Harry Espley was born in Lilleshall, Shropshire on 9th May 1888, one of at least eleven children to George Espley and Elizabeth Jane Espley [née Wheeler], his father being a pork butcher by trade.
Harry was the second of four brothers who were educated at Wellington, he himself being there between 1902-07.
In 1908, following the creation of the Territorial Force in April of that year, Harry enlisted with the newly formed Shropshire Yeomany with whom he served until June 1911 when he emigrated to New Zealand.
He left England on the 24th June 1911 aboard the ‘SS Arawa’ bound for Wellington, New Zealand. On arrival he found himself work as a farm hand in Amberley, a town located in the Hurunui District in north Canterbury, on the east coast of the South Island. It is located on State Highway 1, approximately 31 miles north of Christchurch.
Whilst working here on 12th June 1915 Harry enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force [NZEF] and was posted as a private soldier to ‘C’ Company, Canterbury Infantry, 7th Reinforcements. Whilst his military record shows him as being employed as a farm-hand, it also records that he was a ‘solicitor enrolled in England’.
On 9th October 1915 Harry and his fellow soldiers left Wellington, NZ for Suez where they arrived on 18th November. Here they remained for some months on garrison duties, thereby relieving some of the regular British regiments who were deployed to the Western Front.
On 4th February 1916 Harry joined No.13 Company, 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, NZEF at their base at Ismailia, Egypt. They were due to leave for France not long afterwards but were delayed in Cairo for a few weeks, being utilised as guards for Turkish POW’s.
Finally on 6th April 1916, with the exception of some first line transport personnel and their horses, the Battalion embarked on the troopship ‘Franconia’ for France, leaving via Port Said arriving at Marseilles on 11th April and disembarking the following day.
The next stage of their journey to the front involved a tedious and boring 60 to 70 hour train journey to Steenbecque, three miles south-west of Hazebrouck. The terrain and nature of the French countryside all around them was very different to the heat and desert sands of Egypt. On arrival at Steenbecque they then marched to camp at Morbecque remaining under canvass for several days until billets could be found to house the men.
The opening attack of the third phase of the Somme battles took place on 15th September 1916 although the Battalion was not involved in the fighting from the outset, rather they had moved the day before to bivouacs in MAMETZ WOOD from FRICOURT, and were carrying ammunition and stores to the forward dumps. In the afternoon they relocated to CARLTON trench, and then as evening fell, moved further forward towards the enemy to WORCESTER, SEAFORTH and RIFLES trenches, situated as they were between the two roads connecting LONGUEVAL and HIGH WOOD.
The following morning, 16th September 1916, the Battalion was ordered to move forward to the trench lines north-west of FLERS in preparation for their attack on GOOSE ALLEY that afternoon; subsequently cancelled. Instead they spent the afternoon digging a new trench to join up the right flank of the Wellington Battalion to its own right flank in work known as ‘Box and Cox’, to the east of the Flers-Ligny Thilloy road.
Here they remained, in front of FLERS throughout Sunday 17th September being shelled during the afternoon and all through the night, during which time Private Harry Espley, 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, NZEF was killed in action. He was 28 years of age. His body was never found and so is commemorated on the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial, Longueval, France. He is also remembered on the Shropshire Roll of Honour.
Caterpillar valley Cemetery contains 5,569 burials and commemorations of the First World War. Of these 3,796 burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 32 casualties known or believed to be buried among them.
On the eastern side of the cemetery is the Caterpillar Valley [New Zealand] Memorial which commemorates over 1,200 officers and men of the New Zealand Division who died in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, and who have no known grave, among them Harry Espley.
This is one of seven memorials located in France and Belgium to soldiers who came 12,000 miles from New Zealand to die on the Western Front and whose graves are not known. The memorials are all in cemeteries chosen as appropriate to the fighting in which they died.
Harry’s younger brother Alick Espley (OW) served as a private soldier with 7th (Service) Battalion, The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) alongside another OW killed in the war, JW Dovaston. Alick Espley died in Shrewsbury in 1966.
On 6th November 2004, the remains of an unidentified New Zealand soldier were exhumed from Caterpillar Valley Cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] and entrusted to The Realm of New Zealand at a ceremony at the Longueval Memorial, France and, with full military honours, were subsequently laid to rest within the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, at the National War Memorial in Wellington, New Zealand.
On 22nd April 2015 in Amberley, New Zealand, Private Harry Espley, along with 63 of his fellow comrades from the adjoining townships, who made the ultimate sacrifice during the war, were remembered with their names forever to be kept alive in a ‘Field of Remembrance’ outside the Hurunui District Council offices near to the statue of Captain Charles Upham, VC*.
The Canterbury Regiment is perpetuated today in The Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.