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

A Man’s Best Friend

A Man’s Best Friend

February 12th, 2018

Animals have long been ‘recruited’ into the armed forces as military mascots and have served their masters with loyalty and distinction. Many of the mascots have been kept for ceremonial purposes, as emblems of particular units or simply for companionship, often bringing moments of peace and normality during the hardships and brutality of war. 

For many of the New Zealand military units, especially during the First World War and the Second World War, mascots were acquired through various means. Whereas dogs have been the most common animals to serve the Kiwi troops, cats, rabbits, donkeys, monkeys, lizards, pigs, goats and birds were also adopted as mascots.

In some cases, the animals went to war with their owners while other mascots, mostly strays, were picked up in far flung places like Sri Lanka, Turkey, North Africa, Borneo, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Many were only temporary companions, but some served through entire campaigns. A few, such as the First World War Red Cross dog Caesar, combined their mascot roles with other duties. Dogs were especially useful for helping stretcher-bearers find wounded soldiers in no man’s land at night, a role Caesar performed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Another famous four-legged mascot was Freda who, in the latter stages of World War I, became the ‘official’ mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Surprisingly no official photo exists of Freda and over the years she was wrongly identified as a Dalmatian, when in fact, she was a Harlequin Great Dane.

Another much-loved World War I ‘mutt’ was Floss, who became the New Zealand Army rugby team’s mascot when they were touring England in 1917.

In World War II, the most famous of Army mascots was Major Major, a Bull Terrier who was the No. 1 Dog of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) and the regimental mascot of the 19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment. Another four-legged friend was Colonel Ben, who was the mascot of A Squadron, New Zealand Divisional Cavalry.

In more recent times, during an over seas deployment in Afghanistan, Major Syd Dewes, befriended the huge dog Gunner, who soon became the mascot of Kiwi troops serving in the Bamian Province.

Artefact of the Month: Walking Stick, WWI

September 28th, 2017

A walking stick made with debris from the well-known Cloth Hall in Ypres during WWI is September’s Artefact of the Month.

1983.799; Walking Stick, WWI. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

This walking stick was made by 42461 Sergeant Charles Cameron Begg, from Dunedin and was gifted to his father, Thomas Begg. The stick is made from debris from the Cloth Hall in Ypres, which had partially burnt down from being shelled during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. A 1917 French coin and part of a German plane propeller were also used to create the walking stick. Charles likely picked up these items while either travelling to the front or on his return after assisting in the Third Battle of Ypres as part of the No 4 Field Company of the New Zealand Engineers during the Battle of Passchendaele.

1983.799; Walking Stick, WWI. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

The Cloth Hall in Ypres

Completed in 1304, the Cloth Hall in Ypres, known also as Ieper in Belgium took over 100 years to build. The Hall was a major commercial centre for the flourishing Flemish cloth industry at the time. In 1914 shellfire set wooden beams within the ceiling alight and the building was partially burnt down. By 1918 and as a result of continued artillery bombardment in the Ypres area throughout WWI, much of the original Cloth Hall had been reduced to rubble.


Photo from WWI Photograph Album – France, Belgium and England. 2001.445.1: view:


Photo from WWI Photograph Album – France, Belgium and England. 2001.445.1: View:

Images of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, dated 1912 (left) and later (right).

The New Zealand Engineers at Passchendaele

The New Zealand Engineers (NZE) were a specialist unit formed as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force that supported the movement and communication of the Allies during WWI. Their work included building bridges, walkways, roads and railways to support the transport of soldiers, artillery and supplies.

The No 4 Field Company began assisting with building walking and mule tracks forward of Ypres from late September 1917. The mud made it so difficult to walk or drive through that the only way to shift supplies and the wounded was to carry them by foot. German artillery targeted these supply routes, so constant repairs were needed.

1999.929; Attempting to free a field gun stuck in mud near Flanders. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

On 4 October the New Zealand Division pushed forward and captured Gravenstafel spur, but there were few places of protection from enemy gun fire in this newly gained ground. Men from the 4th and 3rd Companies of the NZE pumped water out of captured German dugouts and repaired them for Allied use.

On 12 October, the NZE awaited to move forward and assist with the Passchendaele attack as they had done on the 4th, but no call came. Instead they were instructed to repair communication lines. The next day, NZE assisted with the search and transport of wounded who remained on the battlefield. On 21 October the NZE were relieved by the 3rd Divisional Canadian Engineers.


Artefact of the Month: Sketches by Murray Moorhead

August 23rd, 2017

A selection of sketches and cartoons by well-known New Zealand journalist, writer and cartoonist Murray Moorhead are August’s Artefact of the Month.

Linton Camp 1953 “Any complaints chaps?” | Murray Moorhead. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, 1999.2710.14

Murray Moorhead was born in New Plymouth in 1934 and attended New Plymouth Boys’ High School. Prior to his Compulsory Military Training (CMT), the closest links to any form of military history for Moorhead was five uncles who served in WWII and being a member of the School Cadets. Moorhead was called up for CMT in the 10th intake in 1953 at Linton Camp and was trained as an anti-tank gunner on 6-pound guns. He remained in the Territorial Army until 1967 when he retired with the rank of Staff Sergeant. 

Midwinter winds in midsummer, Waiouru | Murray Moorhead. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, 1999.2710.2

Moorhead had many books and cartoons published during his lifetime and was awarded the New Zealand Military Historical Society’s Literary Award in 1987. His last book First in Arms published in 2004 told of the experiences of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers during the Taranaki War of 1860 – 1861.

Murray Moorhead passed away in 2007 and is buried in New Plymouth.

Murray Moorhead. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, 1999.2719.3

How to Begin Researching Your Family History

August 20th, 2017

The Kippenberger Library at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa provides a great starting point for families researching their military history. Our library staff frequently assist family members in seeking out information on an ancestor who has served in the armed forces and bringing their unique history and experiences to life.

To mark Family History Month this year, our library staff have shared some useful resources and advice for researchers beginning their family history journey.

NZ Troops in camp. 1988.1430.1, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

  • Do you have an individual service number?

A helpful place to begin your family history journey is Auckland Museum’s online cenotaph.

The online cenotaph is a user-friendly platform which features individual profiles of men and women who’ve served Aotearoa, New Zealand. Researchers are able to use various search filters to find a person and important details related to their service, including in most cases their individual service number.

With a service number you will be able to access the relevant service record and it is here where a wealth of information can be found.

Lunch break at Featherston. 1999.2632, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

  • Have you accessed their service record?

Service records are a detailed account of an individual’s personal history during service.

Service records include important forms such as history, attestation and casualty sheets alongside dates such as enlistment, embarkation or discharge. The numerous abbreviations and handwriting styles found in service records can make them difficult to read. Perseverance is the key!

To gain access to service records contact the following organisations:

Personnel who served prior to 1 January 1921 – Archives New Zealand

Please note: WWI service records have been digitized and are available to the public online at Archives New Zealand. A direct link to an individual’s service record can be found in their profile on Auckland Museum’s online cenotaph.

Personnel who served after 1 January 1921  – New Zealand Defence Force Personnel Archives

Please note: Service records of personnel who served in both WWI and WWII will be held at Archives New Zealand.


35858 Arthur P. Kidd and 35834 Richard Kidd in uniform. 2007.203, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

  • Which actions or battles did they take part in?

Official unit histories compliment the personalised information found in service records.

To find out which actions an individual took part in, you will need to seek out the official histories of the unit they served in. These accounts were written by unit Commanders and give the dates and details of the battles in depth, where the units went and what they did.

The unit histories for WWI and WWII have been digitised and are available to the public:




Diary of WWI soldier 23/2021 Corporal Patrick John Keegan.

  • Are you able to source material from a personal perspective?

Another important perspective to consider when researching is the personal, first-hand experience of service. For example, what did it smell like? What did they see? What did it feel like? For some individual’s this may not be possible, but if you have access to a journal, letters or a scrapbook related to your military person you are well on your way.

Talking with family is also recommended. A family member may have stories, photos to share, diaries, letters or recollections of the person who they remember from childhood.

Another useful resource is personal narratives. Found in libraries and archives, these accounts are written at a soldier’s level describing their everyday life. An individual may not have written their own account, however seeking out personal narratives by members of the same unit who may have shared similar experiences can also offer valuable insight from a soldier’s perspective.

Gathering material from a variety of sources, both official and personal, helps to build an individual’s unique story and bring their memory and experiences to life.


Professor Gary Sheffield researching in the Kippenberger Military Archives and Research Library, 2016

  • What other resources are available?

These additional resources also offer useful information to help with your research:

Paperspast – Digitized New Zealand newspapers which include articles about parades, training and departures as well as listings of those who were missing, wounded or killed.

National Library of New Zealand and Alexander Turnbull Library – These collections hold published and unpublished material including letters, diaries and memoirs of individual service personnel and a large photographic archive.

New Zealand History Online

Commonwealth War Graves Commission – This website lists all commonwealth service personnel who died on Active Service in WWI and WWII.

New Zealand War Graves Project – Over 11,000 colour photos of New Zealand war graves headstones and Primary Memorials.


  • Do you need assistance with your family research project?

Our staff at the Kippenberger Library take great pride and interest in helping families research their military history. If you would like assistance in conducting your own research or would like to find out more about our services and facilities please contact us by filling out our online enquiry form.

“Grandad Never Talked About the War” – The Challenges of Storytelling in a Military Museum

July 31st, 2017

Kia ora tātou

Ko Elizabeth Mildon ahau

Ko Kairanga taku turangawaewae

He kaimahi au i te National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

My role at the National Army Museum is Assistant Curator Heraldry. I look after the badges and buttons but I am also responsible for the medal collection; a collection which represents close to 2000 individuals. A good proportion of the items in the National Army Museum’s whole collection are linked to specific individuals. These uniforms, photographs, documents, social history objects, badges, buttons and medals are all fragments that fit together to help to tell the stories of men and women (and the occasional animal) who have served overseas in major conflicts, served overseas in peacekeeping roles and served at home.

This current period of commemoration has raised people’s interest in family members who served during times of conflict. Medals, badges and buttons, stuck for most of the last hundred years in a box at the back of a wardrobe, are coming into the light. We have seen an increase in enquiries from families wanting to know more about the history of these items and wanting to strengthen the link between the items and themselves. It has provided a catalyst for families to donate material to the museum. When this material comes to the museum, are we asking enough questions? Is there enough dialogue between us and the donors? When we accept an item into our collection we are then responsible for telling its story and It is those extra details, provided by family, that can add depth to a story.

Harry Franklin1 Harry FRanklin2

Medals and RSA badge of Harry Franklin

In 2014 we were given a set of medals belonging to a Private Harry Franklin of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Harry served during World War One on the Western Front. In early 1918, suffering from Pleurisy, he was invalided home to New Zealand. Harry’s medals include the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. With the medals came a story written out by his Grandson, Alan. Alan talks about how Harry had been a proud, long serving member of the Returned Services Association but he would never march in or watch an ANZAC day service. Alan had on many occasions tried to get Harry to talk about his experiences but like so many returning service men, he did not want talk about it. Finally on ANZAC day in 1976 Harry related the following to his grandson:

 “I was a machine gunner on the front line and the only times the gun would stop during a German advance was when it overheated, jammed or ran out of ammunition. I can’t tell you how many Germans I killed but it was many. That’s not war, that’s murder.” 

He and his grandson then drank some beer while the tears ran down Harry’s cheeks.

The war affected Harry deeply and he struggled with what he had had to do and it is easy to understand why he and many others never really wanted to talk about what had happened. It is easy to understand how these experiences would go on to twist and shape their lives.

Left: Gerald Leighton-Jones Right: Gerald Leighton Jones (far right)

My Grandfather Gerald Leighton-Jones was studying Theology at Canterbury University before he volunteered and went away to fight in WWII first as an NCO and then as an infantry officer. When he returned he did not wish to continue with his studies being of the opinion that after killing other people how could he possibly go on to preach about love, peace and kindness to others. Seemingly otherwise unaffected by his six years’ experience, Gerry never talked about the war to his family and continued to serve in the Territorials, rising to the rank of Major and finally retiring in 1950. He did go on to have series of complete mental collapses in 1973, 1974 and again in 1979. What we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During his last treatment, Gerry underwent electroconvulsive therapy. As we know this treatment is considered very controversial but for Gerry it resulted in his complete recovery and it was then that he started to talk about his experiences to my father, his son-in-law.

When we accept material into the collection, we take responsibility for its physical care and well-being. But, also, after material has been donated what are our responsibilities in maintaining dialogue between the family and the museum so the connections between the object and the family are not lost? Trying to find information on the recipient of a set of medals where the only details recorded at the time of donation were “my mate Joe” is enough to test even the most diligent of ‘Nancy Drews’. Continued dialogue with the family is also important as as we continue to research a soldier and their history, it is possible we may uncover information previously unknown to the family. Unfortunately it can be rather awkward trying to explain to a family that the letters VD recorded on a service record are not the abbreviation for a decoration for bravery.

Dot Whitley before embarkation and after his leg was amputated

My Great Great Uncle Dot Whitley received gun-shot wounds to his face and left leg in August 1917. His leg was initially amputated below the knee, while at the casualty clearing station. Due to infection he had to undergo two more amputations, firstly through the knee joint (still at the CCS) and then this final amputation owing to ‘sequestration’, which is the removal of dead bone, through the lower third of his thigh. The stump had to be re-fashioned and he was left with seven inches of thigh, enough leg to fit an artificial limb. His father sent him 100 pounds in order to purchase the best model of artificial leg available at the time. The family were of course aware he had lost a leg but not that he had undergone three operations. It was not until WWI service records were made publicly available that the details came to light. It just so happens that in Dot’s case, the medical records that were included had been recorded in great detail which is in great contrast to some records where the medical details are scant to say the least or even non-existent.

And what kind of story do we want to tell? Do we rely more on the ‘official’ citation of a decorated soldier published in the London Gazette, or the ‘unofficial’ version shared by a soldier with a family member over a few beers? An official version tells one side of a story, and is probably considered to be a ‘safe’ way of looking at things; the more personal view will contain information that is more sensitive, with the potential to ruffle feathers, but lets us see the more human side. If we receive information that is more personal and sensitive, do we tell this ‘warts and all’ story, and to what extent are we obliged to consult with families over what is to be released into a public forum?

A major project that I have undertaken is going through all the medal groups we have on display in the Medal Repository and updating the service information and biographical details of each soldier. In many cases, this is pretty straight forward. The hardest part is interpreting the handwriting and shorthand on WWI service records but from time-to time you come across a soldier whose service has been less than conventional and where the information touches on the areas of rebelliousness, illness, etc. Revisiting biographies that I wrote when I first started in the heraldry position nearly five years ago, I read that I have not included some of these more sensitive details. Probably at the time I thought they were too private to share with the wider audience. But are we here to act as censors? Through experience and also learning more about my own family’s military history I can see that it is these more ‘human’ details that help to paint a clearer picture of the realities of war.

Left:Gerald Fell Centre:Dick and Owen Mildon Right:Unknown soldier and Owen Mildon

This has become quite a personal thing. Our Medal Repository now contains the medal groups of four of my family members. My great-great uncle Lieutenant Gerald Fell who served with the Wellington Infantry Regiment, survived the Somme but was killed at Messines in 1917; both my Grandfathers; Gerald Leighton-Jones who served in North Africa and Italy, and Dick Mildon who served with the New Zealand Home Guard; also My Great Uncle Owen Mildon who served during WWII with the New Zealand Signallers. Owen was not fitted for active service. His younger brother Dick, my Grandfather, knew this and volunteered so that Owen could stay home and run the family farm. Unfortunately, during medical examination, it was discovered that Dick was colour-blind and so unable to go serve with the forces overseas. After Owen’s call-up, his application to the Manpower Board for exemption was turned down, and he was sent overseas, arriving in Egypt in October 1941. He was returned to New Zealand in May 1943 classified as medically unfit. His Medical Board report, dated 15 February 1943, records his disability as being “Temperamental instability”.

“A shy introspective man of good physique who is anxious to serve but is totally unable to submit his emotional individuality to the demands of Army life. He does not appear to be fitted for any form of service…..he has never seen action and appears to be a total misfit within the Service”.

Although it doesn’t say it outright, this report gives the impression that whoever examined Owen in 1943, is probably asking why this man was ever sent overseas in the first place. It highlights the fact that at the time of recruitment, a man’s mental ability to cope with the demands of service was not a major consideration. As long as you had good eyesight, your feet were not flat and you were in good physical condition, you were considered fit to fight or serve.

It is important to recognise, particularly with regard to WWI and WWII that the majority of these men who went away were not professional soldiers, they were civilians drawn into a conflict that would expose them to experiences that would affect them in ways they could not imagine. It is important to look beyond the soldier and at the human being; inexperienced, fallible and fragile, but also capable of acts of bravery and endurance in extraordinary circumstances.

It is also important to remember that the story does not end when the war ends. What happens after war? One day I overheard a conversation in our Medical Tent Display between our late Senior Custodian, John Compton and a group of school children. The children were reacting to the soldier lying on the stretcher with the usual exclamations of disgust at his missing leg. John on the other hand was urging them to think beyond his physical disability to what the social and economic implications would be for him. What happens when he gets home? Is he part of a family that relies on him as being the main income earner? What if the job he had before the war is reliant on him having two legs? How is this now going to affect his family? Also, how is this going to affect his state-of-mind, his confidence and feelings of self-worth.

The nature of conflict and the way wars are fought have changed over time but their outcomes remain the same. There will always be death, there will always be people forced from their homes, there will always be families who suffer loss and there are the soldiers who return home, changed, to then pick up the threads of a normal life. There will always be stories of loss and of hope. There are the stories that are reported through official channels but also the family stories that thread their way through generations, possibly getting a little knotted, frayed, broken and then re-tied along the way. However, sometimes it pays to be careful as I found out with regard to my own family!

My grandfather Gerald Leighton-Jones was a rower. He rowed for his school and later for the Wanganui Rowing Club. I always remember being told by mum how Grandad had been selected to row for New Zealand at the up-coming 1940 Olympic Games but because of WWII this never eventuated. I still felt quite proud. It didn’t matter that he never went; just the fact that he had been selected was enough. With the event of the Rio Olympics, the National Army Museum was going to share some stories relating to sporting military personnel represented in our collection. With Gerald’s medals now being part of the NAM’s collection, he seemed like a perfect example! Needless to say, after further research and talking to other family members, evidence to support this ‘rowing at the Olympics’ story was pretty non-existent.  We decided that it was quite a ‘dad’ thing to say to your children. “Oh, if it wasn’t for the war, I would have rowed for New Zealand at the Olympic games.”

Our challenge now is to continue to provide a forum for the ‘missing voices’. A museum is a world of a thousand voices; voices all speaking at once, trying to be heard. As museum professionals we make choices with regard to the voices that are heard and how they are interpreted and amplified. It is a position of power and great responsibility and we either choose to be brave or be safe in what we include and share with our communities. The Army Marae, here at Waiouru, is set to face the setting sun, unlike other marae that face East. This represents the uncertainty that soldiers are heading into. They must be prepared to face ‘the dark’ – the unknown, the scary, the challenging. It’s the same for us in how we should approach telling the un-told stories. It is important that we continue to explore the challenging and personal stories of soldiers who have served in the past and also those who are serving now. The National Army Museum is a living memorial. It is a place where we can confront the past and challenge the future.

Kia whakatomuri te haere whakamua – I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past .

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa

By Elizabeth Mildon

Artefact of the Month: Lance Corporal Nimrod’s Dog Blanket

July 31st, 2017

Lance Corporal Nimrod’s dog blanket. 1985.1933. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa.

July’s Artefact of the Month is Lance Corporal Nimrod’s dog blanket. Nimrod was the mascot for the 2nd Battalion, New Zealand Regiment. The blanket has the 2nd Battalion crest, and Lance Corporal’s stripes on both sides.

Many animals have served alongside men and women throughout various conflicts New Zealand has been involved in. They’ve carried out various roles such as mascots, messengers and first-aid assistants, as well as transportation. In the case of war horses, they’ve even played a vital part in the battles themselves.

Animal mascots such as Nimrod are often seen as symbols of hope and good luck within a unit and they give servicemen and women a sense of normality and friendship amidst the harsh conditions of war.

Artefact of the Month: Khaki Cloth Housewife, WWI

June 7th, 2017

National Army Museum. Khaki Cloth Housewife, WWI. 1981.2640.

A Khaki Cloth Housewife attributed to 13/2823 Albert Henry Johnston MM is June’s Artefact of the Month. This object contains an assortment of needles, nails, buttons and safety pins, and a small silver tin containing adhesive plasters. A sticker on the bottom of the tin advises: ‘a piece of plaster this size placed on the heel before marching prevents blisters’.

Albert Henry Johnston embarked aboard the Maunganui on 8 January 1916 with the 9th Reinforcements, Auckland Mounted Rifles. He later served with the NZ Field Artillery and was involved in actions on the Western Front. Albert was awarded a Military Medal for acts of gallantry at the Battle of Messines when, as Acting-Bombardier in a party laying cable, his area came under heavy shellfire.

An extract from the London Gazette date 16 Aug 1917 states as follows: ‘On 7th June was in a party laying cable from cable head to Brigade Forward Station near Messines. The party had to lay through a heavy Barrage, then return, repairing breaks and relaying portions through the barraged area, as soon as the barrage lightened. This occupied from Zero + 3 hours. Subsequently Bombardier Johnston was posted to a cable head for maintenance of the line. There was heavy shelling over this area till nightfall on June 7th, lines were continually cut and repaired.  Bombardier Johnston was out on the lines at the earliest opportunity and worked fearlessly through the barrage. It is largely due to his efforts that the lines were repaired in time to get some work through before being cut again. In addition the example he set was of great value.’

Gunners’ Day Feature: Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer

May 26th, 2017

This camouflaged Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer belonged to 22(D) Battery, Wellington and is currently on display at Pye Range.

Each year on 26th May, Gunners’ Day is celebrated around the Commonwealth and marks the day in 1716 when King George I issued a royal warrant forming the first regular artillery force in Britain. The National Army Museum holds several artillery pieces within our offsite collection at Pye Range in Waiouru Military Camp. Included in our collection is today’s featured gun, the Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer.

The New Zealand Army purchased twenty four of these 105mm guns from Oto Melara, Italy as a replacement for the old 25 Pounder field guns in 1963. A total of 4200 weapons were produced between 1957 and 1984. 161 Battery of 16th Field Regiment, RNZA deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as a four gun battery of L5s. They fired their first fire mission with the L5 on the 19th July 1965.

The advantage of the gun was that it could be broken down into twelve loads which could be transported by pack animals, hence the term ‘Pack Howitzer’. Besides being towed behind a Land Rover or a Unimog, it could be airlifted complete by a medium helicopter, and by removing the shields and parts of the trail it could be squeezed into the back of a M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier.

Because it was designed to be easily portable, and therefore lightly built, the gun was found not to be robust enough for the heavy and often continuous firing required in Vietnam. The L5s were therefore replaced in February 1967 by the older, sturdier American M101A1.

The L5 continued to serve with 161 Battery, the School of Artillery, and the two North Island territorial artillery units (11A Battery in Papakura and 22D Battery in Wellington), being replaced progressively throughout the late 1980s by the British L119 Hamel 105mm Light Gun.

Crew: Six of Seven

Ammunition: High Explosive, Smoke, Illumination, HEAT and Flechette

Range: 10, 575 metres

Click on an image to enlarge.
Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer-anti-tank Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer-anti-tank-malaya Italian L5 105mm Pack Howitzer-anti-tank-underslung.  

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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