Three strangers at the dinner table

Developer Warren Dawson and his grandfather Gerald Douglas Dawson’s war memorabilia. Photo: Sharnae Hope.

They just wanted a coffee, but found themselves down the wrong road, which led them to a physical and metaphorical sign - Sarona.

That’s how an unlikely group - an Israeli couple and an author- came to sit across the table from a dumbfounded developer.

Sarona Park - ‘more than just a place to live’ - is situated at the end of Omanawa Road and is owned by developer Warren Dawson.

In 2006, the 76 hectare site was subdivided and named Sarona Park in honour of Warren’s grandfather Gerald Douglas Dawson, who owned the land more than 100 years ago.

Warren says the land has always had great significance, but until recently he didn’t know to what extent.

“Just by chance and by mistake, an Israeli couple ended up driving up the wrong road and came across a name that was synonymous to Israel,” says Warren. “They were very curious to find out where it came from

“They tracked me down later in the week and I said ‘well, it was actually my grandfather who was stationed in this particular little town of Sarona’.”

Gerald fought in the First World War as part of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, consisting of the Auckland Mounted Rifles, the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, the Wellington Mounted Rifles and the 1st Machine-Gun Squadron.

He was put on placement in the Middle East, where Israel is now, and fought in a significant battle called The Battle of Ayun Kara, nearby Sarona.

The Battle of Ayun Kara was an engagement in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign where New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the Turkish 3rd Infantry division battled. New Zealand won the battle at a cost of 44 dead and 81 wounded.

Gerald was also one of five who went out to the silencer of the machine gun post and was the only one who survived.

After returning from the war, Gerald bought the land where Sarona Park now sits and named his farm after the small colony which he took a liking to.

“I think he liked the land so much because it was different to the average towns or buildings of that area,” says Warren. “That was because it was originally a settlement of immigrants from Germany and so it was built in a different style

“They were growing citrus and it was quite tropical. I think after that encounter with the Turks it was their first real reprieve after the battle, where they lost quite a few guys.”

Coincidently, the Israeli couple, Yossi and his wife Michal, said they live only around 3kms from Sarona.

In 2006, at the same time as Warren subdivided his land, Yossi said Israeli authorities also sealed off the piece of land Gerald had camped out in and had built roads, parks and buildings, naming it Sarona Park as well.

A year ago, a Tauranga delegation including deputy mayor Kelvin Clout visited the site and unveiled a plaque to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives. Tauranga author Christopher Archer joined the group and produced a book titled Saviours of Zion.

“He said that I must meet this author because he knows a lot about the Battle of Ayun Kara and would find it interesting to see all the memorabilia. It’s very hard to come by War World One memorabilia.”

Yossi got in contact with Chris and all three men connected over the dinner table, going through some of Gerald’s letters and mementoes, including a machine gun slug brought back from the battle and a field diary.

The letters discuss not only the battles, but day-to-day life, such as running out of water and food, moving forward and camp as well as liaising with home, discussing family members, the farm and activities.

“Chris was highly intrigued by the field diary, because there aren’t many artefacts out there from World War One. He couldn’t sleep that night and said he was blown away by the information.”

Before meeting Yossi and Chris, Warren didn’t know too much about his grandfather. He says Gerald was a kind and humble man, but like many veterans, chose not to speak about what went on during the war.

“All I knew at the time was my grandfather went to war, came home with the name and also brought back a pistol side arm and other memorabilia,” says Warren.

“Meeting the Israel couple, talking to the author and reading his book, has given me a lot more appreciation and understanding of what he endured through the war.”

Warren plans to travel to Israel in a few weeks’ time to visit Yossi and his family and walk the same walk his grandfather did.

“It’s been quite a surreal journey and turn of events, but it’s interesting and I’ll go on the journey because it’s worthwhile.”