1914 - 2014, 100 Years since WW1 began
JOHN A. LEE
A Man of Many Parts
John A. Lee took so many roles during his lifetime - Swagger, Soldier, Writer, Politician - that seldom is he recalled as a Justice of the Peace. While his active service at the front during World War One might also have been forgotten, those who subsequently met, or saw him, noticed that he lived with an obvious and debilitating reminder of his soldiering - the loss of his left arm.
John Alfred Alexander Lee was born in Dunedin in July 1891 and had a hard early childhood, exacerbated when he was frequently truant from school which he left altogether aged 14 to work first in a bootshop, then at a printer’s. The teenager was involved in crime and was sentenced to detention from which he repeatedly attempted, or effected, escape. He was later an itinerant worker on farms, taking to the road as a swagman. Changing his name to Alexander Leigh he worked in the central North Island where he was twice arrested and imprisoned for 12 months in Mt Eden Jail. It’s thought that while incarcerated he heard Socialist orators who made a lasting impression.
Off to War
In March 1916 at age 26 Lee enlisted for service in the First World War, the name on his papers John Alexander Lee, his occupation given as Barman. He was drafted to the 1st Wellington Infantry Regiment with the registered number 16560 and left for overseas from Wellington in July 1916.
But it may be for only a while.
But if fight here we must
Then in God is our trust.
So, send me away with a smile.
- WW1 song “Send Me Away With A Smile”
Distinguished Conduct Medal
He served in France with distinction… in two ways. He discovered himself finding that he was articulate, quick-witted, clever and able to write and he used these qualities to spread the Socialist viewpoint, earning the nick-name “Bolshie Lee”. He also displayed bravado while in conflict. In 1917 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, alone, he captured an enemy machine-gun post at Fanny’s Farm near Messines. The recommendation 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 prisoners”.
Within the year, in April 1918, Lee was still in France, on duty at Mailly Maillet, working in mud and slush. The Wellington Regiment’s History records that the Battalion was coping in trenches difficult to walk through, cleaning up these trenches and digging a new support line. On the 9th of April, the enemy was very inactive and casualties were but slight. It was during this relatively quiet time, on 12th of April, that Private Lee was injured by a shell which shattered his left arm.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
-W.W.1 song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier”
He was evacuated, his arm amputated and he spent months recovering in various hospitals in England. Lee was discharged due to his wounds in August 1919.
Repatriated: New Career
Once back in New Zealand he married long-time girlfriend Marie (Mollie) Guy, settling in Auckland where he opened a small soap-making business, promoted the interests of returned soldiers and joined the Labour Party.
Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here
-Labour movement song
His persistence to enter Parliament paid off when he was first elected in 1922. With some breaks (defeated at the ballot box and ill-health) he was an MP through the depression of the 1930s espousing his theory that a colonial economy must be replaced by cultural nationalism leading to economic independence. Labour became Government in 1935. Lee showed political dynamism but was not admitted to Cabinet: he was later appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary. He still didn’t make Cabinet in Labour’s second term but he was made responsible for housing. He revelled in the task and in 3 years saw 3,500 new houses built.
Triumph on hearing of the completion of more houses in the early 1940s
His writing in the 1930s soon earned critical acclaim, novels based on earlier experiences (“The Hunted”, “Civilian into Soldier”) and reflecting the depression (“Children of the Poor”), while other works championed socialist causes.
Lee also wrote about parts of the Labour Party’s policies and manifesto that he was against, making a case against Prime Minister, Michael Savage, whom he cuttingly attacked in a published essay. This led to Lee being expelled from the party, just 2 days before Savage died of cancer. Ousted, Lee formed a new political party whose members, on the Democratic Soldier Labour Party ticket, contested the 1943 election. Most were unsuccessful and Lee lost his seat of Grey Lynn. His “Shining with the Shiner” appeared in 1944.
It was the end of politics. Lee turned to his pen, writing needling and “revealing” articles of indictment against the Labour Party, labelling it despotic, hostile to democratic process, a victim of greedy unionism and corrupt politicians. In 1950 he took over a book shop, Vital Books, which prospered as an outlet for specialist, educational and text books. In the 1960s he took up his pen again, this time to write recollections, like “Delinquent Days, “Simple on a Soapbox”, and in 1970s he published his diaries and recollections. “For Mine is the Kingdom” was a tee-totaller’s outrageous account of the life and times of brewer and hotelier Sir Ernest Davis. “Roughnecks, Rolling Stones & Rouseabouts, With an Anthology of Early Swagger Literature” followed in 1977.
John A. Lee, DCM, J.P., was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Otago in 1969. He died at Auckland on 13th of June 1982, aged 92, his wife Mollie having predeceased him in 1976. He is remembered in the heart of his old parliamentary electorate, Point Chevalier. John A. Lee Corner on the north-west quadrant of the busy intersection of Point Chevalier and Great North Roads is named in his memory. It's location neatly ties his local parliamentary career and his literary achievements given that “his” corner is opposite the local public library.
We are Remembering Them:
+ John Alfred Alexander Lee, J.P, Service number 16560
+ Enlisted at the age of 25 as a private in the 1st Wellington Infantry Regiment
+ 1916 Embarked on active service in July
+ 1917 Awarded Distinguished Conduct Medal
+ 1918 Seriously injured at the front in France, evacuated to England
+ 1919 Discharged from duty, returned to New Zealand
+ 1921 Entered politics
+1943 Defeated at the polls
+ 1982 Died Auckland aged 92
London Gazette 14 Aug 1917
Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
The History of the Wellington Regiment
New Zealand Defence website