National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Tangiwai Disaster 1953: Bravery Medal Awarded to Local Hero

Tangiwai Disaster 1953: Bravery Medal Awarded to Local Hero

May 4th, 2017

On Sunday, 7 May 2017 a national memorial for engine driver Charlie Parker and fireman Lance Redmond was unveiled at the Tangiwai Rail Disaster Memorial site on SH49 near Waiouru. A display at the National Army Museum remembers the heartbreaking story of the Tangiwai Disaster and showcases the George Medal awarded to Taihape resident Arthur Cyril Ellis. On the fateful night of the disaster local postal worker Arthur Ellis became a hero as he first tried to avert the disaster and then bravely saved train passengers. He was awarded the George Medal in 1954 in acknowledgement of his courageous efforts on the night.

The George Medal

George Medal awarded to Arthur Ellis in 1954.

The George Medal (GM) was instituted along with the George Cross (GC) in 1940, and is awarded to civilians for acts of great bravery. The medal can also be awarded to military personnel for bravery while not in direct action with the enemy. The medal on display within the National Army Museum was awarded to Arthur (Cyril) Ellis. a postal worker from Taihape and is in the original box and condition as the Museum received it. 

Citation for the George Medal

“Honours and Awards January 1954

George Medal Mr Arthur Cyril Ellis of Taihape

At Tangiwai on the night of 24 December 1953 Arthur Cyril Ellis was witness to a railway disaster he had endeavoured to avert by waving his torch ahead of the approaching express. After the engine and five carriages had crashed into the flooded Wangaehu River, Arthur Ellis entered the train and, with the Guard, went forward to the sixth carriage, which was balancing on the brink of the torrent. As he was beginning the movement of the passengers from the carriage it toppled forward into the river and was swept downstream. When it came to rest on its side, Arthur Ellis, who throughout displayed much calm and continued to allay panic, broke a window by means of his torch and, with the aid of another passenger, John Warren Holman, assisted to safely all surviving passengers from the partially submerged carriage. Through his present of mind and his courageous actions, in circumstances of extreme danger, Arthur Ellis assisted in the saving of twenty-one lives.”

The 1953 Tangiwai Rail Disaster

New Zealand’s most tragic railway disaster occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, when one hundred and fifty men, women and children lost their lives. At 10.21 pm the Wellington to Auckland express plunged into the Whangaehu River as only minutes before, a sudden discharge of thousands of tonnes of water from the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu sent a 6 metre wave on a path of destruction, and in its path was the railway bridge at Tangiwai.

The alert spread to the Army at the nearby Waiouru Military Camp, the Navy at HMNZS Irirangi and the Ministry of Works (MoW) also at Waiouru. Only about two dozen soldiers were on duty when the alarm was sounded however within minutes, trucks and jeeps were rounding up volunteers. Flares, axes, shovels, blankets and all sorts of emergency gear were rushed to the river. At 11.30 pm, a little more than an hour after the disaster, the Army brought up a diesel generator, four spotlights and a carbon arc searchlight.

At Waiouru Camp the staff had begun a round the clock effort. Cookhouses baked and prepared enough food and hot drinks to feed the hundreds who were helping, as well as relatives of victims who were coming on the sad journey to identify their loved ones. The hall, still decorated for the children’s Christmas party had become a temporary mortuary, where half opened coffins were laid in orderly rows.

The New Zealand Prime Minister Mr Sidney Holland visited the Waiouru Military Camp hospital where many of the survivors (whom were all suffering from shock), huddled in disbelief. As he told a press conference later, “I saw the Navy, Army, Railways and MoW employees who had toiled all night and who, although almost dropping with fatigue, were still carrying on and no words of mine could hope to pay tribute to them. The Navy, Army and the Police had all rendered magnificent service there.” 

Tangiwai Memorial Unveiling – 7 May 2017 Gallery

Artefact of the Month: Combination Protector, WWI

May 3rd, 2017

Combination Protector, WWI. 2001.993

A World War One Combination Protector, given to 43523 Bombardier Charles Robert Reader, from his mother, Mary Eliza Reader is May’s Artefact of the Month.

The Combination Protector was made and patented by a Whanganui Company, Young and Collins Ltd. It consists of a leather pouch and has two steel plates stored inside, designed to prevent injury to the chest and lungs from bullets, shrapnel and bayonet charges. The Combination Protector would have a strap that hung over the neck and could either be worn on the left side of the chest or in combination with another pouch to be worn on the right side of the chest. It could also be used to store a soldier’s personal items such as a pay book, money, or diary.

Bombardier Reader left New Zealand aboard the New Zealand troopship Corinthic on 2 April 1917 as part of the 23rd Reinforcements, New Zealand Field Artillery. He served on the Western Front. Although the Combination Protector that his Mother gave him may have prevented him from being wounded in the chest, it did not protect him from other possible injuries. A few months after arriving in Europe, his military record reports that on the 20 October 1917 Bombardier Reader was wounded in action, receiving a gun shot wound to the shoulder. He returned to London for recovery but was eventually sent home on the SS Maunganui and discharged as being no longer physically fit for active service due to his injury.

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Artefact of the Month: Entrenching Tool and Carrier, WWI

April 25th, 2017

Entrenching Tool and Carrier, WWI. 2006.1329.

General Sir Ian Hamilton’s famous line is “You have got through the difficult business, now you must dig, dig, dig, until you are safe”. This was in response to the message sent from the commanding officers describing the dire situation at Gallipoli and that the ANZACs should withdraw on the evening of 25 April 1915.

In light of Anzac Day commemorations April’s Artefact of the Month is an entrenching tool, also known as an e tool, and carrier. Entrenching tools were extremely important for quickly establishing trenches under direct fire from Turkish defences along the steep terrain at Gallipoli. Although not used at Gallipoli these items belonged to 12/1030 Sergeant William Joseph Virtue, who served in WWI with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. The e tool is composed of a head that features a shovel and pick, with a central eye. The e tool head slots onto the wooden helve that has a steel cap. The head can be stored inside the canvas web carrier, while the helve is attached to the outer of the carrier, secured by a snap lock dome. 

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A Near Miss: WWI Soldier Saved by Diary and Mirror

April 3rd, 2017

It is believed by the family of 65319 Private George Peachey that his diary and wallet-type soldier’s mirror most likely saved his life during WWI.

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A diary and mirror wallet attributed to George Peachey and recently donated to the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, appear to have been scarred by a piece of shrapnel. The direction of the fragment comes from the back of the diary, all the way through and lodges in the back of the soldier’s mirror. There is no mention of Peachey ever being wounded on his record so the objects most probably saved his life. The family believe he was hit in the chest with the shrapnel while the items were in his pocket.

Although Peachey didn’t leave New Zealand until 1917, the diary is dated 1916 and looks to have been mostly used later on as a notebook. Throughout the diaries central pages, possibly written later as well, there are notes about making trenches and pickets alongside a telegram, a leave pass, a theatre ticket, and a pencil.

Diary and mirror wallet of  Pte. George Peachey. 2017.65.1
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Artefact of the Month: Damascene Clogs, WWII

March 29th, 2017

Damascene Clogs - Front

Damascene Clogs, WWII. 1978.3063.

These clogs from Damascus, souvenired by 72056 Catherine Ada Wells in 1942 are March’s Artefact of the Month.  Catherine Wells enlisted in 1941 as a nurse with the Volunteer Aid Detachment in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during WWII. The clogs are painted blue with motifs of birds and flowers in yellow, orange, gold, red, pink, green, black and a darker blue paint. The strap over the toes is made from blue and white polka dot velvet, backed with leather and trimmed with gold ribbon.

Romantic Relics from the Collection

February 12th, 2017

Just in time for St. Valentine’s Day this year we are showcasing some of the more romantic relics held within the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa’s extensive military collection. Made of materials such as gold, enamel, mother of pearl or brass, Sweetheart Brooches were a keepsake gifted to loved ones during World War One and Two. Given by soldiers to mothers, sisters, daughters, wives or girlfriends, these brooches came in a varied range of designs. They could be miniature versions of a soldier’s unit badge or mass-produced “Battlefield” souvenir brooches. They could also be items of ‘ Trench Art’, made by the soldier from material souvenired from the battlefield. In the Pacific, during World War Two, Perspex from the broken windscreens of aircraft was popular along with tortoiseshell and coconut shell. Brass uniforms badges and buttons were also transformed into gifts to be send home to loved ones. The more entrepreneurial would make brooches and other items that could be sold to fellow soldiers.

Below is a selection of Sweetheart Brooches sourced from our Heraldry Collection, some of which are on display in the Museum’s Medal Repository.

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WWI Somme battle souvenir sweetheart brooch. 

Belonged to 10/930 WO2 Thomas William Cross who served with the Wellington Regiment during WWI, including at the Somme. Silvered Brass and Copper.

 WWI 18th Reinforcements badge sweetheart brooch.

Sterling silver and enamel.

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WWI New Zealand Rifle Brigade sweetheart brooch.

Belonged to 23/775 Sgt Les Harris who served with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in WWI.

WWII NZ Onward badge sweetheart brooch.

Carved from bone.

Artefact of the Month: Mah Jong Set

February 6th, 2017

Mah Jong Set

National Army Museum. Mah Jong Set. 2012.12.4

This beautifully made Mah Jong set is February’s Artefact of the Month and a striking example of Prisoner of War Art. It was made by a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) at Featherston Camp during World War Two and given to a guard. This set is one of a number in the museum’s collection and is a terrific example of the skill and artistry of the POWs held at Featherston Camp. Prisoners who did camp duties, such as clearing gorse, were usually given free afternoons to pursue hobbies like carving, which is perhaps the origin of this particular set.

Featherston was the site of a large military training camp during World War One and then in 1942 became the location for an 800-man POW Camp. The featuring of this artefact commemorates the 74th anniversary of the Featherston Camp Incident which took place on 25 February 1943. During the incident a staged protest by POWs refusing to work led to a riot in which 48 prisoners and one guard died. A plaque erected in a small memorial garden near Featherston marks the site where the riot occured.

Artefact of the Month: Fly Whisk, WWII

January 11th, 2017

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Major Hardy. 2016.41.21

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National Army Museum. Fly Whisk, WWII. 2016.41.7

January’s Artefact of the Month is a fly whisk belonging to Major Stewart Hardy during WWII. The handle is made out of one section of horn in which the end is carved into the head of a bird. Inlays of painted white horn and metal have been added to achieve this. The whisk is made out of animal hair, possibly horse or mule and is two tones, dark brown and white.

During WWII, Major Hardy purchased this item from the markets in Egypt. He is seen in several of his photograph albums, which are held within the Museum’s archives, holding this particular fly whisk. Throughout WWII many of our soldiers spent time in Egypt, training outside in the heat among the flies. Major Hardy obtained this item in an effort to deter the buzzing insects! It is used by flicking the whisk to swat the flies away similar to the way a horse’s tail swishes when it feels a fly land on it.

Major Stewart Hardy was born 25 March 1906 and signed up for service in 1940 with the rank of Captain. He embarked on 23 August 1940 with the 6th Field Regiment New Zealand Artillery. After the war Hardy practiced as a Barrister and Solicitor and died in in Hamilton on 10 June 1967 .

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Treasures from the Collection: Red Cross Parcel, WWII

December 20th, 2016

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National Army Museum. Red Cross Parcel, WWII. 1996.1145

This Christmas you may be dreaming of the latest techno gadget, a new bike or looking forward to delicious festive treats. For some soldiers who had become Prisoner’s of War (POWs) during WWII, the coming of Christmas brought back memories of home and precious time spent with their loved ones before the war.

The British Red Cross, in conjunction with the Order of Saint John sent out special Christmas parcels to supplement the often poor camp diets and bring a bit of Christmas cheer. British Red Cross Christmas parcels such as this one could’ve contained items like canned turkey, devilled ham, cherries, tobacco, a can of jam, a can of candy and a pack of cards.

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Artefact of the Month: Christmas Box, Australian, WWI

December 7th, 2016

australian-red-cross-package1December’s Artefact of the Month is a beautifully decorated wooden box produced by the Australian Red Cross for Christmas 1917, WWI.

The rectangular box has a lid, which was originally hinged along the back edge, with a paper label printed ‘Christmas Greetings from the Australian Red Cross 1917’. The underside of the lid has a label which lists the societies the gift is from. The front side facing has a paper label with the Australian flag and the Union Jack, while the sides have labels bearing laurel wreaths.  The box is nailed together.

The Australian Red Cross sent around 395,600 food parcels and 36,300 clothing parcels abroad during WWI. The packages could contain anything from cheese, tea, sugar, corned beef, salmon or biscuits, to scarves, socks, pyjamas, blankets and jumpers. This service was facilitated through the time, labour and money contributed by thousands of Australian countrywomen and men.

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