The grand old man of the Legion in New Zealand, Captain Ernest D’ESTERRE, has crossed the last frontier, leaving a gap in our ranks that never can be filled. With a deep sense of personal loss we mourn the passing of a brother Frontiersman, one esteemed beyond measure, who was ever true to the finest traditions and highest ideals of the Legion. He has earned a place on the scroll of fame alongside those illustrious figures of the past whose names have become legendary wherever Frontiersmen foregather.
As with so many men of noble character, he was retiring to the point of being self-effacing, seeking no kudos for the great work he had done, seeing ample reward in the continuation of the movement he had initiated. The words he used at Conference in commenting on the passage in the annual report typify his attitude. Service and brotherhood were his ideals, and from them he never deviated. He saw the Legion as a ‘Great Lodge, with members bound by the sacred ties of brotherhood, prepared to give even unto life itself, service to the Empire which had been built by Frontiersmen’. Could there be any higher ideal, or one more worthy of emulation? And he was most approachable, as so many members who had not previously the privilege of making his acquaintance discovered at Conference. Every Frontiersman was to him a brother, and from the very inception of the Legion in New Zealand, a warm welcome awaited any fellow member who chose to call on him, the subject of conversation invariably being what was ever uppermost in his mind and heart, the welfare of the organisation. He loved to recall episodes of the early days, colourful characters who have passed through the ranks of the Legion, and the numerous men who have written glorious chapters in its history, and have since joined their comrades in Valhalla. The bond between him and those members with whom he was most closely associated was something more than good friendship – it was the deep and affectionate regard of strong men who have shared dangers and privations together.
His memory was cherished by many New Zealand Frontiersmen who served in World War 1 – and with good reason. By a large number of members of Waitemata Troop, and others, he was named as next-of-kin when they went overseas indicating how implicitly he was trusted, and the responsibilities he was prepared to accept for brother Frontiersmen. Not only did he look after their affairs while they were away, but he gave immeasurable aid to those whom on their return, sought his counsel on the problems connected with resumption of civilian life. At the period, too, the Legion’s debt to him increased as, reduced to a mere shadow of its former strength by the toll of war, it would probably have gone completely out of existence but for his efforts.
Very modestly, Captain D’ESTERRE disclaimed any particular credit for organising the Legion on a sound foundation in New Zealand: his casual observation was that it organised itself. But the actual facts tell a different story, proving beyond doubt that he was the motivating power. His interest in the Legion was first aroused by reading a newspaper article descriptive of its activities and, putting thought into action, he immediately made application for membership. That was in 1910, and he was duly enrolled. Then in July 1912, he was notified by Colonel DRISCOLL that he had been appointed organiser for the North Island. Resolutely he tackled what appeared to him at the time a stupendous task, and here it was that his journalistic skill proved invaluable. So it was that in a comparatively short space of time, the Legion became a living dynamic entity, with unlimited potentialities.
About that time, war clouds were beginning to gather, having a stimulating effect on the flow of applications for membership, but it can be stated without fear of contradiction that Captain D’ESTERRE’s judgement in picking the right type of man to take charge in the various districts was a largely contributing factor. Admittedly, the spirit of service was very much more pronounced in those days, making his task considerably easier than it would have been at a later period in history. How successful his organisation was is shown by the fact that as a result of his initiative, a Squadron was formed at Waiapu on the same date that he received his appointment, followed very shortly afterwards by the establishment of another at Auckland. The next year with his assistance, the following units came into being: ‘C’ Squadron, Gisborne: ‘D’ Squadron, Hamilton: ‘E’ Squadron, Ngaruawahia: ‘F’ Squadron, Northern Wairoa: ‘G’ Squadron, Wanganui: ‘H’ Squadron Heretaunga: Mohaka Troop: and the famous Auckland Maritime and Specialist Group. What a proud record!! If he had done no more, his service would still have been unforgettable. But he continued with unabated enthusiasm to labour for the cause of the Legion, a great load of responsibility being placed on his shoulders by the extension of his territory to cover the whole of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, only the whole-hearted co-operation which he received making the task possible of fulfilment.
On the outbreak of World War 1, a tidal wave of Legionaries descended on him, clamouring to get away to the front at once, and it was then that Captain D’ESTERRE summoned the first Conference. That historic gathering took place in Shortland Street, Auckland, under the chairmanship of Captain FORBES-EDIE, and among about a dozen prominent Frontiersmen of the day who were present were Captain F.M TWISLETON, who will ever live in memory. Out of that Conference came the offer to the Government to provide two fully equipped Squadrons of the Legion at twenty-four hours notice, and also to man a transport from Captain to Greasers. Although it was declined, the fact that the offer could be made at all showed how thoroughly Captain D’ESTERRE had carried out his task of organisation and how eager the men who had been enrolled were to carry out their obligations. In passing, mention may be made of the fact that although the Legion was not accepted for service as a body, members did obtain the privilege of which they were jealously proud, of wearing the lapel badge on their uniform. It was an unprecedented concession on the part of the Army, compensating in some small measure for the disappointment over the major issue.
When the first Conference was called, none of the few attending visualized its development to a permanent fixture attended by, at the very least, ten for every single individual at the original gathering (1905). Captain D’ESTERRE was a prominent and popular figure at Conference up until 1939 when he moved into the background, becoming in actual fact an ‘Elder Statesman’ and in that capacity his counsel was frequently sought, his decisions invariably showing an impressive depth of wisdom. For a very lengthy period, under the nom de plume of ‘Frontiersman’ he conducted a column in his journal, the ‘Auckland Weekly News’. This was most eagerly looked for by the old timers and the value of the publicity it provided in bringing the Legion under notice cannot be overestimated. It may not be generally known that Captain D’ESTERRE was the originator of the Legion Decoration, the Pioneer Axe. Quite some time elapsed while the proposal was being considered and conditions governing its award were drawn up, the idea being to make it very difficult of attainment. It was but fitting that he should be the first recipient of the honour after its formal approval at the Wanganui Conference in 1928. Never has there been a worthier wearer of the Axe; to the last detail, he had given that ‘Outstanding Service’ which was stipulated as an essential requirement before bestowal of the honour could be considered.
In his own retiring way, he was a proud man when he joined in the celebrations attendant on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Legion at what was little dreamed was to be his last Conference. But pride was eclipsed by the pleasure he received from fraternisation with acquaintances old and new, for to him the brotherhood of the Legion meant everything worth while. Of such a one Leigh HUNT wrote in his poem ”About Ben Adhem” – he loved his fellow men.
We mourn the passing of a loyal and true Frontiersman, and will remember him with pride and gratitude: he has “Handed down to us a trust; Let us not prove unworthy”