Clan Coutts Society

Clan Coutts Society

Trooper Henry Coutts NZ

War hero Henry Donald Coutts received one of the rarest military honours ever awarded to Commonwealth troops.

But failed business dealings, personal tragedy and alcohol abuse took their toll on his later life and prompted a very public fall from grace.

Just eight soldiers were awarded the Queen's Scarf after distinguishing themselves during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902.

Coutts, who was born at Kaiapoi in 1866, was the only New Zealander among them and received the honour in front of 30,000 mounted troops at Pretoria in 1900.

The scarf was hand-knitted by Queen Victoria and the 34-year-old got his for rescuing a wounded non-commissioned officer from the battlefield under enemy fire.

Coutts was no stranger to army life and served with various volunteer militia units during the 1880s in Taranaki.

He continued to do so after returning home from South Africa right through until 1910 when he was retired as a captain.

Coutts' private life was marred by tragedy.

He and wife Margaret had four children and the first three failed to live longer than a just a few days after birth.

Margaret was struck down by illness in 1912 and died at home in Mt Eden aged 42.

Donald, her only child to survive infancy, also got sick and died in hospital a few months later.

Coutts buried them both and struggled on, alone and grieving, as a carpenter.

World War I broke out in 1914 and two more years passed before the 50-year-old cut eight years off his true age and enlisted for action.

He was sent to England where he remained in service for the duration of the war.

It seems his ruse was discovered there when various age-related ailments, including myalgia and rheumatism, were aggravated by the rigours of army life.

Coutts came home with ill health to add to his woes and struggled to find a job.

He turned to the bottle in despair and, while under the influence of alcohol, engaged in fraudulent activity that resulted in his arrest in Hamilton in 1923.

The judge presiding over the resulting trial acknowledged Coutt's war service and good character, saying booze appeared to be at the root of his problems.

He assigned a probation officer to the case and gave him the task of finding the defendant work, hoping the prospect of employment might keep him out of trouble.

Coutts, who'd donated his Queen's Scarf to the Parliamentary Library in Wellington for safe keeping, eventually shifted north to Dargaville where he got himself back on his feet and opened a grocery store.

The venture went belly up in 1930 and the 64-year-old started drinking heavily again before attempting to bounce several cheques totalling over £16 in a bid to pay off his debts.

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He hobbled into court in July that year, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and vowing to make reparations once he had collected money owed to him by a number of customers.

The judge looked on Coutts with pity and said he was reluctant to send him to jail.

He also said there was little chance of him being able to recoup any of the cash that might have been owed to him around the back blocks of Dargaville.

Coutts was convicted and let loose with a stern warning that he would be called up for sentence if he reoffended over the next 12 months.

It seems he kept out of trouble for the remainder of his life and died in Greenlane Hospital aged 78 on April 30, 1944.

A funeral was held in Onehunga before his body was driven to Waikumete Cemetery for burial among other returned soldiers.

The Queen's Scarf that earned Coutts a place in history is today in the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

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