TODAY |

Yorkshire teen visits grave of Kiwi WWI soldier, now he's on a mission to find the man's family

Who was Gunner Michael Sullivan? That’s the question plaguing a family in Yorkshire, England, 100 years after the Kiwi soldier died on the Western Front during World War I.

They say they owe him a lot.

Jan and William Hutchinson
Jan and William Hutchinson are looking for descendents of WW1 Gunner, Michael Sullivan. Source: 1 NEWS

The story starts more than 100 years ago, when Mr Sullivan joined the Kiwi troops as a cook in 1915. He went on to become a gunner but died aged 27 on June 13, 1917, during the battle of Messines in Belgium.

He was buried at a small local farm.

The story then took a century-long hiatus, picking up again recently with Yorkshire boy William Hutchinson. The 16-year-old, who suffers dyslexia following an anaphylaxis shock as a child, had been told he was unlikely to pass his Year 11 English class. But this was before he took a school trip to the Western Front in Belgium.

As part of the trip, each student was asked to visit a grave that has never before been visited by anybody - no family, relatives or even officials. They then wrote a message, and placed a cross on the grave to honour the sacrifice.

William was given grave number 2/639 in the Kandahar Farm cemetery - a simple white stone with the Kiwi fern, where Mr Sullivan of the New Zealand expeditionary force lies. He was in the first brigade of the first battery.

William Hutchinson friend Jake, in Vimy Ridge in Belgium
William Hutchinson and friend Jake during their school trip to Belgium. Source: 1 NEWS

The 16-year-old was so moved that he was the first person to visit a man who had died 100 years ago that it made him cry at the graveside.

"Will is a family orientated lad, and was so touched that nobody could have visited this person who had given up his life for the freedom of him and his peers," explained his mum, Jan Hutchinson. "It changed his life. He just wanted to talk about it all the time.

“That moment of standing there, inspired by a man he didn’t know from so far away, did something to him internally.”

So much so that the teen wrote about it in his 2017 GCSE English exams, shocking the teacher and earning himself an A Grade.

That has meant he has been able to continue to higher education – a feat never thought possible for a boy who has struggled to read and write for most of his life.

William and his parents are so grateful that his mother has this year dedicated a play she wrote called “Remembrance” to the sacrifice of the WWI Kiwi soldier who became a part of their lives.

It’s about to be performed by the 100 British school children of Cawthorn Primary in Yorkshire, marking the centenary of Armistice Day.

She says she “wants people to understand the sacrifice of soldiers from the other side of the world who gave their freedom so we wouldn’t be ruled by a tyrannical leader”.

Now she’s on a mission to find a descendant of Mr Sullivan.

She’s contacted various New Zealand authorities, including the High Commission in London, in an effort to find his family but has so far come up blank.

“I want to tell them that somebody who was in your family, who gave their life for us, is still remembered and is special in the hearts of people a long way away,” she said.

All she knows is that the soldier was the son of Michael and Margaret Sullivan of Dickens Street, Napier.

“It touches me that people came all the way from New Zealand, and that his Mother was never able to visit his grave,” she said. “I want to say thank you to New Zealand, from all the children of Yorkshire.

"We owe him so much," she said. “Lest we forget… “

If anyone has information that could help William and his mum locate Mr Sullivan's descendants, email 1 NEWS at news@tvnz.co.nz. 


Michael Sullivan's grave.
Kiwi soldier Michael Sullivan was buried on a Belgium farm. Source: Supplied