With centenary commemorations of the First World War underway and continuing for the next five years, more and more stories are emerging; stories of love, stories of loss, and they all help us to remember the effect of the war on everyone at the front and at home. The Museum was lucky to have recently been donated a collection of archives and images from the Wilson and MacKinnon families in Whanganui that tell yet another wartime story.
Arthur Wilson served as a Private in the 24th Reinforcements F Company of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was trained at Featherston Military Camp before relocating to Trentham and finally embarking for England on 16th April 1917. Like many soldiers he wrote regular letters home, including to his sister Mag (Margaret) Wilson who lived at Alton Villa on St John’s Hill in Wanganui, and several of these letters are included in the collection.
Mag was a suit maker during the war, and Arthur made comment in his letters that she would be running out of clients based on the number of troops he witnessed coming into camp. Once overseas, Arthur tells Mag about his continued weapons training and the conditions both in camp and at the front. He comments on the ton of mud that stuck to his boots while serving in the trenches in France, and that his feet were never warm. A highlight for him, despite the circumstances, was being in isolation with measles which took him away from the action during November 1917.
In March 1918 Arthur wrote about another break from the front: “We are away behind the line just now, & it is just alright to be there. Four of us are doing guard work in a small village just now. I can hear those guns roaring away, I simply hate the sound, & I don’t want to be any closer to them but I suppose we will soon be up near them again.”
Another common theme in Arthur’s letters is his love of his hometown Wanganui, and he often expresses the desire to return to the quiet town and live out his life in peace. However, Arthur did not come home again; he was killed in action on 24th August 1918 at Bapaume, France, aged 35 years. He is buried at the Grevillers British Cemetery at Pas-de-Calais.
Throughout the letters, Arthur refers to his friend who was also Mag’s sweetheart. Duncan “Mack” MacKinnon was from Edinburgh, Scotland, but enlisted in the 10th Reinforcements New Zealand Engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Mack embarked to Suez, Egypt, on 4th March 1916, but this collection includes only one of his letters, which he wrote to Mag on 28th May 1918. He thanks her for the portrait she sent but writes that he is awaiting “the other one”, stating he wished he could be there to take it himself but it would require them having the house to themselves to do so rather than risking it by ‘their tree’ or round by the lake. There is no mention if this photograph was created or received.
Mack survived the war. He sent a telegram to Mag in February 1920 saying he had been demobilised and would return home, but he didn’t make it back to New Zealand until May. They wasted no time and were married before the year had finished.