Force: NZ Field Artillery
Lawrence (also spelt “Laurence”), the tenth of fourteen children, was born on 4 March 1891 in what was then the German community of Sarau (Upper Moutere). His parents, Johann Diedrich (“Dick”) Bensemann and Maria Johanne Eggers, and his grandparents were all of full German descent and he grew up speaking both German and English.
His grandfather, Cordt Bensemann, Sarau’s founder, had arrived in Nelson in 1843.
In 1856, during the colonial wars, Cordt was appointed Lieutenant of Militia in command of a volunteer defence force in the Moutere.
One older brother of Lawrence’s, Albert, and one younger brother, Norman, also served overseas in the First World War. All three returned, but Albert was wounded. Lawrence was the only officer of the three.
Lawrence attended Nelson College from 1904 to 1906 and then shifted to Wellington where he had two contrasting jobs – one as an accountancy clerk for J. B. McEwan & Co and the other as a professional rugby league player. He represented New Zealand against New South Wales in 1913.
When war broke out, the Bensemann family, like other settlers of German descent in Nelson province, suddenly found themselves under suspicion and their loyalties questioned; both by their “English” neighbours and by government authorities. As Hanoverians from northern Germany the Bensemanns had been loyal to British sovereignty for more than a century. Similar links to the Kaiser did not exist. Their citizenship in New Zealand was prescribed in law.
A letter to the Nelson Evening Mail by Upper Moutere’s Lutheran Church Minister G F Hoyer and other community leaders, dated 13 August 1914 was headed Upper Moutere Residents and the War with subheadings; Farewell to departing volunteers. Declaration of loyalty to British flag. It reminded readers of this naturalisation.
Lawrence (service number 19/307) started his overseas service on 27 March, when he sailed on the ship "Talune" with the NZ Field Artillery from Auckland to Apia as part of the Samoa Relief Force. Western Samoa had been a German colony from 1900 to 1914 but New Zealand troops took over, just after war was declared in August 1914, without a shot being fired. Lawrence’s German language skills were in demand because the German population had generally stayed in Samoa during the war, and New Zealand needed to confer especially with German business owners and those German administrators who had been kept on in their positions.
On 27 March, Lawrence left Samoa for New Zealand, arriving on 3 April. After leave and further training he left on the ship "Athenic" on 31 December as part of the 33rd Reinforcements Specialist Company, NZEF.
He arrived in Glasgow on 25 February. From there he went to France. He achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Despite the ongoing service of the Bensemann brothers and others of German descent, paranoia continued about local German-speaking families, including the Bensemanns.
After the war, Lawrence settled back in Wellington with his wife Charlotte (nee Newbury) and returned to his accountancy career. He died on 23 September 1969, survived by two sons and eight grandchildren.
The previous year, on 16 November 1968, one of Lawrence’s great nephews, and Dick’s great grandsons, Lance Corporal Donald Bensemann (41383) Royal NZ Infantry Regiment, was shot to death in Vietnam during an engagement with the Viet Cong.