All stories have a starting point. This book started with a sepia photo and some unanswered questions. I was given a photograph of my great uncle Bertie Jarrett seated beside his adoptive parents, my great grandparents, before he went off to war in 1916. Like in so many New Zealand families the photo had been passed down the generations, the blue pencil writing on the back hardly legible any more. And with the photo came Bertie’s story.
The photo was carried by Bertie throughout the war, through the hell of France and right back to Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain in Southern England where he was sent after the Armistice in 1918. Bertie Jarrett died in Tidworth Military Hospital of pneumonia, early in March 1919, while waiting for a ship to take him home. Bertie’s belongings returned to New Zealand, but he didn’t. Bertie lies in the Tidworth Military Cemetery near the site of Sling Camp. He left behind in New Zealand a fiancée who never married, my devastated great grandparents, and his extended family. To survive the nightmare of the Western Front only to die of pneumonia seemed the cruellest of fates. Another tragic irony in Bertie’s life was that at five feet one-and-a-half inches (156.2 cm) he was under the regulation height for enlisted men. He may have been excused war service on that basis, but he volunteered anyway.
Bertie’s photo has hung on our lounge wall as part of a family collection for years. The question that I could never really fathom was – why did Bertie, who enlisted early in the war, have to wait nearly four months for a boat home? I decided to look into it. Every time I researched his war grave and the surrounding military area of Salisbury Plain, and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s occupation of Sling Camp, an image of and information about the giant Kiwi carved into Beacon Hill in 1919 kept popping up in front of me.
And so the journey began.
The more I dug into the story about this huge excavation on the side of a prominent hill overlooking Sling Camp, the more fascinated I became. It was like a puzzle set in front of me to decipher. There was no roadmap, and the highways and byways I’ve taken since have been at times impulsive with rich rewards and at times barren after a great deal of time and effort. But bit by bit the story has emerged.
This is a book of questions. The questions that were rarely asked of our returning soldiers from WWI until those experiences were sixty years and more distant in their memories. Questions about why it took so long for our soldiers to return from the battlefields of Europe and beyond to this most remote of part of the British Empire. Questions about what they did and felt at the end of the war and what it all meant to them.
It is about why we, modern New Zealanders, know little about the history that surrounds this important time at the end of this war and our soldiers’ repatriation.
The aim of this story is to put the spotlight on events that happened nearly a century ago. I am not a military historian, nor do I pretend to be one. The book is more of a social history of a time we know little about. Throughout the book I have used the voices of those soldiers who wrote so eloquently about that time. It is their story. It is our story as a nation. It is an understatement to say that I was moved by those scribbled notes and recordings. There is something unbearably affecting about sitting in the National Library in Wellington holding a diary written nearly a hundred years ago by a soldier who had been through the most unimaginable horrors for years, with only brief respite through leave, sickness or injury. The words and photos of those men accompanied me as I described their wartime experiences. I became so familiar with their stories that it was as though they egged me on to include this part, and not to dare leave that part out either. For me the book is unapologetically emotional. I was moved, and similarly I want to move you, the reader.
This book also tells about the families left behind and the stories they handed down over the generations and their place in the hearts of those families, about their lives, their war experiences and their grief. There is no doubt in my mind that our returning heroes grieved for their lost youth, for the fruitlessness of war, for the death of their wartime friends and the wiping out of all those mates they had grown up with.
When reading the diaries and letters that remain, the anguish of those young men is almost palpable. They came home, saying very little of their experiences, and got on with their lives in the best way they knew how. And their families have held on to these treasures, labelling them as ‘letters from the front’ or ‘my uncle’s last letter home’. Those men’s lives are our lives too. They have shaped who we are as a people, as a country.
The Bulford Kiwi is an intriguing story that draws you in. Its genesis comes from the tedium of post war military routines and exercises along with well-meaning but often poorly received compulsory education classes. The men at the centre of this story, along with their commanding officers, were for the most part citizen soldiers who had ‘done their bit’ for the country and now just wanted to go home. The Kiwi emblem was born out of a riot and completed on the day that peace was signed in June 1919.
References about this time in our history are usually sparse, devoting at best a paragraph or two to the Bulford Kiwi and the March 1919 riot. But by asking more questions and digging through old documents, I found family members across the country who opened up their old file boxes, dusted off photographs, and read back through old letters, generously contributing them to the mix.
These people’s generosity in sharing their stories has left me speechless at times. Early on in the journey and following a lead I called two phone numbers in Whanganui. On the second call I struck gold in the purest form. Did the family have a diary of their WWI family member? Yes, they had a transcript of Great Uncle Harry’s diary. Did I want it? Absolutely! Give me your email, they said, and we’ll send it to you tonight. Really!! I was also instructed to talk to Aunty Margaret, the matriarch of the family who knew everything. And at the bottom of Aunty Margaret’s huge plastic box containing that same Uncle Harry’s WWI memorabilia, we found a small brown envelope. On the outside of the envelope in pencil was written the words ‘Sling Camp’. Inside that envelope were a number of negatives of the Bulford Kiwi. They had been sitting there for nearly a hundred years. They are now part of the book and this story.
From those eclectic contributions, and there have been many, has emerged information about a group of men whose deeds have remained little known until now. Men whose diaries have been uncovered, whose letters home have been unearthed and whose photographs of that time have all become part of this narrative.
Bit by bit the Kiwi has revealed its past. Who would have thought that the giant Kiwi was drawn by a soldier who after the war would become a successful Auckland businessman? Who knew that the New Zealand soldier who surveyed the Kiwi onto the slopes of Beacon Hill was from the first Chinese family in New Zealand? Who knew that the captain, who chivvied the fatigue parties up the hill six days a week, attested to serve his country twice in WWI and was a survivor of a horrendous explosion in the trenches that buried him alive, had written a diary describing his experiences?
Whether they knew it or not at the time, over the years the construction of the Kiwi emblem became a touchstone for returning servicemen and their families. A chore to occupy the hours of waiting for a ship home had become something to be proud of; the detested Sling Camp was now adorned with a connection to home. The emblem came to represent far more than a mere motif. For many of those involved in creating it, the Kiwi came to represent the lost men, the men whose feet had trod the training bullring where they readied themselves for war, and those who would never go home. A monument built by soldiers, not governments, for themselves and their mates.
But the story does not end with the construction of the Kiwi or with the closing of the gate to Sling Camp for the last time in November 1919, leaving the maintenance of the Kiwi in the hands of the Kiwi Polish Company.
The book is in two parts. The first part deals with the end of the war, the factors that delayed the men returning to New Zealand, the two-day riot and its aftermath, and describes the actual construction of the 1919 Kiwi. The second part of the book continues the story of what happened to the Kiwi after the soldiers left for home and peacetime routines were established in England.
The bond between soldier and place is described by George Jenkins when he returns to the site where Sling Camp stood and he sets eyes on the Kiwi thirteen years after leaving for home. The connection to the Kiwi is also told in Percy Blenkarne’s advocacy to the New Zealand Government in the 1950s for them to ‘pick up’ the cost of maintaining the emblem, a part of New Zealand remaining in England forever.
And for a while the New Zealand Government did honour their pledge to those soldiers from WWI. They did pay for some maintenance work to be done, but not enough. Essentially, we as a country forgot about the Kiwi. We gracelessly let it go. We were careless of an emblem entrusted to us as a country by those soldiers. Then in 1980, after many of those soldiers had died, when asked to save the Kiwi from extinction by an officer on behalf of the British Army the New Zealand Government declined to help. In doing so, it formally relinquished any ownership of the giant bird.
At this point the story may well have come to a sad conclusion. However, like all good yarns there was a hero waiting in the wings to do the deed that needed to be done. Fittingly it was a British soldier from another generation who saw what was required, gathered his men around him and restored the Kiwi.
This is a book about a gift from our soldiers that was ours as a nation to keep and honour. And as a country we thoughtlessly let it slip away from us. Nevertheless it is our story and it should be told.
The Bulford Kiwi is published by Bateman, RRP $39.99.