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Going ‘over the top’ at Messines by John A. Lee

On 7th June 1917, New Zealand Labour politician and author John A. Lee was a 25 year old, serving with the 9th (Hawke's Bay) Company of the 1st Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment on the Western Front.

Some 50 years after the war, in 1968 he made this recording, still vividly recalling the experience of ‘going over the top’ behind the thundering Allied artillery barrage, which he calls “the greatest curtain of Hell in all history.”

Year:1917 (Recorded 1968)

Location:Messines, Belgium

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Going ‘over the top’ at Messines by John A. Lee

On 7th June 1917, New Zealand Labour politician and author John A. Lee was a 25 year old, serving with the 9th (Hawke's Bay) Company of the 1st Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment on the Western Front.

Some 50 years after the war, in 1968 he made this recording, still vividly recalling the experience of ‘going over the top’ behind the thundering Allied artillery barrage, which he calls “the greatest curtain of Hell in all history.”


Year: 1917 (Recorded 1968)

Length: 09:21

Source: Radio New Zealand Collection Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision

Catalogue Reference: 246836 [John A. Lee recalls the Battle of Messines]


People: John A. Lee

Location: Messines, Belgium


Image Title: E01291 View of the ruins of Messines, in Belgium. 20 November 1917

Image Source: Australian War Memorial - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E01291/


lthough he doesn’t mention it here, John A. Lee was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions that day at Messines, for capturing a German machine-gun post. The citation reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During our offensive, he showed great dash and coolness in attacking and capturing a machine-gun with its team. Later, when the advance was held up by an enemy post, he skilfully rushed it with two of his comrades, capturing two machine-guns and forty men."

The following year in France, he was wounded in the left arm and had it amputated, before being repatriated to New Zealand where he became active in the Returned Soldiers’ Association (R.S.A.) and the fledgling Labour Party. He was elected to Parliament in 1922 and enjoyed a long and colourful political career.  He campaigned on social issues, particularly poverty which he had experienced first-hand, growing up in a single parent home in Dunedin and spending time in borstal and prison for theft.  During the Depression he wrote his first novel “Children of the Poor” (1934) which was a best-seller. Later, as Minister for Housing in the first Labour government of 1935, he was involved in the start of wide-spread construction of state housing in New Zealand.