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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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’. 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).
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.
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).
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.
- Colonist, 9 June 1917, p. 5.
- Feilding Star, 9 June 1917, p. 2.
- 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.