“Old Bill Upham VC & Bar M.I.D” – The Amberley Warrior

In January of last year whilst en-route in the South Island of New Zealand back to Auckland to meet our grandson who had just been born we travelled through the small town – by UK standards – of Amberley where there is a statue to a man who displayed immense courage during the Second World War

But before I go on I’d like to tell you a story that was related to me on the 25 April 2015 during a visit to Dunedin New Zealand.

During the visit we found ourselves in Dunedin on the day of the Centenary of the New Zealand and Australian (ANZAC) forces landing in Gallipoli where as an ex- serviceman I felt an obligation to attend the ANZAC Day Remembrance service.

I should say that ANZAC Day in 2015 was something special across the whole country and it was very noticeable that as we travelled through every city, town, village and hamlet there was a memorial to the fallen from the particular place and rows of small white crosses nearby which I was told were placed there by local school children.

Anzac Day, on April 25, is the anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli during World War One.

However this is story about someone who served in World War 2.

Let me start by explaining that the photograph is of a separate and special memorial next to the main Dunedin Memorial that celebrates – and yes celebrates is in my view the correct term – those New Zealanders who have been awarded the Victoria Cross. 

For those who don’t know – where have you been – the Victoria Cross is awarded to those who on active service go above and beyond what is expected not only of them but in reality what can be expected of any human being in a combat situation

To put it simply if you are awarded the VC then you are beyond being extraordinary in terms of courage, leadership and determination.

As the simply inscription on the medal states it is awarded For Valour and fewer than 1400 since the first in 1856 have been awarded

So back to the story as told to me.

We were looking at the VC memorial when I was amazed to read the inscription to

Capt C.H. Upham VC & Bar M.I.D

I’ve studied the history Second World War and can’t help wondering how I never read or heard of Capt Upham who for those who perhaps don’t understand the UK/British Military Awards system a – “Bar” – to a medal means you have been awarded it twice.

Anyway while we were discussing how remarkable a man he must be an elderly ex-veteran who I can only describe as looking every bit as you would imagine a New Zealand ex- veteran to look like started talking to us.

He explained that he knew Charles Upham who came from a town called Amberley and everyone knew as “Bill”.

The story he told was that during the late seventies in preparing for the Anzac Day that year a primary school teacher in Amberley set her class the task of researching those whose name were on the town cenotaph.

It was during the children’s research that one of them came across a photograph of someone they thought looked familiar and started asking questions which is where the story takes an important turn.

The photograph was of course Charles Upham.

Except to the children of the town all they knew was that it was a man – a local farmer – who they knew as “Old Bill’ who used to drive into Amberley in his beat up old Land Rover collected his newspaper and sat having a cup of coffee.

“Old Bill’ was simply a part of the farming community, hardy, rugged with a well worn face in fact just what you would expect in a farmer from the tough Canterbury region of New Zealand.

And as we found when we visited he appeared to be a typical New Zealander with a reputation for only speaking when he had something to say which meant that he had returned home with no hullabaloo and just picked up his former pre-war life

What the children found amusing in “Old Bill’ is that once he’d finished his coffee – or pie and a pint – as he walked back to his car he passed the Amberley Memorial at which he always paused – doffed his hat – quietly said “morning boys” and then went on his way

A ritual that the kids found quaint, amusing and didn’t understand

It was to them just the eccentricity of “Old Bill”   

It was only their curiosity at exactly who “Old Bill” was having found his photograph and finding out that here was one of their own who had not only won the Victoria Cross once but twice and even before being awarded the first had been Mentioned In Despatches.

What happened next was a community coming together to erect a statue celebrating a truly courageous man of Amberley.

In 2015 we left Dunedin and as is usually the case in travelling around such a great country I put the story to the back of my mind until that is last year when driving back to Picton to catch the ferry to Wellington we happened to pass through Amberley.

As these things usualły happen it immediately brought the story to mind and we stopped to find the statue of “Old Bill”

Well of course the story as told by the ex-vet in Dunedin two years previously was as apocryphal as the one that Victor Hugo wrote naked in order to avoid procrastinating but as a story it was brilliant and of course based on a true one.

There is a statue Charles Upham VC & Bar M.I.D who was only the third recipient to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice and the only one who was awarded it during his service in WW2

We shouldn’t forget that he was also Mentioned in Dispatches which in itself is an award not easily attained.

However it is true that he received his first VC for courage in the face of the enemy during a 1941 campaign in Crete and his second in 1942 for actions in the Western Desert of North Africa

Oh and incidentally – if there can be anything incidental about such a man – he was captured in 1942 and was such a prolific escapee that the Germans sent him to Colditz

Charles Upham was a hero and contrary to the original story was known, respected, admired and revered throughout New Zealand.

However one thing that is certainly true is that he was a modest hero who saw his achievements as simply being what was expected of him in leading his men.

This is very clearly indicated when on his return to Canterbury he refused to accept the funds raised by the people of Christchurch to buy him a farm and asked instead that the funds be used as a scholarship for the sons of servicemen

It seems a great shame that the statue wasn’t erected until 1997 three years after Charles Upham VC passed away at the grand old age of eighty six

It would have been nice for him to have seen the esteem in which he was held but I suspect he may well have been embarrassed at the fuss.

As for the story I – perhaps idealistically – prefer the Dunedin ex-Veteran version if only because it chimes with what I’d like to think “Old Bill Upham” was like.

And as for my visit to Amberley – yes it sounds soft and soppy – but as we walked back to our car I doffed my hat to Charles Upham

I like to think that the ghost of “Old Bill” continues to pass the Amberley Memorial each morning doffing his hat and saying “Morning boys” and that the “boys” pass the Charles Upham statue and repay the compliment – “Morning Bill – have a good one

Is it strange that my vision of this takes the form of Sam Neill in the film role of Old Bill Upham

So there we have it whatever the real truth, no matter how he is thought of or portrayed I can’t help but admire “Old Bill Upham VC & Bar M.I.D – The Amberley Warrior

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