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

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 Te Mata Toa is 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.

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.

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.

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.

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