Official photographs and reading Herman Wollerman’s postcard

Official photographs and reading Herman Wollerman’s postcard

Can you spot the arrow in the sky? This photographic postcard, by photographer James Daroux, was sent by Herman Wollerman to his father in Wellington from the Takapau Divisional training camp in the Hawke’s Bay in May 1914. Lissa Mitchell, Curator Historical Documentary Photography, explains the story of this postcard.

Takapau Divisional Camp 1914, photographic postcard, Hawkes’ Bay, by James H. Daroux, Te Papa PS.003297

The camp was one of an annual series of training exercises organised by the New Zealand Territorial Forces from 1912 to 1917. The Forces were set up on the advice of British military authorities to enable the colony to defend itself and to help other imperial forces in defending territory if necessary. Herman drew the arrow in the sky to show the area of the camp he was staying in.

Men at the camp were able to obtain a copy of the postcard showing a view of where they were and send it along with a message to their family and friends. Preparations and activities at the camp were widely reported in newspapers and the postcard was probably commissioned to give an official view of the camp for the public interested in newsworthy events.

The story behind the photograph

Herman wrote and sent the postcard just days after a riot at the camp over poor conditions compounded by wet weather.

Men had been issued with only one uniform and were not allowed to take any other clothes into the camp. Another complaint was the lack of ‘proper and sufficient food’. Adding to matters, the government had decided the men should stay an extra few days at the camp (still wearing wet uniforms).

Reports of the riot featured widely in the local newspapers and included a lengthy report describing the unrest and the men’s complaints which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Within days of the riot at the camp, and to reassure the public everything was in under control, official photographs, taken by S. C. Smith, of men engaged in activities at the camp were published in the New Zealand Free Lance newspaper.

These photographs are good examples of official photographs that show posed soldiers taking part in organised and somewhat fun activities which contrasted with the reality that produced the riots.

Daroux and Smith’s photographs show modern military training occurring because of a perceived need for a trained defence force that predates the experience of World War I. We are unable to see their photographs as people did in May 1914 as our view is so obscured by our knowledge of war in the 20th century, but our challenge is to try.

Landscape, Nelson, 1872. John Gully. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa

Documenting landscape use

Like John Gully’s 1872 Nelson landscape (above), Daroux’s photograph is a classic topographical style view based on conventional 19th century approaches to making images of colonial landscapes. Taken from an elevated vantage point it shows a lush flat valley disappearing into the distance. A cabbage tree, sitting on the hill on the left, gives visual interest and scale.

Despite its subject, Daroux’s photograph (like Gully’s painting) is still largely concerned with showing the landscape of the colony and how it is being used (or could be used). In contrast to the vacant landscape in Gully’s painting, the camp in Daroux’s photograph shows that the land is occupied by government forces.

‘Distant and missing’

To our contemporary eyes, Daroux’s photograph with its distant view of the mass of tents at the camp signals only the generic presence of soldiers – individual men are missing.

Two words from the previous sentence come to mind for me in describing this postcard and they echo what I know of the experience of those at home whose men served in World War I: distant and missing. But this is also reading the future into this photograph that, while taken in the months leading up to the start of World War I, is not about that war but tainted by its association with it.

The message on the postcard

While he served far from home (though not Europe) and returned home to his family, Herman’s experience of the war also initially influenced my reading of his message on the postcard (see transcript below).

I read his message to his father about not being involved in the riot at the Takapau camp as an anxious communication sent to reassure his father that he was a compliant soldier who wasn’t doing anything to give the impression that he was an enemy of the government. But my point of view was informed by what happened later.

Back of the postcard:
Back of the postcard: Takapau Divisional Camp 1914, photographic postcard, Hawke’s Bay, by James H. Daroux, Te Papa PS.003297

Plagued by suspicion

Herman’s father, a prominent Wellington wine and spirit merchant, and his mother were both born in Germany. His father had served as a soldier in the German army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 and they settled in New Zealand not long after this war.

Wollerman left for Samoa on 15 August 1914 where he successfully served the New Zealand forces interpreting German communications. However, various private individuals and groups (such as the Wellington-based Women’s Anti-German League and the Farmer’s Union) wrote to government officials to complain and ask for his removal due to his German nationality.

In 1916 the Alien Enemies Commission was asked to compile an official report on him which turned out in his favour. Herman’s superiors commended his work alongside his dedication and loyalty. However, people continued to send letters of complaint about him for the rest of the war.

His father, who was living at Island Bay, was ordered ‘to reside in Palmerston North, away from the sea coast’ as there was talk in the community that he might be trying to signal enemy ships. Herman’s service was constantly plagued by the suspicion that he was an enemy within and this cost him promotion and honour.

Later thoughts on war

I can only speculate about how he felt about his experience as a New Zealand soldier but it seems that his feelings about the need to fight changed as he grew older.

In November 1939, just under two months into the start of World War II, Herman wrote to the Minister of Defence in Wellington and resigned from the military. He asked that his name be removed from the annual publication of retired Officiers in the New Zealand Gazette.

He wrote: ‘As a born New Zealander, I love my country, and as a true patriot realise that the honest way to get protection for this country which calls itself Christian is to negotiate by peaceful methods and let “God defend New Zealand” – not the sword.’ He added, I expect cynically, at the bottom: ‘I served for 5 years in the “War to end Wars”.’

Full transcription of Herman’s message to his father on the postcard:

To: H. Wollerman Esq, Box 20, Wellington

Postmarked: Military Camp NZ 5 6 MY 14


Dear Father

This is a photo of the camp it is about a mile from end to end, and we are under the arrow.

I have just got your letter and am sending a card to mother. The trouble you will have read about did not concern us in fact our men wanted to take to the others.

I had a letter from Aileen today and she says you were very kind to her. Glad you had a good time at the Bay.

The weather has been only fair, & we have been out a good deal but I am in excellent health. Trust you are the same.

Love from Herman.


This blog is part of a month-long series commenting on the start of World War I in August 1914.


  1. Great to hear from you, Bill. I keep in touch with Bill Lennon, so we all have great memories of the Wollerman family. I have written up a lot of Fleck history. Would love to contact you. I am in P.N.

  2. Herman F. A. Wollerman, who departed for the annexation of Samoa (by force if necessary) on 15th August 1914, was my father (I am 90). He was a commissioned officer in the 5th Wellington (Infantry) Regiment for some time pre-war. Trentham was their HQ. This was part-time – effectively it was a territorial unit, as far as I can see. I never knew about the camp at Takapau before now! When he was still an O/R (Other Rank – i.e. beneath officer or NCO rank – just a Private) his peers used to call him “the German spy”. Joking of course, but it indicates the growing depth of feeling which existed just prior to war breaking out – this despite cordial British-German relations only a decade or so previously. George 5th, the Kaiser and the Tsar were cousins, I believe, so no surprise.
    His father (also named Herman – Herman Ludwig) had established himself solidly in Palmerston North before moving to Wellington about 1904. In Palmerston, he was on the Borough Council for three terms pre-1900, was a major city benefactor, imported goods direct from Europe, thereby establishing a reputation for slashing over-the-counter costs, took NZ produce on trips to Europe to create interest there in importing them, at his own expense, ran first-class hotels, sang in musical groups, etc etc.
    He took samples of cheese, apples, flax, wool, timber (for furniture), Kauri gum and wines on his trips. On one occasion, he arranged a dinner in Dortmund for leading businesmen, but unfortunately the frozen lamb got delayed and spoiled, so it had to be cancelled!
    It must have been a terrible blow to him when the anti-German attitudes extended to him and his family – after nearly forty years in NZ. His businesses fell apart, I believe as a result, and he died in 1921. I regret I never knew him (I was born 1924), as the more I investigate old records, the greater my respect for him as a citizen and an achiever.
    In the letter from Takapau, the “Aileen” is his wife (my mother), and the “Bay” is Days Bay, where she lived at the family home (on the site of the present-day “Cobar” restaurant) with her father, W J Simpson. Both she and my father were born in NZ – both in 1888. WW1 started on 4th August, 1914, they married on the 10th (his birthday), and he sailed for Samoa five days later!
    The main objective of the “Invasion” of Samoa (according to my father) was to eliminate the radio station, which was believed to be communicating Allied ship movements etc to the German sea raiders operating in the Pacific (Von Luckner notably). My father only became the Censor after they arrived, when they realised someone who spoke German was needed. He had learned the language as a boy, on a trip to Europe.
    He also told me he applied to transfer to the NZEF in France, but was not allowed, as there was no-one else to do his job.
    As for their relations with Samoans, it was quite the opposite of hate and distrust; I could elaborate at length on this topic.
    As to anti-German attitudes, I myself suffered jibes and worse – not funny at all. It dies hard.

  3. I knew Herman Wollerman and his wife very well, from the 1930s in Palmerston North. My father, James B Fleck was also in Samoa with the occupation force, so they continued their friendship in Palmerston North. When my father died in 1939, Mr Wollerman looked after my mother’s needs, and was a great help to us. The friendship continued until they died. Mrs Wollerman was a great pianist, and Herman sang lustily! Great memories.

    1. Author

      Hi Alice, thank you for commenting and sharing your memories of Herman. It is good to hear that despite his experience during WWI his life afterwards contained rich moments of friendship, family and joy.

    2. Herman W was a local identity, owning a petrol station near the Square. We took our car there to get petrol, and my sister-in-law (a child then) remembers how Mr Wollerrman and my mother would exchange greetings in Samoan. My mother was a fluent speaker of Samoan (her first language) and Wolly must have learned the local language when he was in Samoa. His life story was in the Standard, some years ago. I remember. Jenny Wollerman, opera singer, is his granddaughter. All these memories coming back!

  4. Thanks Lissa – this postcard, read in conjunction with official records, reveals much about the limits of tolerance during the Great War. The detail about Herman’s father being ordered to live in Palmerston North is very telling.

  5. Thanks Lissa. The comparison with the Gully is most interesting. Another watercolour you might look at is Hoyte’s ‘ Shortland Thames ‘ which actually has similar tents in it.

    1. Author

      Not a lot changed in tent design during the 19th century then! Thanks Tony – great to get your comment.

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