Victor Spencer - shot for desertion

Victor Manson Spencer, 8/2733
1st Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment
Executed, 24 February 1918. 

Born in Ōtautau, Southland, in 1896, Victor Spencer was the only child of James and Mary Spencer. A descendant of the first Pākehā settler at Bluff, James Spencer, and his Ngāi Tahu wife Meri Kauri, Victor lost both his parents when he was young and was cared for by his aunt, Sarah Goomes. Upon leaving school, he became an apprentice engineer in Bluff and was the cox of a local rowing crew.

In April 1915, Victor enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The 18-year-old claimed to be 20 – the minimum age for recruits. He joined the Otago Battalion as a private and by November was at Gallipoli for the last stage of the ill-fated campaign. After a period of rest and recuperation in Egypt the New Zealand forces were reorganised and in April 1916 Victor departed for the Western Front with the New Zealand Division. 

The division was based first at Armentières, a relatively quiet sector of the front, where they adjusted to the new conditions of warfare. On the night of 9–10 July Victor endured a heavy enemy bombardment – an experience that defined the rest of his war service. Wounded, he was evacuated to a field ambulance and found to be also suffering from ‘shell shock’. When he was sent back to the trenches after a few weeks in hospital, he immediately went missing.

Victor was caught by the Military Police on 12 August and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. In June 1917 his sentence was suspended and he returned to his unit. Two months later he went missing again. He was found on 2 January 1918, living with a French woman and her two children, and was charged with desertion. At a court martial, Victor recounted his experience at Armentières, stating, ‘[s]ince then my health has not been good and my nerve has been completely destroyed.’[1] The court decided not to call for medical evidence in relation to this claim and instead found him guilty. He was sentenced to ‘suffer death by being shot’.

Early on the morning of 24 February 1918 Victor Spencer was executed by a firing squad. His grave lies in The Huts Cemetery, near Ieper in Belgium, and he is remembered on the war memorial in Bluff. In 2000, Spencer and the other four New Zealand soldiers executed during the war were pardoned by the government.

Further information

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph record – Victor Spencer

Commonwealth War Graves Commission record - Victor Spencer

The executed five – Great War Story

First New Zealand soldier executed, 25 August 1916

Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act 2000

Victor Spencer – the spirit lives on

Christopher Pugsley, On the fringe of hell: New Zealanders and military discipline in the First World War, Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1991

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, He rau mahara: to remember the journey of our Ngāi Tahu soldiers, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Christchurch, 2017

Jane Thomson (ed.), Southern people: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography, Longacre Press in association with the Dunedin City Council, Dunedin, 1998


[1] Quoted in Christopher Pugsley, On the fringe of hell: New Zealanders and military discipline in the First World War, Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1991, p. 263. 

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