For me the new year is an opportunity to stop for a moment and reflect on the achievements of the past year. Today my focus has been on Te Papa’s Kiwi Faces of World War I project where we have been identifying soldiers in a collection of negatives taken at the Berry & Co Photography studio. The soldiers, their identities and stories have slowly but steadily been revealing themselves over the past year and now we have almost 60 soldiers identified in our group of 108 – we are half way!
The latest identification, Harry Spire Powell was helped along by an expert in uniforms and badges. Barry O’Sullivan’s knowledge of the fine details of military regalia has already helped with the identification of two soldiers. In this case it was the style of the ammunition bandolier that clinched it. Much of the work on this project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of our wonderful volunteers. Genealogists Chris McLennan and Lynley Goldsmith, have been doing an amazing job of exploring the family histories of soldiers once identified, and Victoria University students, Coralie Clarkson and Matariki Williams have also generously volunteered their time to help identify soldiers and record their stories.
Once the first 50 were identified I decided it was a good moment to reflect on how the group represented the experiences of New Zealand’s World War I soldiers in general.
Amazingly, this relatively small but distinct group has proven to be very representative. Of the fifty identified thirty-seven survived, seven died in action and six died of an illness. A slightly higher percentage of the Te Papa group died overseas, about 24% including those that died of illness, compared to the national figure of about 18% or 18,500 out of the 103,000 that served overseas.
The geographical spread is also representative. Of those that were involved in active service, three went to Samoa, six fought at Gallipoli, eight were based in Egypt, and twenty-eight on the Western Front. Many of these soldiers fought in New Zealand’s most devastating battles including Passchendaele, the Somme and Messines.
While I’m pleased to know that this group of images reflects the big picture, it is still the personal stories that resonate the most. One incredible story that came to the fore last month was that of Private Lance Bridge who died of wounds obtained during the Gallipoli campaign.
Lance volunteered to take his wounded comrades back to safety early in the attack on Chunuk Bair but was badly wounded while doing so. He was taken down to the beach but refused to be taken to the hospital ship, until the many wounded who were worse off than he was had been looked after. He lay for two days in the hot sun, with only food or water given by passing soldiers. He was finally taken aboard ship, but died there and was buried at sea. (From Hutchinson, G. (2012) Pilgrimage: A Traveller’s Guide to New Zealanders in Two World Wars)