiment in preparation for an attack on Polderhoek Chateau. Operational orders came through on Dec 1: the 10th company of the 1st Otago (the one of which William Duncan was part) would be one of two in the lead.
The plan was for them to attack in two waves, with an interval of 50 yards between each wave. The task of the first wave was capture and clear the enemy’s trenches and block-houses. After a pause of ten minutes in the advance of the barrage, the second wave was to pass through the first wave and clear the Chateau grounds. The assaulting troops were to be dressed in the lightest fighting order.
The whole operation would be covered by a barrage of machine gun fire, by trench mortars and by a discharge of gas.
In his history of the regiment, Lieutenant Arthur Eminett Byrne said that in light of lessons learned from Passchendaele “every precaution was adopted to ensure adequate stretcher-bearing and first-aid arrangements.”
Despite all the preparations he notes that the attack against Polderhoek Chateau was from the outset destined to fall short of its mark. The assault barrage instead of providing cover actually fell upon the attacking troops.
“The losses incurred were at once severe. To move forward was accepted as the quickest method of escaping our own fire, because more appeared to be falling to the rear than to the front. … By the time the barrage began to get more organised casualties, now increased by enemy machine gun fire, were so heavy as to seriously prejudice the success of the attack.
Nevertheless the troops did succeed in reaching the chateau and holding onto it until relieved by other companies. Success came at a cost however. Two officers (including the commander of the 10th company) 43 other ranks killed; 155 men wounded and 26 missing.
Within a week the chateau, gained at such a price, was lost to the opposing forces.
As 1918 dawned, the Otago troops were ordered to move to Noordemdhoek sector, east of Polygoon Wood, near Ypres. The wood was a fiercely contested stretch of woodland south of the village of Zonnebeke which had been cleared by Commonwealth troops at the end of October 1914, given up on 3 May 1915 and taken again at the end of September 1917 by Australian troops.
Conditions were bad.
Mud was everywhere so deep that movement became impossible. Adding to the problem Heavy snow made the conditions infinitely worse, and the lack of shelters was keenly felt. Following upon an almost immediate thaw, the trenches were reduced to a state impossible to describe. There were further heavy falls of snow; Large areas of country became completely inundated; the trenches were either flooded or fell in, and many of the avenues were waist deep in mud.
The health of the troops had suffered. A large number were medically classified as “excused duty,” or “light duty.” A number were also suffering from various stages of trench feet.
The day on which William Duncan died, was not marked by any significant activity. After a short spell in dug outs, the battalion had returned to the line on January 21. The only event of note was that a German raid was attempted but were beaten off before they could get through the wire to reach the trenches. There was one death reported among the Otago regiment. This may have been William Duncan or a member of the 2nd Battalion.
What is known is that he was buried close to where he died, with a short service attended by the Reverend S J Robson. His burial place was marked with a rough stick bearing his name. After the war his body was moved to the Buttes New British Cemetery at Polygon Wood.
William Duncan Heenan’s Family
Private Duncan’s ancestors originated in Ireland and were one of the first settlers in Otago province in New Zealand. His great grandfather Dennis Heenan had left Ireland in 1849, taking his wife Joanna and 11 children on the steamship Mariner. After their arrival in Port Chambers, Otago, he acquired land in the North East Valley, where he established a small scale farm. The family became well respected members of their community.
The children who survived to adult hood made their own homes in Otago province and in Southlands.
William Duncan was born in Tapanui in 1897, the first of four children born to Dennis James Heenan and Edith Dingwall Duncan. Dennis James appears to have been a farmer for whom, at the time he joined the army, his son was working.
Dennis James continued to live in Southlands until his death in September 1938. His wife died in 1963.