Above: The only photograph known to exist of Trooper Walter Eric Tomkins M.M. during his War service. The photograph and 1918 letter was sent recently to the NZMRA by his great grand-niece, Diane Thompson, August 2011.
Trooper Tomkins became one of only 16 recipients of the Military Medal awarded to the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment in World War One. The intriguing events that led a Regimental Cook to become involved in a daring raid to successfully derail Turkish Trains behind enemy lines is a story in itself. That a Cook was the direct instrument in bringing the important Hadjaz Railway to a stand still and prevent supplies and men reaching Amman to help defend the city from the "Chaytor Force" attack the next day is a piece of New Zealand history that should not be forgotten. Walter Tomkins efforts probably saved many lives.
Recently the Association received a letter from Diane Thompson from Cairns, Australia. Diane like many of us is researching family history and had discovered a letter sent by her great grand uncle to her great grand parents at the close of WW1. She has discovered that great grand uncle Walter Tomkins married Constance Isobella Finn in 1920, and that he later died in 1941 and is buried in Christchurch, and that his Death Certificate showed he had no children. She had been unable to find other information, except for the incredible content within the letter sent by Walter to his sister over ninety years ago.
Below is a transcription of that letter of November 1918:
[Envelope written: O.A.S. (On Active Service) – Field Post Office N.Z. – 18th November 1918]
R. H. Tompkins
25 Yarleton St.
Dear Olive & Harry
Just a few lines to let you know I am all right and hope you are all well at home, well at last the War is over and a good job Turkey got well smashed. I was well into it it, I never missed a fight since I joined the Brigade just on 3 years now and came out of it without a scratch.
I suppose you heard I got Decorated in the Field. I won the Military Medal, I suppose Mother will be excited over it when she gets the cable. I got Mentioned before in blowing up the Turkish Railway, and this time I went through the Turkish Lines, got round all these posts and got to the Railway and took three rails out of the line, and then a Train came through and what a smash.
My mates never expected to see me again, but I got back at daylight and they gave me great cheers and I was just as pleased because I never stopped riding for 13 hours. The General let me have 6 hours spell, and I had it, and then I caught up to them again just as they were getting ready to go into action, and went in.
The sights were terrible and the plains done great work and so did the Mounted Troops, we broke the lines and galloped through and got round at there [sic] back and we had them well settled.
We lost a lot of boys after the fight with sickness, but the sickness seems to be stopped now and a good job.
Well Olive there is no more news just now so I hope to be back by Easter now the War is over. No more just now.
From your loving Brother
Love to all.
As is with military tradition Official Histories carry very little information on individual troopers, and "The Story of Two Campaigns - Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1918" is no exception. The event that Trooper Tomkins refers to is not immediately apparent. However the awarding of a decoration of such importance as the Military Medal (M.M.) is an event to record in the Regiments history, and on page 264 "honours and Awards." among the 16 recipients of the Military Medal is the entry: 24941 Tomkins, W.E., Tpr., M.M. Alas no citation, but by taking the content of Walter's letter of where he states that he comes out from a railway behind enemy lines, rests then immediately joins the Brigades attack next day, I suspect this could be the attack on Amman - Indeed it is. "The Story of Two Campaigns" covers the event below:
"...That evening, a selected party of 100 men with picked horses was ordered to ride across country to the Hedjaz railway south of Amman and damage the line as much as they could with the few tools available. Each’ squadron supplied 33 men and an officer, and the whole was under the command of Major Herrold. All saddles were stripped, and all that was carried beyond arms and ammunition was two picks, two shovels, and four spanners. Before darkness fell, the party started on their hazardous enterprise, striking due east. No one had any knowledge of the 10 or 12 miles of trackless country lying between Suweileh and the railway.
The party was divided into three sections, one to work on the line and the other two to cover them on either flank, and then it pushed forward into the night, a small advance guard feeling the way. Soon the little column was picking its doubtful way through a jumbled mass of rocky spurs and deep ravines. The iron shod hoofs striking the rocks seemed to make an appalling noise, but luckily there was no one to hear.
Finally a track was struck, and as it ran due east it was followed for a mile or two, but with great caution, as it showed signs of recent traffic. Soon sounds of men were heard, and the advance guard, going forward on foot, found a party of Turks digging a trench. The essential thing being to remain unseen, the party turned back and took a track of sorts which ran up a gully on the left. Up this the column moved in single file. The moon had now risen, and while its light aided progress it increased the chance of detection. The luck held, however. From the head of the gully, the party moved on through broken country, passed sleeping Bedouin camps, and finally reached the top of a ridge which over-looked the railway. The men dismounted in a gully, and two officers went forward to reconnoitre. They found that the road running parallel to the line on the far side was filled with Turkish transport, and it seemed too good to hope that a demolition party could escape detection. But the job had to be attempted. They returned to the party, and moved it forward to a depression
within 400 yards of the line. Here the men got into position to cover the working party. The latter crept forward, two officers and six men going first with spanners, and then a few men with the picks and shovels.
The spanner men, lying as flat as they, could, had only started their task when an engine with an armoured truck full of soldiers came down the line. The workers crawled behind a couple of rocks a few yards from the line and waited. The Turks in the truck were making a great row, and did not notice the prone figures as the train moved slowly past and round a bend beyond. The working party then crawled silently back to the line, and were none the happier when they observed, a matter of 50 yards away, the figure of a man on the ground with a pack horse standing alongside. This individual neither heard nor saw anything, however. Again the work was interrupted, this time by a mounted patrol. One of the horsemen stopped only a chain away, but he did not see the figures on the ground. Eventually all the bolts were removed except one, and then the picks and shovels had to be used to finish the job. Both rails were twisted in such a way as to make them useless, and left in their original positions. The party then crept back to the horses, and the raiders secretly wended their way back, reaching Suweileh soon after dawn. That morning a train was wrecked at the gap made in the line. For his leadership of this daring and highly successful raid, Major Herrold received the D.S.O."
Far from making the actions of Regimental Cook Trooper Walter Tomkins' involvement clear, the report clearly describes an operation as a complicated bit of field work involving over 100 men - and not 100 Military Medals were handed out this night.
So why take the Cook? and we can see by Walter's History Sheet. that Cook indeed was what he was, and he was not a young man either. Born in 1885, this made him 33 years old at the time of this attack.
Walter's History Sheet shows he entered the Army in 1916 as a member of the 13th intake of the Reinforcements and while in Egypt is employed as a cook. A number of entries show him attending various cooking classes at the School of Cookery, Ismalia, Egypt.
It is noted too that after the raid he is back cooking for the Regiment in 1919 with the rank of Sergeant.
Below the WAR DIARY for the AMR
Auckland Mounted Rifles WAR DIARY – excerpts from Diary: 35/2/40 – September 1918
Original file held at AWM Canberra.
Ref to: Trooper Tompkins and rail attack.
SUWEILEH 24/9/18 The Regt. stood to at 0500. At 0830 the Regt. Moved out via ES SALT-AMMAN Road and at 1200 occupied the Circassian village of SUWEILEH without opposition, 7 Turk P of W captured at SUWEILEH. At 1800 a demolition party of 3 Officers and 100 O/Rs under the command of Major J.H. Herrold was sent out to cut the HEDJAH Railway line EAST of AMMAN. This party succeeded in removing a complete set of Rails in SQ.142.V.36.c., and returned to SUWEILEH at 0530. The following Officer was evacuated to Hospital:- 2/Lieut J.T. Hatten.
(later in the WAR DIARY the Adjutant, Captain W.W. Averill reports:-)
AMMAN 28/9/18 The Regiment remained in bivouac. The following were recommended for immediate reward for operation from 21/9/18 to 25/9/18. Inclusive:- Capt. A.C. Finlayson, Major J.H. Herrold. 2/Lt H.A. Collins, 13/446 Cpl (T/Sgt) Sweetman K.P.S., 13/904 Cpl Foote E., 13/164 L/Cpl (T/Cpl) Buckland A.F., 24941 Tpr. Tompkins W.E.
The following Officer was evacuated to Hospital (from Detach B.H.Q.) Major H.C. Hemphill
AMMAN 29/9/18 At 1000 a patrol of 1 Officer & 4 O/Rs was sent NORTH up the Railway to report on the effect of the demolition. They returned at 1400 and reported four trucks derailed. At 1530 the Regiment moved out as advance guard to the Brigade and marched to KISSAR Station. 142.J.13.a. At 1800 the 11th Sqdn, were sent out and formed an outpost line surrounding the Station to the SOUTH. The remainder of the Regt. Bivouacked just SOUTH of the Station.
Ref Map 1:63:360
At last we see Walter Tomkins' name in the official action, and recognition of his bravery in the field is recorded. But it appears the heroic acts of a mere Trooper are difficult to obtain.
One year later however the London Gazette recognises the ability and command of Major John Herrold who was awarded the D.S.O. for his leadership of the 24th and 25th September 1918, but alas no mention of the intrepid cook.
But there is a definite hint in the History Sheet of Walter Eric Tomkins' ability that at first reading was missed by myself during my initial research. It was not what Walter did in the Army, but what the man did in civilian life that makes sense of why he was so indispensable to this raid and others, and why the raid was a success.
Below the title page:
Before entering service Walter Tomkins was a "Plate Layer" with the New Zealand Railways. He was the perfect choice to destroy a Railway Track, after all a worker skilled in maintaining and laying track would be ideal to destroy a railway track.
It is obvious that Walter was one of the four men that went forward to destroy the track - it has to be - although I will continue to look out his citation (any help in this would be appreciated).
Walter was originally from Bairnsdale, Victoria in Australia and was one of the many Australians that served with the NZMR - just as there were many New Zealanders who served with the A.L.H.
A platelayer or trackman is a railway employee whose job is to inspect and maintain the permanent way of a railway installation. The term derives from the plates used to build plateways, an early form of railway.
Walter Eric TOMKINS
/Mother: Mary HAYWARD
Birth Place: BAIR
Death Place: Christchurch
Christchurch City Council Cemeteries Database
Date of death: Saturday, 22 November 1941
Cemetery: Bromley Cemetery
Date of burial: Monday, 24 November 1941
Block number: 16
Plot number: 239
Age: 54 years
Address: 105 Beckford Road, ChCh
Occupation: Rail Employee
Place of birth: Victoria, Australia
Years in New Zealand: 35
Walter postwar as a Masonic Lodge Member
Tomkins; Walter Eric, s/n 24941 Tpr. AMR Lodge Orepuki No. 137 NZC M.M.