HARGEST, James, C.B.E., D.S.O. and 2 bars, M.C.
Soldier, politician, and farmer
A new biography of Hargest, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
James Hargest was born at Gore on 4 September 1891, the son of James and Mary Hargest, both of whom had migrated to New Zealand from Brecon, Wales. His father was a labourer at the time of his birth but subsequently acquired his own small farm. James Hargest was educated at the Gore and Mandeville Primary Schools. He began farming in the Mandeville district and entered the Army at an early age as a volunteer in the Territorials. In the First World War he left with the Main Body with the rank of 2nd lieutenant. He served on Gallipoli, taking a leading part in the Suvla Bay battle in August 1915. Wounded there, he was invalided back to New Zealand at the end of 1915 but he proceeded overseas again in 1916. He transferred from the Otago Mounted Rifles to the 1st Battalion of the Otago Regiment (infantry) at Armentieres, being promoted captain just before the first battle of the Somme. For his gallantry there he was awarded the M.C. He received accelerated promotion to major, became 2 i/c of the battalion, and played an important part in the forward preparations for the battle of Messines in June 1917. In March 1918 he was given temporary command of the 1st Otago Battalion while still under 27 years of age. Later he was given the command of the 2nd Otago Battalion with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He led his battalion till the end of the war but was badly wounded on 6 November 1918. For his services he was awarded the D.S.O. and the Legion of Honour, and was twice mentioned in dispatches.
Recognised as one of the most distinguished New Zealand soldiers of the 1914–18 war, he was in the inter-war years given command in turn of the Southland Regiment and of the 3rd New Zealand Brigade. For five years he was aide-de-camp to the Governor-General. After his recovery from war wounds he took up a sheep farm at Rakauhauka in Southland. In 1920 he was elected Crown tenants' representative on the Southland Land Board. He also became a member of the Southland Land Purchase Board, the Assessment Court, and the Southland Education Board, as well as president of the Invercargill R.S.A. He was known as a prominent advocate of the interests and point of view of returned servicemen. Though twice defeated in contests for the Invercargill seat in the New Zealand Parliament, he won it at a by-election in 1931. In the 1935 election he won Awarua, the southernmost electorate, by a substantial majority as a Coalition candidate. He retained this seat in the Nationalist interest in 1938 and held it until his death. In Parliament he participated in debates on defence, on education, and on Southland local interests.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he volunteered for service and was appointed commander of the 5th Infantry Brigade, with the rank of brigadier. His brigade went first to Britain and held the “front line” in the south of England during the Battle of Britain and then saw service in Greece, Crete, and Libya. Brigadier Hargest was captured when his headquarters were overrun by German tanks at Sidi Aziz in Libya in November 1941. He was taken before Field-Marshal Rommel, who told him that his men had fought well. From a castle near Florence, in which senior officers were imprisoned, he and Brigadier Miles made a dramatic escape which is fully described in Hargest's own book, Farewell Campo 12. Back in London, Hargest received the C.B.E. and two bars to his D.S.O. He had earlier received the Greek Military Cross. He joined the 50th Division as a New Zealand observer of the invasion of Europe on D-day in 1944. On 12 August 1944 he was killed by a shell burst in Normandy.
James Hargest was one of New Zealand's best known citizen soldiers. His unflagging energy, great personal courage, and wonderful faculty for rousing the spirits and morale of those around him marked him out as a natural leader of men. Professor A. C. Aitken, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, knew him as a company commander in 1916–17. He has written of Captain Hargest: “There was a man if ever there was one” and “there never could have been a better O.C.” The official historian of the Otago Regiment in the First World War, normally sparing in his praise, recorded: “In the course of his long connection with the Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel Hargest, by his thoroughness, his soldierly ability and bearing, his great sense of military honour, and his extraordinary energy and unexampled dash in action, commanded the highest admiration and confidence of all ranks”. In the Second World War he showed the greatest concern for his men and, especially in the retreat across and evacuation from Crete, spared no effort on their behalf. His deep emotional feeling for his brigade, his gallantry and personal example, won him the admiration and respect of those serving under him.
In 1917 Hargest married Sister Marie H. Wilkie, A.R.R.C., of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, a theatre sister with a distinguished war record of her own. They had three sons and a daughter – one son was killed on active service in Italy in 1944 and another died as the result of an accident while serving in Malaya a decade later. Hargest's name and interest in education are commemorated in the James Hargest High School, Invercargill.
by Angus Ross, M.C. AND BAR, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D.(CANTAB.), Professor of History, University of Otago.
- Farewell Campo 12, Hargest, J. (1946)
- Official History of. The Otago Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Great War, 1914–18, Byrne, A. E. (1921)
- To Greece, McClymont, W. G. (1959)
- Crete, Davin, D. M. (1953)
- 23 Battalion, Ross, A. (1959).