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Military medal and life-saving heroics

Masterton’s Harry Selby, second from right in the front row, died on October 5, 1917, while serving as a gunner on the Western Front. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE

Among the first Masterton soldiers to enlist for World War I was the popular athlete Harry Selby.

He was born in Masterton in 1882, to Edward and Mercy Selby, and by the time the war broke out, was working as a carpenter for Coradine and Whitaker, and was active as a volunteer in the fire brigade.

By September 1915, he was in Egypt after having served at Gallipoli. A fellow-Masterton soldier mentioned in a letter home that Selby was driving the mail cart in the camp – he made an excellent postman.

He was soon off to the Western Front as a gunner, where he was awarded the Military Medal.

Writing home, he downplayed his own efforts in the events that led to his decoration.

He said he and Charlie Gillespie (another local) had helped put out a fire in an ammunition dump that “Fritz” had set alight with a shell.

“It was a fire, so I had to be there.”

He reported that he had attended a big parade and been “decorated with a bit of ribbon” by Sir A.J. Godley.

It wasn’t his only act of heroism.

During a heavy bombardment Selby noticed that the emplacement next to his had suffered a hit and that most of the men had been badly injured.

He ran to see if he could help, and discovered that one, gunner F.D. Bell, had sustained a severe compound fracture of the leg, but also saw his jugular vein had been severed and he was in danger of bleeding out.

Using his thumb, he staunched the flow of blood until medical help arrived, undoubtedly saving Bell’s life.

Selby’s family learned of his heroism after news of his own death on October 5, 1917, had been received.

The Bell family wrote to Edward and Mercy, saying they wished the Selby family to know that they also mourned the loss of a gallant soldier whose name they would never forget, “and whose last service to us we shall always have gratefully in mind as without measure and without price”.

Harry Selby is buried at Mendinghem Military Cemetery, Poperinge, in Belgium.

– Gareth Winter

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