Travis, Richard Charles Travis, 1884–1918, Horse-breaker, Soldier
Aaron P. Fox
Dickson Cornelius Savage was born at Opotiki, New Zealand, on 6 April 1884, the fifth child in a family of nine. His parents, James Savage from Ireland, a farmer and constable in the New Zealand Armed Constabulary, and Frances Theresa O’Keefe, from Sydney, Australia, married at Opotiki in 1875.
Savage attended the Opotiki and Otara schools, leaving after Standard Four to work on the family farm. He became a capable shepherd, drover and farmhand, and excelled at horse-breaking, which appealed to the fearless, independent and quick-witted youth. After quarrelling with his father he went to the Gisborne district in 1905, where he found work as a farmhand and driver. His reputation as a horse-breaker grew. After further strife in Gisborne, ‘where he is thought to have got a young woman into trouble’, Savage travelled south, broke off all communication with his family, and changed his name to Richard Charles Travis.
He arrived in Winton, Southland, in 1910, claiming to come from Poverty Bay and even the United States. After working on Southland farms and threshing mills, ‘Dick’ Travis found employment as a general farmhand with Tom Murray of Ryal Bush. He continued to break horses, and joined an Oddfellows lodge.
On 20 August 1914 Travis enlisted with the 7th (Southland) Squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment in Invercargill. When attested he was five feet six inches tall, weighed 133 pounds, had a fresh complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. His stated next of kin was his fiancée, Lettie Murray, Tom Murray’s daughter.
Travis sailed with the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, arriving in Egypt in December 1914. Impatient to see action, he unofficially accompanied his regiment to Gallipoli in May 1915. He was returned to Egypt and received 14 days’ detention. However, he participated in the final weeks of the Gallipoli campaign, moving with impunity between the New Zealand and Turkish trenches on scouting patrols.
A knee injury led Travis to transfer to the 8th (Southland) Company, 2nd Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment, on 27 March 1916. He arrived in France in April 1916 and began nocturnal scouting activities in no man’s land between the New Zealand and German trenches, mapping the German defences for the first New Zealand trench raids. In July 1916 he received special mention in brigade routine orders for a daylight search for wounded New Zealand raiders and the recovery of equipment, and for night-patrol duty over a six-week period.
Travis displayed ‘conspicuous gallantry’ on 15 September 1916, eliminating several German snipers during the 2nd Otago Battalion’s advance in the Somme offensive, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was rapidly promoted to sergeant and given command of the battalion’s new sniper and observation section. ‘Travis’s Gang’ became proficient in scouting enemy defences and capturing enemy troops for interrogation. His casual attitude towards rank and dress regulations contrasted with the careful planning, daring and resourcefulness of his anti-sniper work and lone patrols. It was said that, ‘His judgement of what the enemy would do under given circumstances sometimes seemed more than human.’ Travis was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre on 15 February 1918, and the Military Medal in May 1918.
On 24 July 1918 the 2nd Otago Battalion attacked the German salient at Rossignol Wood north of Hébuterne. In daylight, Travis destroyed an impassable wire block in front of the enemy lines prior to the attack. He then captured two enemy machine-guns, shooting down 11 Germans. He was killed by shellfire the following day, and was buried at Couin on 26 July.
The entire New Zealand Division mourned the loss of the ‘King of No Man’s Land’. For his ‘most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ on 24 July, Travis was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 27 September 1918.
Lest We Forget