The missing Military Cross from the Battle of Messines

Wyville Rutherford’s ‘conspicuous gallantry’ during the Battle of Messines won him a Military Cross. But the medal, like Wyville, didn’t make it back to New Zealand. History curator Kirstie Ross shares details of Wyvillle’s WWI experiences and a unique group of mementos that survived him instead.

Field Message showing Messines

Field Message showing Messines, maker unknown. Te Papa (CA0003160020004)

Wyville Rutherfurd (sometimes spelled Rutherford) was awarded a Military Cross because of his actions during the pivotal Battle of Messines (Flanders) and as well as his deeds a week later.

‘Titanic explosion’

The Battle of Messines, after 18 months’ preparation, began with the detonation of 19 huge underground mines at 3.10am on the morning of 7 June 1917. News of the terrific blast made it back quickly to New Zealand, with the Colonist newspaper declaring: ‘A Titanic Explosion. Face of the Country Altered.’[1]

New Zealanders played a key role in the Battle, capturing the ruined town, which you can see marked on the map above (printed on the back of a field message). The Feilding Star ran the headline, on 9 June: ‘Our Boys Capture Messines! Story of a Great Anglo-Colonial Victory.’[2]

Ruins of a building, Messines

Ruins of a building, Messines, during World War I. Photograph taken 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Ref: 1/2-012778-G, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918: H Series negatives, PAColl-5311-3, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. http://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/content-aggregator/getIEs?system=emu&id=477723

Messines had been captured, back in October 1914, by the German Army. The Woodville Examiner described the successful recovery of this part of the Western Front as ‘removing a kink in the line’.[3] Harry Sanders, the New Zealand Division’s newly appointed official photographer, recorded the battle with his camera (see above).

‘Personal gallantry…coolness under heavy fire’

The official citation for Wyville Rutherford’s Military Cross declared that the medal was:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On the 7th June 1917 this officer led his Company in the attack against the Brown line and his personal gallantry and fine example of coolness under fire were largely responsible for the success of the attack in his sector. On the night of the 15/16th June, Captain Rutherford was in charge of the party detailed to dig a communication trench from the old front line at St Ypres to the Au Chasseur Caberet. The party was under very heavy fire the whole time they were working, and again Captain Rutherford’s bravery and total disregard for his own personal safety largely contributed to the successful carrying out of an extremely important operation.”

Wyville Rutherford: Main Body man

A Wellington College old boy and mining engineer, Wyville left with the Main Body of the NZEF in October 1914. He fought on Gallipoli where he was wounded during the Battle of Chunuk Bair. After his recovery and further training, he moved over to the Western Front with the New Zealand Division.

Off to Persia

In January, Wyville personally received his medal from King George V, before heading off on a top secret mission in Persia (Iran) with the ‘Dunsterforce’ (also known as the ‘Hush-Hush Brigade’).

Wyville’s engagement to his sweetheart, Dorothy Broad, was announced around the time he left with this elite group of soldiers selected from the British Empire’s armies.

Material evidence of medals

Many of the men in Dunsterforce were ‘decorated’ with medals. However, their ‘decorations’ were worn only on formal occasions; instead a coloured ribbon or stripe which matched the medal was sewn onto a tunic as a substitute. Here’s the stripe for Wyville’s Military Cross (white, purple, white).

Officer’s medal stripes

Officer’s medal stripes, 1914-1918, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of Marianne Abraham, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH016807)

It’s on a remnant of his uniform which, unlike Wyville and his Military Cross, managed to return to New Zealand.

Because, while he was overseeing engineering works in the city of Kasin (Qasvin) Wyville was struck down, first by malaria and then by pneumonia as a complication of influenza. He died on 19 October 1918, 23 days before the Armistice.

Wyville’s recently widowed mother tried to recover her son’s medal from the Defence Department. It was not forthcoming – the Department did not know where it was.

A doll of a soldier made of wool

Doll, Soldier, 1914-1916, New Zealand, by Dorothy Broad. Purchased 2009. Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH016389)

Even if it had been found, his fiancé Dorothy would not have received it, for she was not Wyville’s next-of-kin. She had to console herself with the woollen version of Wyville she’d made when he left, and an ever-diminishing group of fragments from his uniform (see some below).

Uniform sleeve (partial), cap badge and hat pins

Uniform sleeve (partial), cap badge and hat pins, 1914-1918, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of Marianne Abraham, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH016805 (sleeve), GH016802 (badge), GH016800 (hat pin left), GH016802 (hatpin right))

Instead Dorothy probably declared her personal and sentimental connection to the war by wearing hatpins she made with buttons from Wyville’s uniform. They were patriotic accessories that doubled as very personal mourning jewellery.

Wyville’s Military Cross has not, as far as I know, ever surfaced. Its whereabouts remains a mystery, 100 years since Wyville won it.

References

  1. Colonist, 9 June 1917, p. 5.
  2. Feilding Star, 9 June 1917, p. 2.
  3. Woodville Examiner, 8 June 1917, p. 2.

See also: Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross, Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War, Te Papa Press, 2014, pp. 216-7.

7 Responses

  1. adele

    am now in touch with another RUTHERFURD member of the family have got her up to date with the medal etc… one way or other we hope to trace the missing medal!

    Reply
  2. adele

    have heard back from RUTHERFURD/RUTHERFORD folk so now forwarded the Blog to them, as one said didn’t know about the Medal Adele! have also emailed Gareth in Masterton about it… it will all help to locate a medal I hope.. Can the historian get back to me off line please.. am off to Featherston Messines Service this 1pm today.. don’t ring the phone is out of order! thanks..

    Reply
    • Kirstie Ross

      Hello Adele
      Thanks very much for your replies, and your interest, mobilising all of your contacts. Great that you have shared the blog. In 2015, Patricia Rutherford and her husband visited Te Papa, and I showed them the ‘Dorothy and Wyville’ collection. Patricia kindly provided me with some family history as well. What’s interesting is that the items came to Te Papa via Dorothy Broad’s great niece. I will be in touch offline via email about Wyville’s Military medal and getting to the bottom of the mystery of its whereabouts.
      Kind regards
      Kirstie

  3. adele

    Can Kirstie please email me off site??? I have had replies from family and forwarded the Blog to them, so many hands make light work.. also added Gareth in Masterton this am.. I also belong to the Wellington Promotion Heritage Council! under Clareville Taphophile..

    Reply
  4. adele

    brother to Herbert Spencer Rutherford of Masterton, I will get in touch with the families for you and hope for some good results! just checked on line the family tree, knew I was correct! Clareville Researcher!

    Reply
  5. adele

    if its the family I know off it was originally RUTHERFURD until one married a RUTHERFORD… will check it out, as in touch with family on both U and O!!! some were in early Carterton, then Bideford way out of Masterton, one soldier is on a stained glass window at St Matthews Masterton!

    Reply
    • adele

      latest have emailed several of the family now await their response! done both spellings as two different family but connected by marriage!

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