Debunking Freyberg's Mexico myth: Ian McGibbon addresses a longstanding but intriguing misconception about Bernard Freyberg's early military service.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

Bernard Freyberg's storied life is a central element in New Zealand's military heritage. The winner of a Victoria Cross in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Second World War, governor-general of New Zealand--he was a man of mythical greatness (Churchill called him the 'salamander of the British Empire', (1) a salamander being a legendary creature that flew close to fire). But there is one element of his life that is the product of pure myth--his supposed service in Mexico's civil war before the First World War and his escape to the United Kingdom to secure a commission in the newly formed Royal Naval Division, with which he would fight at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front. In New Zealand military historiography, it is a myth that for durability is on a par with the myth of Colonel William Malone's supposed refusal of an order to attack on Chunuk Bair during the August offensive at Gallipoli in 1915. (2) And it seems that Freyberg propagated the myth himself when he reached London in August 1914.

The source of the myth was a newspaper report of his involvement in the Mexican civil war which appeared shortly after he arrived in the United Kingdom.

He went recently to America for a holiday, and there, in a spirit of adventure, he took service as a transport officer under General [Pancho] Villa, one of the opponents of the Mexican usurper Huerta. He had only been in this position for two or three weeks and was in the province of Durango when the war broke out. It would have been useless to ask to resign, so Mr Freyberg left the Villa camp in the night and made for Mazatlan, on Mexico's Pacific coast, walking by day and hiding by night. Thence he went to San Diego, Los Angeles, Cheyenne, and Chicago, and from New York ... to Liverpool. (3) By 1915 a new element had been added: 'Some time ago he went out to Mexico and offered his services to Huerta. Huerta did not want him, so he went and fought with Villa on the opposite side.' (4)

These reports informed the accounts prepared by subsequent biographers, notably Peter Singleton-Gates and Freyberg's son Paul Freyberg. (5) Media reports were supported, in the latter's case, by later reminiscences of men who were in Mexico at the time that suggested acquaintance with a person who they thought in retrospect was Freyberg. These reminiscences greatly altered the shape of the myth. Later embellishments had him serving as a general, 'escaping' from Villa's army on war's outbreak and trekking 800 kilometres to the port of Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico, to embark by sea for New York and thence to the United Kingdom.

Most recently, Matthew Wright has entered the lists with his 2020 biography of Freyberg. He comes down on the side of his predecessors' assertions that Freyberg served in the civil war, stating that there was 'no question' he was in Mexico in July-August 1914. (6) In going with a good story, Wright has overlooked readily available evidence that points in an opposite direction--that Freyberg was still in California when the First World War began. Freyberg never went to Mexico, and, romantic as the tale of his trek to Tampico to take passage to the United Kingdom is, he actually set off for the war from San Francisco.

Although noting a 4 July report in the New Zealand Free Lance that Freyberg had returned to San Francisco, Wright states baldly that Freyberg was 'definitely' back in Mexico on 4 August 1914. He speculates about whether he was present at the Battle of Zacatecas on 23-24 June, though he is not sure on which side. Wright cites as evidence a Freyberg 'letter to Elliott', a Wellington dentist, from Mexico and 'a telegram he sent from Tampico', where Wright accepts he had trekked after deserting Villa's force. (7)

Dubious evidence

Let us examine this 'evidence' more closely. The so-called letter to Elliot is in fact a statement made to Singleton-Gates when he was writing his biography, which appeared in the 1960s. Elliott stated that 'he heard from Freyberg in Mexico'.8 An actual letter from Mexico would be irrefutable evidence of Freyberg's presence there, but this is a statement Elliott made at least 40 years after the event, a period in which the myth of Freyberg's Mexico service had been repeatedly stated in the media. In short, this is very weak evidence indeed.

What of the telegram from Tampico? There is no evidence of...

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