James Hargest, generally known as Jim or Jimmy, was born in Gore on 4 September 1891, the son of Mary Prosser and her husband, James Hargest, a labourer. He was educated at Gore and Mandeville schools, before joining his father farming at Mandeville in central Southland. In February 1911 Hargest joined the Territorial Force. He volunteered for service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 12 August 1914 and the following month was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment. He was seriously wounded at Gallipoli in early August 1915. After months of medical treatment and rest, Hargest joined the 1st Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment in France in July 1916. He quickly emerged as one of his unit's most promising officers. By the end of 1916 he had attained the temporary rank of major and been awarded the Military Cross.
At Christchurch, Hampshire, on 29 September 1917, Jim Hargest married Marie Henrietta Wilkie, a theatre sister serving at the New Zealand military hospital at Brockenhurst. Their happy marriage produced a family of three sons and one daughter. In September 1918 Hargest was given command of the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment, which he led with distinction for the rest of the war. An exceptionally capable battalion commander, he combined personal bravery, tactical flair and great organising ability. He was made a DSO, mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Croix de chevalier, Légion d'honneur. Marie Hargest was awarded the Royal Red Cross, second class, and mentioned in dispatches. The couple returned to New Zealand in May 1919.
Shortly after his return, Hargest purchased a farm at Rakauhauka, near Invercargill. He continued his involvement in the Territorial Force, rising to command the 3rd New Zealand Infantry Brigade between 1925 and 1930. In 1931 he narrowly succeeded in taking the Invercargill parliamentary seat for the coalition government. Four years later he switched to the rural Southland seat of Awarua, which he held until his death. Hargest took a significant part in debate on both Southland and national issues, and after the founding of the New Zealand National Party in 1936 he emerged as one of its leading figures.
When the Second World War broke out Hargest sought a senior post in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. A special medical board, however, determined that he was fit only for service in New Zealand because of the continuing effects of the shell-shock he had suffered in 1918. Hargest was devastated by this decision and asked Peter Fraser, the acting prime minister (with whom he was on good terms), to ensure that he was given command of one of the force's brigades. Fraser complied, in spite of the opposition of his military advisers. In March 1940 Hargest was given command of 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, and in May he was promoted to brigadier and sailed for Egypt.
Hargest and his brigade distinguished themselves during the Greek campaign of April 1941 with their successful delaying action at Olympus Pass. On Crete 5th Brigade was responsible for defending Maleme airfield and its environs. Hargest was strangely inactive during the vital early stages of the battle for Crete and must bear a large measure of responsibility for the loss of Maleme airfield and thus, ultimately, for the loss of the island. He performed with more credit during the latter stages of the battle.
Hargest was dissatisfied with the performance during the campaign of Major General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Division; when he returned to Egypt he criticised him during a private meeting with Prime Minister Fraser. Freyberg was hurt by Hargest's actions, but none the less addressed some of his concerns. At this time little was known about Hargest's role in the loss of Maleme airfield, and he received a bar to the DSO and the Greek Military Cross (first class) for his services in Greece and Crete.
After its evacuation to Egypt, the New Zealand Division took part in the campaign to relieve Tobruk, in Libya. Hargest was captured on 27 November 1941, when his headquarters was overrun. He was taken to Italy, where he was incarcerated in a special high-security camp for senior Allied officers in a castle near Florence. In March 1943 Hargest and another New Zealand brigadier, Reginald Miles, along with four other officers, managed to escape by tunnelling under the castle walls. The New Zealanders were the only members of the group to reach Switzerland and they both received bars to the DSO in recognition of their 'splendid achievement in escaping'. Hargest was also later made a CBE. Late in 1943 he travelled across occupied France and into Spain with the assistance of the French Resistance. He then flew to England, where he wrote his classic account of the escape, Farewell Campo 12.
At his own suggestion, Hargest was appointed New Zealand's observer with the Allied armies preparing to invade France. He was attached to the British 50th Division, which landed in Normandy on D-Day. Hargest spent a great deal of time near the front line and wrote perceptive reports on the campaign. Wounded in June, Hargest was killed by shell fire on 12 August 1944. He was survived by his wife and three children. One son had been killed in action earlier in the year. He is commemorated in James Hargest High School in Invercargill.
James Hargest was a popular figure with a 'frank and friendly' manner whose death was regarded as a serious loss to the nation. He 'presented himself as a blunt, no-nonsense farmer' and had a farmer's love of the land. In combat Hargest usually displayed a cold assurance and as a soldier he valued steadiness and endurance above strategic flair. However, he lacked insight into his own strengths and weaknesses, and it seems this failing drove him to use his personal contacts to get command of a brigade in 1940 – a post for which he was unfit. Hargest's experiences in prison and during his escape seem to have given him more insight. Shortly before D-Day he wrote to his wife that when the war was over she would 'I hope find me a better husband than before. I seem to have learned so much and I truly have never been embittered by any experience. Life is still very wonderful to contemplate'.