In the textiles collection are two objects worth their weight in gold for the story they tell. Of glossy pink satin with ruffles and embroidered hearts, they were sent 80 years ago to the donor’s mother-in-law by her admirer, Corporal Bartlett Mahinui Watene of the Taihui waka, Thames, and the 28th Maori Battalion. He was known as Bart.
Perhaps Bart had matrimony on his mind when he left New Zealand for England in 1940. At any rate, these specially embroidered items were sent home to Muriel, with a loving message on each. “Muriel, Arohanui from Bart” and “England, 1940” was on the luxuriously plump frilled tea cosy, and “Muriel, Arohanui from Bart” and “NZ Onward” symbol was stitched on a dressing table mat. Off to the other side of the world went these material messages, which Muriel never lost – or perhaps ever used, as their condition is excellent.
Meanwhile, a year later, Bart became part of the 7700 servicemen of the New Zealand Division in Crete, under the command of General Bernard Freyberg. The Battle of Crete was initiated by a huge German airborne assault lasting for 12 days in May 1941, after which 2100 New Zealanders were captured on the island. Bart was one of them.
Bart’s journey as a prisoner began in Galatas and continued to Greece, from where he was sent to Germany as prisoner no. 8006, finally arriving in Stalag VIIIC at Kunau Kr Sprottau, near Sagan (now part of Poland).
Bart may have been in one of the working parties sent to labour in a local sugar factory; one report notes how every effort was made by the workers to contaminate the sugar product…
Did Muriel know about his incarceration and the appalling privations and hardships Bart underwent until the end of the war? Nobody knows. It is likely that Bart was part of an enforced march during the freezing European winter of February-March 1945, this being an effort by the Germans to outrun the approaching Soviet Army. For Bart and his fellow prisoners, liberation came shortly after they eventually reached the final receiving camp, when the US Army arrived in April 1945.
Muriel and Bart did not marry. We do not know if they met again. Did Bart manage to write to Muriel during his incarceration? Perhaps her interest waned; or was he so uncertain of his own life chances that he encouraged her to look elsewhere? So much is left untold.
Bart and Muriel’s story and many others await discovery in the Army Museum’s textiles collection.