Page 1: Biography
Twisleton, Francis Morphet
Farmer, military leader, letter writer
This biography, written by J. A. B. Crawford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Francis (Frank) Morphet Twisleton was born at Settle in Yorkshire, England, on 17 February 1873. He was the son of Thomas Twisleton, a farmer and businessman, and his wife, Mary Ann Morphet. After attending Giggleswick Grammar School, and later farming in Yorkshire, Frank emigrated to New Zealand with his brother Thomas. They arrived in 1895 and travelled around, working on farms. A skilled horseman, Frank enlisted in the Second New Zealand Contingent of mounted soldiers on 19 January 1900 and arrived in South Africa late the following month. Thomas followed him in the Fourth (Rough Riders) Contingent, and was killed in battle the next year.
Frank Twisleton was a patriotic young man with a taste for adventure. However, the long treks, inadequate rations and harsh weather quickly destroyed any romantic notions he had about the South African conflict. The Second Contingent served there for more than a year, taking part in the guerilla warfare that followed the fall of Pretoria, and did not return to New Zealand until May 1901.
While in South Africa Twisleton wrote letters which were published in English newspapers. Following his return to New Zealand he used these letters as the basis for a book, With the New Zealanders at the front: a story of twelve months' campaigning in South Africa. Dedicated to the memory of Thomas Twisleton, the book gives an account of the war from a private soldier's perspective. Two recurrent themes are the incompetence of many British army officers, and the inequitable treatment of soldiers.
Twisleton began farming in the Waimata Valley, near Gisborne, and on 12 May 1905 at Wainui he married Emily Mary Speedy. The couple were to have two daughters. In 1911, like many other South African War veterans, he joined the Legion of Frontiersmen, a quasi-military imperialist organisation open to all male British subjects. The Legion aimed to have a corps of trained men ready for immediate action should the empire need them. In 1913 Twisleton was appointed organising officer for the Poverty Bay area. He formed C Squadron, Poverty Bay, and as captain held several training camps on his farm. Later he became the Legion's New Zealand commandant.
On the outbreak of the First World War, the Legion offered to provide the government with two fully equipped squadrons, but this was refused and members were asked instead to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In October 1914 Twisleton volunteered for military service along with the other Poverty Bay Frontiersmen. Commissioned as lieutenant, he was posted to the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment and landed at Gallipoli on 20 May 1915. He wrote a number of private letters which provide an insight into the reality of trench warfare. Soon he adjusted to the 'very funny sort of life one leads, we burrow like rabbits and live more or less underground and do most of our work at night'.
Twisleton took part in the bloody assaults on Bauchop's Hill and Hill 60 during August 1915. In his vivid account of the second of these actions he described the roar of battle as so overpowering that he felt as though he 'was being driven into the ground by being hit on the head'. Twisleton was slightly wounded during the initial charge, and took the opportunity afforded by a lull in the fighting to dig small pieces of shrapnel out of his leg with his pocket-knife. In the aftermath of the battle for Hill 60 he commanded a post where the stench was appalling because it was partly constructed out of the bodies of Turkish soldiers. Later he wrote, 'I felt as though I could scrape the smell of dead men out of my mouth and throat and stomach in chunks.' At the beginning of September 1915 Twisleton was evacuated from Gallipoli with severe dysentery; he did not return. For his bravery and initiative during the campaign he was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in dispatches.
In March 1916 Twisleton was promoted to captain and transferred to the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. He served with the soldiers of the battalion on the western front from April 1916 to August 1917. Their duties involved hard, dangerous work just behind the front line, which Twisleton believed did not get the recognition it deserved. His experiences at Gallipoli and on the western front confirmed his low opinion of the competence of most British officers. In his view they had 'no practical grip of things' and thought themselves superior in all respects to their men.
In 1917 Twisleton's wife and daughters took up residence at Brockenhurst on the south coast of England, and he was able to see them during periods of leave. After serving briefly in France with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, in October 1917 he was posted to the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment in Palestine. Late in October he was promoted to major and given command of a squadron. In an action at Ayun Kara, on 14 November, he led his men with great dash before being shot in the abdomen. He was sent to the ANZAC receiving station, but died there the following day. The Legion of Frontiersmen posthumously awarded him their highest honour, the Pioneer Axe, and in recognition of his services made his widow an honorary lieutenant of the Legion.
Forthright and practical, Twisleton was a capable officer, but always empathised strongly with the lot of the private soldier. He remained contemptuous of those he saw as shirkers, and steadfastly valued courage and endurance in battle. However, his experiences during the First World War seem to have affected him more deeply than his previous military service, leaving him somewhat embittered, and conscious of the loss of his 'sense of horror'.