New Zealand Law Society - Samuel Arnold Atkinson, 1874 - 1917

Samuel Arnold Atkinson, 1874 - 1917

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Samuel Arnold Atkinson was killed in action in Belgium on 5 June 1917. He was aged 42. He is buried at La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery, Hinaut, Belgium.

Arnold (as he was known) was born at Nelson on 9 July 1874. His parents were Annie and Sir Harry Albert Atkinson. His father was Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1876-77, 1883-84 and 1887-91. He died in 1892 when Arnold was aged 17. Sir Harry and Lady Annie had three children.

Arnold attended Nelson Boys' College before completing his schooling at Wanganui Collegiate. He represented Collegiate in cricket and did well academically, passing the Education Board Scholarship and the Junior Scholarship examination. He went to Christchurch where he studied for a BA, completing his degree in November 1896. After taking his final degree examinations in 1896 he travelled to Europe, returning to New Zealand via South Africa in 1897. He remained at university and began studying law. The Canterbury College Review includes an account of his visit to England.

While he was studying law, Atkinson worked for Bell, Gully, Bell and Myers in Wellington. He completed his LLB in February 1901 and on 12 March 1901 he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court by Justice Edwards. Atkinson left Bell Gully shortly after his admission, setting up in practice with TF Martin. As Martin and Atkinson, the pair were to be associated in legal practice over the next decade, initially from the Kelburne Tramway Buildings at 55 Lambton Quay and then from 162 Featherston Street.

Over the next 15 years Atkinson managed a busy legal practice and was prominent in community affairs. He appeared many times in the Magistrates' and Supreme Courts, often as a junior to prominent King's Counsel such as Sir Charles Skerrett and Martin Chapman. 

Atkinson married Mary Herrick Hursthouse at Motueka on 13 April 1903. The couple were to have six children. As the son of a former Prime Minister, Atkinson was well-known in Wellington society and attended many dinner parties and gatherings at Government House. He was a keen hockey player and was an office holder in the Wellington Hockey Association.

An ardent supporter of the British Empire, Atkinson came to play a leading role in a number of national organisations. He was secretary and agent in New Zealand for the publication Round Table: A Quarterly Review of the Politics of the British Empire. This was the journal of a movement which was established in 1910 to promote a closer union between Great Britain and its self-governing colonies. Atkinson was a tireless promoter of the journal, selling it from his offices. New Zealand circulation per capita was the best in the Empire, and much of this was due to Atkinson's efforts.

It was as a supporter and promoter of compulsory military training that Atkinson became best-known. He helped organise, attended and spoke at numerous meetings from 1909 onwards in support of the conscription of young men. This included attendance at anti-conscription meetings. Atkinson successfully hijacked an Anti-Militarist Conference in Wellington on 11 November 1911 when he moved an amendment to the conference resolution against compulsory military training "which favoured the compulsory principle". His amendment was carried with a large majority. He was an office holder in organisations such as the Universal Military Training League, the Navy League, and the National Defence League.

Atkinson was an energetic secretary of the State Schools Defence League, which had the objective of ensuring New Zealand's schools continued to offer secular education. He was part of a deputation of concerned citizens who met the Premier in August 1904 to oppose the introduction of religious textbooks into schools as recommended by the Bible in Schools Conference.

As one who supported military training, Atkinson was closely involved in the territorial forces. He was one of the first members of the Victoria College Rifles and became a Lieutenant in the territorial Officers' Training Corps in 1910. He resigned his commission in the Wellington Rifles on 10 January 1912. With the outbreak of war in August 1914 he became increasingly vocal in his support for the conscription of as many soldiers as possible. As secretary of the War League, he actively lobbied and called for New Zealand to redouble its recruiting efforts.

In a July 1915 letter widely published by New Zealand newspapers, Atkinson noted that "to do her share on a population basis" and to match Britain, New Zealand should have 75,000 men under arms. "She has 25,000 only. At the same time (including these) the men not required to produce and export our primary products number at least 75,000. So that apart from any question of what is her fair share New Zealand can spare another 50,000 at once," he argued. He ended his letter with a call to action: "But for God's sake, citizens of New Zealand, sweep aside the present tangle and insist that New Zealand shall press on to send forward in the next six months at least 50,000 men."

A few days later Atkinson was one of a deputation which met the Minister of Defence to urge that New Zealand did its share to help the Empire. In December 1915, as a member of another deputation - this time to the Prime Minister - Atkinson noted that married men would be called upon to serve, but that the rate of pay they would receive was "quite inadequate".

A month later Atkinson followed his words with action. Newspapers around the country carried the news that "Mr SA Atkinson, solicitor, of Wellington, has resigned his position as secretary of the Wellington War League, to go on active service." Atkinson had prepared the way with a letter to the defence forces on 4 December 1915, asking for an early call-up: "Dear Sir, From what I can learn the two law societies are likely to give me leave of absence and probably let me go on short notice, please therefore have me called at first opportunity." The authorities replied with a telegram on 7 December, appointing him as a Lieutenant on probation with the Infantry 14th Reinforcements and telling him to report to Trentham Camp on 10 January 1916.

After training at Featherston Atkinson embarked from Wellington on 26 June 1916, disembarking at Devonport in England on 22 August 1916. He was posted to the Wellington Company at Sling Camp and then to B Company on 4 September 1916. He continued his efforts to obtain more New Zealand soldiers while he was in Sling, cabling the Dominion newspaper on 9 October with an appeal: "...we send only one soldier to every two sent by Britain, we pay nothing to the general expenses of the war, and thus, despite the sacrifices we have made, we lean on our British relatives and friends for much over half of our defence. Their politeness and our distance away conceal this most painful position." The Dominion used the cable as the focus of an editorial which ended: "We have done a great deal, but we can and should do more. We can begin by sending more men." This did not please the Acting Premier, who responded by saying that Atkinson really did not understand the situation in the slightest degree: "He is a splendid enthusiast, but he does not realise the true position."

No action appears to have been taken against Atkinson. He went to France on 24 November 1916. Shortly afterwards, on 11 December, he was admitted to the Liverpool Merchants Hospital suffering from influenza. He was discharged on 3 January 1917 and posted to D Company, 2nd Battalion in the field on 20 January 1917. He was sent for training to the divisional school from 8 to 22 February, when he rejoined his unit with the acting rank of Captain.

On 5 June 1917 Captain Atkinson was killed in action. It was reported that he died of wounds received "while bravely rushing to the rescue of a brother officer" during the taking of Messines Ridge. Later reports that he had died some time after being wounded were discounted when his sister in London cabled that he had gone to help an officer, who was apparently wounded, was shot, and "died gloriously, instantly". 

The official history of the Brigade later stated that a mid-afternoon scouting raid by a 2nd Battalion party under command of Lieutenant Manning returned with three men missing. Manning returned to find the men and then "being out of breath from the exertion of his double journey, dropped into a shell-hole for a momentary rest on his way back." The history states that Captain Atkinson "commanding the company that had supplied the raiding-party, thought that Lieut Manning must have been wounded, and he immediately rushed out to his assistance; but before reaching his officer, Capt Atkinson was killed by an enemy sniper." 

The death of the man who had been so prominent in his calls to action resulted in a large number of tributes in New Zealand. An article by "One of his Company" said he was loved by every man in the company: "Even in the training days, he always, set the pace; never expecting a man to do what he would not do himself. Part of our training at Featherston sometimes was two hours digging afternoons. The first man in the hole was our lieutenant in his shirtsleeves; no man worked harder. I have seen him tie his blisters up with his handkerchief and go right at it again until the whistle sounded."

Wellington's Mayor, JP Luke CMG, said he felt he had to single out Captain Atkinson from among other gallant soldiers: "The late officer, so far as Wellington was concerned, was as great a force as any Mayor or city councillor throughout the Dominion. In his association with the War League there was no stronger or more enthusiastic man than he, nor any man that saw with greater clearness the need for prosecuting the war."

Atkinson himself had a final posthumous address to the people of New Zealand. On 18 June newspapers reproduced a cable which he had sent "on the eve of the great advance on Messines": "There are a hundred good reasons why New Zealand has not yet done more, but if we mean to keep our freedom and self-respect we must overcome each of these reasons which, obviously, are useless for defeating the enemy. You don't realise that putting men and guns here is the sole privilege and duty of mankind at present. For that action New Zealand as a whole has no moral support whatever, for the number of her men in the field is in striking and pathetic contrast to France and Britain. Please don't think I am not fully alive to my own shortcomings and to the privilege of being here and to your difficulties. Come on!" 

Members of the disbanded Defence League met on 23 July and decided to revive the organisation to honour Atkinson's memory and to help carry out the spirit of his last message. 

On 17 January 1918 the New Zealand University Senate met to consider a letter from the Round Table Office in Wellington, offering to endow a university prize. It was proposed to remember the efforts of Arnold Atkinson by giving a prize for promotion of Imperial studies. The Arnold Atkinson Memorial Prize is now offered by Victoria University of Wellington. It is awarded to the undergraduate student who, in the year of the award, has completed an essay on an aspect of British or European history, or the history of former British colonies, and who is judged to be the best student of the year and most worthy of the award. 

Sources: Wanganui Herald, 3 July 1889, page 2; Wanganui Chronicle, 6 November 1891, page 2; Wanganui Chronicle, 3 February 1893, page 2; Press, 2 November 1893, page 5; Evening Post, 8 March 1895, page 2; Star, 24 April 1896, page 4; Star, 26 May 1897, page 4; Star, 19 October 1897, page 3; Press, 8 March 1900, page 2; Press, 17 December 1900, page 7; Evening Post, 1901, page 4; Evening Post, 22 July 1901, page 1; Evening Post, 18 March 1902, page 4; Evening Post, 26 August 1904, page 5; Evening Post, 19 April 1905, page 4; Evening Post, 19 December 1908, page 7; Evening Post, 6 March 1909, page 14; Press, 21 October 1911, page 7; Manawatu Standard, 16 July 1915, page 3; Dominion, 22 July 1915, page 6; New Zealand Herald, 7 December 1915, page 9; Press, 15 January 1916, page 10; Dominion, 9 October 1916, page 6; Auckland Star, 10 October 1916, page 4; Evening Post, 14 June 1917, page 8; Evening Post, 15 June 1917, page 8; Nelson Evening Mail, 18 June 1917, page 4; Dominion, 23 July 1917, page 4; The Spike, June 1917; New Zealand Herald, 27 July 1917, page 4; Evening Post, 19 January 1918, page 6; WS Austin, The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (LT Watkins Ltd, 1924, Wellington), page 188.

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This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.

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