By Chris Rapley, Assistant Curator Social History
The National Army Museum holds many simple, unassuming objects that hold great power and illuminate aspects of war normally left untold in the history books.
One such object was recently donated to the museum; a simple unopened parcel, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. The parcel dated 27 November 1945 and the red wax on the string is testimony to the fact that it has remained undistrubed since then.
As inconspicuous as the parcel might appear, however, it carries a heartbreaking story of the war time experiences of David Robertson and the people he left behind in New Zealand.
When the Second World War started David was in his mid-thirties working as a hardware buyer in Wellington and still living with his mother, Jessie. Although he was single David did not remain so – he was engaged to Ena Cashin, who was a dental nurse, also in Wellington.
Despite his engagement, when New Zealand followed Britain and declared war on Germany David took what must have been a difficult decision and decided to join up, leaving Ena at home. Maybe David believed the war would be over quickly and having done his bit against Hitler, he would soon be reunited with his fiancee.
David arrived in Egypt in early 1941 and served as a Gunner in the artillery. Unfortunately his part in the war was to be very short lived; after the disastrous Greece Campaign in 1941 he was listed as missing.
The cable listing him as missing in action must have been a terrible shock to Ena and Jessie, but three months later they thankfully received word that he was actually alive and a Prisoner of War.
This was the beginning of four long years of prison for David – his life was on hold like many Kiwi soldiers captured during the early stages of the war. Despite being behind barbed wire David kept his relationship with Ena alive by writing her letters with tiny words crammed onto each piece of paper.
This life in limbo carried on until Germany was finally defeated by the Allies. In May 1945 Ena and Jessie received word that David was safe and in Italy. On 29 May David boarded the Empress of Scotland enroute to Britain a free man and on the start of his return home to Ena. Tragically it was now that disaster struck.
On a cold and windy afternoon David had been on the motor boat deck wrapped up with a blanket enjoying a cigarette with a mate, and had said he would join his mate for dinner after finishing his smoke. However, shortly after his friend went below men from the lower deck saw David falling to the sea feet first, making no attempt to protect himself as he hit the water.
The man overboard call was immediately given, a life buoy was thrown into the sea and the ships following in convoy were signalled. David was spotted swimming in the water behind the Empress of Scotland until he was enveloped in the wash of the steamer following. He was never seen again.
After what must have been the joyous cable that David was returning home, on 16 June 1945 another cable was sent to Ena and Jessie in New Zealand carrying the bitter news that he was missing, believed drowned.
Despite a military Court of Inquiry the reasons why David fell overboard remain unclear. He was reportedly happy and healthly so suicide was dismissed as a possibility and it seems unthinkable given that he was now free and on his journey home to Ena. The conclusion was that he was sitting on a rail and fell perhaps due to a seizure, stroke or even deep sleep.
As was procedure David’s personal effects were gathered up and returned to New Zealand, which brings us to the unopened parcel.
This parcel, recently donated to the museum, holds David’s final possesions and it was delivered to Ena as his fiancee. In all the years following World War II Ena obviously found it impossible to open the parcel, the pain of her loss must have been too acute to face it. And it seems Ena carried the lost Kiwi soldier in her heart for the rest of her life – she never married nor had a boy friend after losing David. When she passed on her family made the discovery of numerous letters from David written to her during his time overseas.
Ena never had a grave to visit to say goodbye to David, he is simply remembered at the Athens memorial, but she did have his final belongings which she kept safe for the rest of her life although it was obviously too painful to look upon them.
Yet, we know Ena’s story is just one amongst the thousands that World War II wrought. The unopened parcel gives us a glimpse into the sorrow that often goes untold amongst the history books – the story of a soldier’s loved one bearing the terrible cost of war.
In army records there is a typed page listing ‘articles of intrinsic or sentimental value’ that belonged to David, things such as a 1943 diary, personal papers, photographs and souvenirs. Some of these things are most probably what are contained in the parcel. Perhaps the papers are letters from Ena or the diary could tell us more about their love, but we will never know because the parcel was left unopened and in respect to Ena and David it will stay that way. The fact that it was never opened tells us in unspoken words about the grief and futility of war with more power than a letter or diary ever could.