Russell Bernard MacMahon was born in Tapawera in 1888, George and Caroline MacMahon’s son. He was an old boy of Nelson College where he had been a College cadet. Russell joined the Wakatu Mounted Rifles from the time he left college in 1905 until 1911 when he transferred to the 10th (Nelson) Mounted Rifles. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. He was a member of the New Zealand Contingent which went to England for the coronation of King George.
Russell owned a farm next to his parents’ and married Victoria Ingledew in Tapawera on 1 January 1914. They had two young children; Doreen (born May 1915) and Pamela (born January 1917). In 1915 Russell’s father, George MacMahon, declared his willingness to serve in the war if the authorities would let him. However, his age was against him although his only son, no stranger to the Tapawera camp himself, was called up.
At the beginning of the war Russell was attached to the Nelson Defence staff.
Russell volunteered for war service in 1916.
He enlisted in March 1917, service no. 92978, and was finally called up in October 1918.
As a Lieutenant he was posted to the Special Training Unit at the Trentham Military Camp, leaving Nelson on 4 November. Promoted to Temporary Sergeant, he arrived in the camp on 7 November. Tragically he arrived at the camp at the same time as an outbreak of Spanish Influenza.
During 1918, 77 men at the camp died of the flu, the vast majority of them during a 12 day period from 10-22 November. It is thought the sickness was brought into the camp by men returning from leave in Wellington because there were no flu cases in the camp before 4 November. In just three days, the close conditions the men were living in at the camp ensured that flu admissions to the camp hospital soared from three to 137.
One of these was Russell MacMahon who was admitted to hospital on 10 November. He died on 22 November of pneumonia, a complication of influenza, aged 31. His death came just 10 days after the Armistice and a month after he was called up.
Historian Geoffrey Rice noted the country’s military camps, Trentham and Featherston, were “by far the most dangerous places to be in 1918” with 23.5 deaths per 1,000 people recorded at Trentham.
In announcing Russell’s death, the Colonist noted “his generosity among territorial camps at Tapawera earned golden tributes from officers and men”.
The territorial camps at the MacMahon’s property (although it changed hands in the 1920s) continued through into World War Two, before being cancelled.