Souvenirs of War

November 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. We spent the previous four years remembering the course of that war, marking the many battles that were fought and honouring those who were lost. Then we were able to remember the end of the war on Armistice Day, and the enduring hope that sprang up with the silencing of the guns at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

Getting back to regular life after spending so much time overseas in drastically different conditions was not an easy transition to make. What we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and treat with therapy and medication, was then medically termed “shell shock”, a recognised disease of sustained or intense stress, which was treated in ways that ranged from ground-breaking psychiatric care, to quackery, to absolute neglect. Within the military, especially from 1917 onward when so many servicemen were presenting with stress-related behaviours, shell shock was treated as a symptom of personal cowardice. The military response to traumatized men was shame, pain, torture, and sometimes execution.

Despite the horrors on and off the battlefields, by the end of 1918, optimism abounded and people were determined to commemorate the war, hoping that such a scale of destruction would never be witnessed again. A myriad of Armistice mementos became available, including postcards, handkerchiefs, and memorial crockery. Many soldiers scavenged their own souvenirs and returned home with the enemy weapons, flags and pieces of shrapnel.

Others, however, had more artistic leanings and created their own unique pieces to remember what they had seen and been a part of. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds a number of these souvenirs of war that were incorporated into everyday life to keep the memory of war alive, although the names of the soldiers who made them are unknown.

1. hand grenade ink well

Souvenir ink stand from World War I, incorporating components from England and France. WRM ref: 1967.166.1

One such piece is an ink well made from remnants of battles, with the pieces collected in France and England. The base is made from teak wood that came from a torpedoed ship in Southampton, and four bullets that came from France. The hand grenade in the centre also came from France and was carefully hollowed out and the top removed to create a reservoir for ink. The aluminium band around the base was sourced from the first Zeppelin that was brought down in Essex, a feat managed by pilot V Robinson of the Air Squadron near the New Zealand Convalescent Depot at Hornchurch, in Sussex, UK.

A matching pair of decorative ashtrays were made from the cases of German shells.  The ends of the shells were cut down to resemble military service caps, and each was decorated with a regimental badge. One, made in May 1915, bears the regimental shield of the Essex Regiment. The other made, made in 1917, bears the regimental shield of The Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment.


Two ashtrays made from German shells and decorated with British regimental badges – The Buffs and Essex on the right.  WRM Ref: 1969.106.6-7

These unique souvenirs were kept by the soldiers and their families until they were donated to the Museum in the 1960s, and now we use them to help tell the stories of World War I and keep the memory alive. Lest We Forget.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Wonders of Versailles

1966.69.2 p2

General view of the Palace of Versailles


It is in our nature to look at the horizon and wonder what is beyond it. Most of us at some stage would have succumbed to the curiosity and travelled to see what there was to see.  Whether it was travelling to another island, another continent or another hemisphere, we are natural wanderers and like to see and experience what the world has to offer.  That is, after all, how we as a species populated the entire globe.

We also like the memories and mementoes of where we have been, sending postcards to friends and family to keep them up-to-date with our travels, and if they are lucky, bringing them back exotic and interesting gifts. And of course, we collect items for ourselves to remember our wanderlust.

Mr M J Archibald of Castlecliff was one such wanderer who collected a range of souvenir books, largely from Europe, and donated them to the Museum in 1966. Many of the books date to World War I and are from locations in France. They could well have been collected while he was on Active Service or shortly afterward.

Looking-Glass Gallery at the Palace of Versailles

Looking-Glass Gallery at the Palace of Versailles

One is titled Versailles: Photographies en Coleurs and features coloured lithographic prints of the Palace of Versailles grounds, buildings and some of the more spectacular rooms.  Another book, A Day at Versailles, serves as a thorough illustrated guide and includes drawings, photographs and maps of the building and surrounds.



Louis XIV Bed Room at the Palace of Versailles

Louis XIV Bed Room at the Palace of Versailles

Versailles had been an established village since the 11th century. The palace had humble beginnings as a hunting lodge for King Louis XIII in 1624. Eight years later he expanded the property and the lodge, and the enlargements were continued by his son King Louis XIV who eventually moved the court there. Four more building campaigns took place between 1644 and 1710 in which the palace was extended and lavishly decorated, and the grounds richly landscaped.


Ground plan of the Palace of Versailles

Ground plan of the Palace of Versailles

Smaller-scale alterations were carried out by Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI until the French Revolution put a stop to work in 1789. The Royal Family were made to leave the Palace of Versailles and move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. After King Louis XVI was arrested, Versailles was sealed, much of the furnishings sold, and the building ear-marked as a museum. Since then it has served alternately as a museum and imperial palace. It remains a popular tourist attraction and is still home to major political functions.


Remains of a building on a street corner

Remains of a building on a street corner

But not all the souvenir books show the lush side of French architecture and design.  Another book titled Arras Historique shows the devastation dealt to the French during World War I. Arras was located about 10 kilometres from the front line of the war, and due to this proximity, saw a lot of action and sustained a lot of damage. Arras was tunnelled, barracked and burned so much that by the end of the war three-quarters of the town had to be rebuilt, and this book is a monument to the damage that was done. The souvenir book starts with a photograph of the large and impressive L’Hôtel de Ville (the town hall) and the proceeding pages are filled with images of the damage down to the town, destroyed buildings and shattered roads, and illustrates the extent of structural devastation the war caused.

L’Hôtel de Ville – The Town Hall

L’Hôtel de Ville – The Town Hall

The Town Hall after the February 1916 bombardment

The Town Hall after the February 1916 bombardment

Letters from the Front

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.

2014.61.2 a 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.

2014.61.30Mag 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.”

2014.61.41Another 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.

2014.61.22Throughout 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.