Brigadier James Hargest
CBE, DSO & TWO BARS, MC, VD, MP
1891 – 1944
The photo in the foyer of JHC depicts a benign looking Brigadier James Hargest – probably taken in late 1939 when he was preparing to leave for service in the newly begun war with Germany. He would have been 48 years old – a not unusual age for the commander of a brigade.
During 1940 and 1941, British and Commonwealth troops were always on the receiving end of confrontations with the well prepared and technologically well equipped Germans and James Hargest’s Fifth Brigade (6000 men) were heavily involved in the military failures in Green, Crete and Libya. It was a very difficult period but one in which this country and its fighting forces won great honour for their stamina and resilience in what one termed fighting withdrawals and not retreats.
James Hargest was never to return to his Southland farm. After capture in Libya following a fierce early morning gun battle with arguably World War Two’s greatest military commander, Germany’s Erwin Rommel, he was incarcerated in a converted villa for high ranking POW’s. A brilliantly executed escape followed by an equally remarkable journey back to England saw Hargest back in uniform in the role of observer and on 12 August 1944, a freak shell burst instantly killed him as he sat beside his totally unharmed driver in an observer’s Jeep.
James was born in Gore in 1891, the eighth child born to James and Mary, immigrants from Wales who had settled in Eastern Southland in 1879.
After primary schooling, the young James was largely self-educated – a not uncommon situation in the late 19th century. He used to read military manuals while shepherding for the family farm on the Hokonui Hills overlooking the meandering Mataura at Mandeville. Like many young men of the time, he was to become obsessed with the belief that the sun would never set on the British Empire and wanted very much to become associated with its glory and military might. He set his mind on soldiering becoming an active member of New Zealand’s volunteer force known as the Territorials.
When the Great War (1914-1918) began he quickly enlisted and subsequently served in virtually every one of the terrible battles which have become part fixed and poignant reminders of a cruel period in this country’s history – Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres and Messines. The young farmer was brace and a natural leader reaching command level in 1918 of the 2nd Otago Regiment. His exceptional service during the war saw him honoured with the Military Cross (MC), Distinguished Service Medal (DSO) and the French Legion of Honour.
Returning to New Zealand in 1919 with his bride (he had married a New Zealand nurse in 1917 in Christchurch, Hampshire), James took eagerly to establishing his newly purchased farm at Rakahauka just a few kilometres north east of Invercargill where four children were subsequently born.
During those inter war years he was persuaded to stand for Parliament despite an inherent reluctance to enter the world of the politician and in the late Depression year of 1935 he became MP for Awarua and later as the first successful National candidate for Invercargill. He learned to like politics and realised its influences on the general good (as he saw it) of New Zealanders in general and Southland in particular.
Then came World War Two in 1939 and James, (Jim or Jimmy to his friends and colleagues), volunteered becoming commander of the 5th Brigade with the rank of Brigadier General.
He and his troops (which included the 28th Maori Battalion), left Wellington in January 1940 for Egypt but were diverted to England to defend the British homeland from the German invasion.
1941 saw the Brigadier and his 5th Brigade involved in three less than happy campaigns in Greece, Crete and Libya (in this year the Germans were triumphant in every campaign that they undertook).
On 29 November, 1941, the Brigadier was captured along with all his staff at a place called Sidi Aziz in the Eastern Libyan desert of North Africa. It was as he says in his book, Farewell Campo 12, the lowest point in his life. Handed over to the Italians by General Rommel’s rampaging Afrika Korps, he found himself, along with several British Officers of equal rank, incarcerated in a 19th century castellated villa overlooking the glorious jewel of Tuscany – the City of Florence. It was heaven compared to the concentration camps that housed the ordinary soldier yet Hargest and his companions couldn’t wait to escape. And escape four of them did, but only the Brigadier from Southland managed a home run reaching England in December 1942.
Despite gentle persuasions from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, in London that he withdraw to a desk for the remainder of the war (now going the Allied way) Hargest would have none of it. On 12 August 1944 the end came with unexpected suddenness as he sat observing a distant action in the hedgerows of Normandy in Northern France. The Normandy flag bears a red background and two gold lions. He lies with fellow soldiers in the little churchyard of Roncamp. He is buried near Bayeux of the famed Bayeux tapestry.
On 11 February 1958 James Hargest Memorial High School was opened as a living tribute to this exceptional Southlander who always valued young lives first and foremost. “Keep Faith” is the message of the historical depiction of the Bayeux tapestry near which he is buried and also the school’s motto. Our school uniform is the maroon red of the Bayeux region and the single gold lion adorns our coat of arms along with the “fleur de lis”, an honour bestowed upon Hargest by the French.