Baroness Sal Brinton writes…How Gallipoli marked one young life forever

2nd Lt "Mary" Coningham of 32 Squadron, The Somme, 1917Today marks one hundred years since Gallipoli and my brother and I will be at the Cenotaph to mark this special ANZAC day, as my grandfather, Arthur Coningham, a very young New Zealander, was there and survived. We never knew him because he died in an air accident in the Bermuda Triangle in 1948 but we know from family that his experience in the Dardenelles affected him greatly.

Arthur Coningham later went on to join the embryonic Royal Flying Corps (where he was known as Mary, thought to be a distortion of Maori), and became a fighter pilot. However, he nearly didn’t make it because of his early experiences as an ANZAC.

He was born in Australia in 1895, and after his parents’ notorious behaviour in a celebrated court case they moved to New Zealand where he grew up. His parents subsequently divorced, especially outrageous in the early 20th Century, and the whole family really suffered, with all the children being bullied and humiliated. His mother was a hairdresser, doing her best to keep herself and her three children. He went to Wellington College on a Junior Free Place, where he excelled at sports, but wasn’t at all academic. When he left, he went to work on a sheep farm as he had no idea of what he might do.

On the announcement of the outbreak of war, he hurried home to enlist in the 5th Wellington Regiment on 10 August, and saw action at Samoa on 29 August 2014. Not surprisingly he contracted a number of tropical diseases which plagued him for the rest of his life.

In April 2015 he volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and set sail for Suez.  He arrived at Anzac Cove early in June.  The strong heat, lack of water, and lack of basic hygiene meant that he caught dysentery, typhoid and sunstroke. He survived Gallipoli only because his health totally collapsed, and he was taken from Anzac Cove to a hospital ship, and home.  His medical report of the time thought he would never be fit for service again, either active or even at home, and he was invalided out.

He, on the other hand, had other ideas. He saw too many of his boyhood friends die and he wanted to be able to make a further contribution to the war. As soon as he felt strong enough, he made his own way to England, and applied to join the Royal Flying Corps, demonstrating a determination that marked the rest of his life.

His RFC and RAF story is not for today. But we do know that in November 1917 he wrote back to his school:

 I am prouder of being spared to keep up the reputation of the College and of New Zealand than of anything else. It is a treat to have one’s efforts recognised, but at the same time very saddening to think of all the other real top-notchers not so fortunate.”  In those formal words of the day is hidden real sadness of the loss of life that he saw.

Arthur Coningham school photoWe don’t have any photos of him in his Anzac uniform, but there is one of him in his final days at school (above) and also one of him (top of page)as a new RFC pilot. His experiences between those short years affected him for the rest of his days.

* Baroness Sal Brinton is President of the Liberal Democrats. She is a working Lib Dem peer, and was the candidate for Watford at the 2010 and 2005 General Elections.

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  • The things that our grandparents or great grandparents experienced during the Great War still have consequences that ripple down through the generations. One of my partners grandfather’s contracted an unidentified disease in Mesopotamia which meant that he was in ill health for the rest of his life; the other lied about his age and at 15 was part of an Ambulance Brigade picking up body parts on the Western Front. Their experiences profoundly affected their lives and subsequent behaviour and therefore the lives of her parents in different ways when they were growing up. In turn, the ways that her parents had been brought up obviously affected her own life. My grandfathers were fortunate not to see active service in the Great War although they both served. Even so I believe that I can trace my own lack of confidence to their subsequent absence for much of the young lives of both my mother and my father.

  • My grandfather was wounded on the beach at Gallipoli while landing troops. He was invalided out of the Navy in 1916. The bullet remained in his leg for the rest of his life. He worked as a bus driver on his return to civilian life.
    I remember him telling me such was the slaughter the sea turned from blue to red.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Apr '15 - 11:07am

    A moving article. We need to have more respect for soldiers. The sense of duty that can come on people to sign up to fight during war in order to protect their family and friends can be a powerful one.

    I have a saying where I say that soldiers in a just war are “more than innocent”, because they are the brave ones doing the fighting. I don’t think that modern culture appreciates this.

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