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Successful search for relative of Kiwi WW1 soldier brings together two families at opposite ends of the world

1 NEWS helped the two families to find each other and strike up a friendship across oceans.

William Hutchinson friend Jake, in Vimy Ridge in Belgium
William Hutchinson and friend Source: 1 NEWS

Imagine being contacted out of the blue and told that you had a distant relative who you'd never heard of before, who had died during World War I, and who, 100 years later, from his grave, had helped a British teenager overcome a seemingly impossible task and changed his life.

Well that was the case for Hawke's Bay Principal Martin Madden.

Several weeks ago, 1 NEWS wrote a story about a Yorkshire teen William Hutchinson who, together with his family, was trying to find any living relatives of Gunner Michael Sullivan, a Kiwi soldier who died in the Battle of Messines on June 13, 1917.

The 16-year-old, who is dyslexic following an anaphylactic shock as a child, had been told he was unlikely to pass his Year 11 English class. That was until he visited the Western Front and grave 2/639 in the Kandahar Farm cemetery which happened to be the grave of Mr Sullivan.

He wrote a message and cried as he placed a cross on the grave to honour the sacrifice, believing he was the first person to ever do so.

Michael Sullivan's grave.
Michael Sullivan's grave. Source: Supplied

That experience inspired a passion to share the story of his sacrifice which he did in his English exams, passing with flying colours (to the amazement of his teachers).

His Yorkshire family are so grateful, they set about trying to find a descendant to personally thank for changing their son's life.

That's where we come in.

1 NEWS managed to find one and tracked down Martin Madden, the great nephew of Mr Sullivan.

Hence the 'out of the blue' correspondence.

"It was a pleasant yet unexpected surprise," Mr Madden said.

"I got a real kick out of reading the article about William and how he has used a relative of mine to overcome a huge challenge. As a principal of a primary school, I fully understand the challenges he has struggled through. I have nothing but huge admiration for William."

Mr Madden added that he now wants to visit his great uncle's grave and meet the teenager his dead relative inspired.

William's mum Jan Hutchinson said of her son, who is now 17 and in higher education, "He was delighted and so comforted to know that the family of Michael Sullivan had gone on into the future and he wasn't the last of his family line".

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

The two families have been in touch and have since struck up a friendship across oceans.

"What struck me and made me shiver a little," she said, "was how we brought Michael to life again". 

"Now we can talk across the world by email and telephone and get an instantaneous link, but then no one could know anything except by simple post, many weeks later, that he had gone - no answers, no closure. Maybe in our way, we have brought that closure by evidencing the emotional understanding of this story."

Ms Hutchinson was so moved by the soldier's sacrifice and the impact it had on her son that she also dedicated a Remembrance play she wrote which was performed by the Yorkshire children of Cawthorn Primary to him.

William Hutchinson pictured with children from Cawthorn Primary, who performed in a Remembrance play written by Jan Hutchinson. Source: Supplied

"Remembering the Great War, as it was initially known here, is so important to us in Britain. We are so grateful to your country and your men that they came to our aid."

She said when she told the school children of the discovery of Martin Madden, a living relative of Michael Sullivan, “there was an audible gasp and they cheered - it means that much. It makes it very special for them and so real".

"I am so pleased we have all found Michael again and that his name will live on in so many moving forward. He really did die so that others may survive and prosper!"

"This doesn't close this chapter because we all have an internal link with New Zealand now that we didn't have before. William will go on to bigger and better things because of Michael."


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