World War I

Trench Watches

In 1914, soldiers marching off to war were issued with a kitbag holding essential clothing and equipment such as wire cutters, waterproof map holders, field glasses and a fob watch, amongst many other things.

A watch was an indispensible part of military kit because, before modern radio systems came into play during war, operations across vast battlefields were synchronised by time. “The attack will begin at 0600 hours”. Fob watches issued by the Army proved to be impractical in the trenches; to see the face, a soldier would have to put down his gun and use both hands to retrieve it, leaving him unarmed. Fob watches were not waterproof and had glass faces that shattered easily, sometimes causing injury. They could not be seen in the dark, and soldiers would have to strike a match to see the time, dangerous because of the ever present risk of a sniper’s bullet. (This gave rise to the habit among cigarette smoking infantry of never lighting three cigarettes from one match because it gave time for a sniper to focus on the light and pick off the third man.)

3. Advert

This 1916 advertisement is from Thresher and Glenny, British gentlemen’s outfitters specialising in officers’ uniforms and military accessories. It shows an officer of the 1914-1918 period, showing off a wristwatch.


For these reasons, soldiers often purchased their own wrist watches which provided the much needed resilience, legibility, luminosity and accuracy, and came to be known as trench watches.

By 1914 wrist watches specifically made for soldiers had a sub-dial for greater accuracy, a plastic lens and large luminous numbers. The paint used on the dials and numerals of the luminous watches was powered by radium salts so that it glowed strongly all the time and didn’t rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge it up. Watch manufacturers also began producing shrapnel guards, metal grills partially covering the watch face and providing further protection.

2. Shrapnel guards

Shrapnel guards used to protect trench watches. Information/Image from ©David Boettcher

The Whanganui Regional Museum has two trench watches in its collection. One was made by Rolex from sterling silver, the hallmarks inside the case dating it to 1915. The strap is a silver expandable triple rail band, which, although impervious to water and wear, was considered effeminate and proved unpopular with soldiers.

1. Trench watches

W M Millar’s trench watch (ref: TH.3044) and a Rolex trench watch (ref: 1978.71.11)

The other is stamped inside the case with three bears, the hallmark for Swiss silver from 1893-1934, but it has no maker’s mark. The back of the case has been inscribed with the following ‘’W. M. MILLAR / FROM HIS MOTHER / SISTERS AND BROTHE R / 6.10.16 / MIZPAH”. Mizpah is Hebrew for “Lord Watch over me” and biblically, it marks an agreement between two people, with God as their witness. The Museum has no record of the donor of this watch. We do not know if W M Millar survived the Great War and returned to his loving family, or if the watch was returned to them among his personal effects after the conflict was over. This man might have been Sergeant William Merrilees Millar of the Wellington Infantry Battalion B Company, whose next of kin, his mother, was Mrs Agnes Millar of 3 William Street, Hataitai, Wellington. This information was gleaned from Cenotaph, the Auckland War Memorial Museum on-line compilation of records of New Zealanders who served in wars. Our W M Millar, however, may also have been any one of a number of William Millars who served in the New Zealand Army during World War I.


Kathy Greensides is a collection assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Wanganui Swankers’ Club

1. Swankers photo

Members of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club dressed in full Swanker regalia while engaged in a public fund-raising event. With them is a woman dressed in a Red Cross Nurse’s uniform and a bulldog, presumably a mascot. This dates to World War I when the Swankers focused on supporting the Red Cross and its nurses.  Ref: 1988.67.10

The Wanganui Swankers’ Club was formed during World War I to raise funds for patriotic purposes, supporting in particular the Red Cross and Red Cross Nurses; hence, the red cross is part of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club badge. The Club ran from 1915 to 1929, in its later years raising funds for a wider range of charities. Concerts, Mardi Gras and other functions were held where all members appeared in top hat and tails. Among its well-known members in Whanganui were Bert Fry, A Trelord and F Donaldson Senior. One member used to ride a horse to its functions but he still wore the official uniform of top hat and tails.

Swankers, as members were called, had a light-hearted approach to a serious purpose.The word swanker means a dashing, smartly-dressed or stylish man. Swankers wore a distinctive garb of top hat and tails, usually teamed with formal striped trousers and spats.

2. Swankers certificate

Swankers’ Club membership certificate accepting George Goldsack as a member, 1926. Ref: 1972.68.4

And anything for a laugh! For example, a Swankers’ Club membership certificate in the Museum collection has a comic drawing of a man in top hat and tails standing beneath the Swankers’ Club logo. Made out to George Goldsack, the certificate reads “This is to Certify that Mr G Goldsack has been duly accepted and admitted a member of the Swankers’ Club, he being a fully qualified, inveterate and accomplished Swanker”.  It is signed by “Ikan Kiddem, Swanker scribe”.

The Dominion newspaper edition of 15 November 1916 provides a brief, and facetious, history of the Swankers. Originating in London, the Swankers’ Club “found its way to Wanganui, where it was taken up by a number of good sports, who are really only waiting for avenues of usefulness outside the Avenue that divides the city into two halves.” It goes on to describe members as those who are too old or infirm to fight but who wish sincerely to support the war effort. They have no ties or obligations to the London Swankers; the allegiance they hold is to “… the Empire, and they mean to hang together until smiling peace glorifies the world once more”.

At this stage, in 1916, there were about 200 Wanganui members who had already raised over £1,000 for the Red Cross.

After the war, the Swankers were very active during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19. Members continued to raise money for the Red Cross and to establish and maintain the Wanganui-Waitotara Patriotic Society and support other charities. Swankers did themselves proud while raising funds as is evident in a menu designed to feed the dancers at a Charity Ball in 1922. Laid out in seven courses, the menu had several luxury dishes in each, including whitebait, oyster patties, sardine eclairs and Charlotte Russe. Soup was served as the guests departed.

3. Swankers badge

This nine carat gold badge was designed for the Wanganui Swankers’ Club. Five small imitation rubies are set within a cross flanked by two fern fronds, reflecting the Wanganui Swankers’ allegiance to the International Red Cross.  Ref: 2005.67

The Swankers’ fund raising events were very successful. In 1923, for example, their “Help the Blind” appeal raised £1,217, a considerable sum at that time. And in 1925 they assisted the annual YMCA street appeal, raising £121 2s 6d, which was equally divided between the Swankers’ Club and the YMCA. The Wanganui Swankers Club closed in 1929.


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Wonders of Versailles

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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

New Zealand’s War Horses

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A postcard showing how horses were used to pull weapons and carry officers.

The presence in Whanganui of Tylee Cottage Artist-in-Residence Cat Auburn, who is creating artworks associated with New Zealand horses that went to war and never returned, has prompted many into asking about horse war records.

Between 1914 and 1916 the New Zealand Government acquired 10,000 horses for use by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. With an estimated 400,000 horses in the country at that time finding suitable mounts was not difficult, although horses were still extensively employed in agriculture, horticulture, for transport and delivery.

A horse comes from the Strachan family of Okoia

A beautiful mount for an officer. This horse comes from the Strachan family property of “Lornty” in Okoia.

Stock Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture checked the horses for suitability and bought appropriate mounts for £17- £24 ($2,500-$3,500 in today’s money). Some enlisting soldiers brought their own horses which were inspected by the officers and purchased if found to be suitable, then issued back to the soldier for his own use.

Accepted horses were examined and classified as troop (riding), artillery (draught), or transport (pack) and branded with government and individual brands before being shipped to the front. Most of the horses went to Egypt, but they also served in German Samoa, the Middle East, the Western Front and Gallipoli.

Sturdy horses used to drive milk carts through thick mud were in demand.

Sturdy horses used to drive milk carts through thick mud were in demand.

The horses were extremely useful to the troops. They allowed soldiers to patrol wider areas than they could on foot and provided extra mobility during battle. Draught horses carried heavy guns and equipment to save the soldiers’ strength, and carried wounded soldiers from the field so their comrades could keep fighting.

It was hard work; aside from the danger, the horses often carried over 100 kg at a time and faced shortages in food and water, not to mention the new diseases and insects they had to endure. The New Zealand Veterinary Corps did their best to look after the horses, and losses of original mounts were replaced with local animals. They were deemed soft compared to the hardy New Zealand beasts.

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“What rain does at the front – an ambulance with ten horses coming across country …”

Around 3% died during the voyage, mainly from diseases including pneumonia, and many died from disease or injury while overseas. After the war, shipping and quarantine restrictions to prevent disease coming back into the country lead to many of the animals being killed, sold or kept for use by the British Army. Of the 10,000 animals that were sent from New Zealand, only four returned home.

Horses and wounded soldiers outside Zeitoun Camp, Egypt, 1915.

Horses and wounded soldiers outside Zeitoun Camp, Egypt, 1915.

There is a great exhibition at the National Army Museum in Waiouru titled Harnessed: New Zealand’s War Horses. There are uniforms, weaponry, saddles and equipment as well as graphic diorama of a World War I Western Front scene of horse carnage. It’s worth seeing.

Whanganui First Contingent – Off to War


1802.3731On 5 August 1914 the Governor, Lord Liverpool, announced from the steps of Parliament to a crowd of more than 12,000 people that New Zealand was at war. Most New Zealanders then regarded themselves as British and Britain as home, so there was little hesitation in supporting the Mother Country in its moment of crisis.

The first request for support from “home” came sooner than many thought. On 7 August the New Zealand Government received a coded message from the British Government requesting that they capture the German wireless station in Samoa.

On 10 August 1914 twenty-five members of the New Zealand Railway Corps left Whanganui by train at noon for Wellington. Comparatively few Whanganui citizens were aware of their departure and consequently not many people were at the station to see them off.

The first draft for the Wellington Regt NZEF to leave Wanganui, 12th August 1914.

The first draft for the Wellington Regt NZEF to leave Wanganui, 12th August 1914.

The following day, however, the grim realities of war were brought home to these Whanganui men. When the Auckland troop train arrived in Wellington several of the carriages contained German prisoners who had been arrested in the north. There were guards with fixed bayonets to see that no attempt was made by the thirty-two captives to regain their liberty. Double lines from the ranks of the Railway Corps were drawn up on the platform, with fixed bayonets, and under a strong escort, the Germans were taken to the Alexandra Barracks. The scene as they were marched through the streets of Wellington was an impressive one, and the spectators realised that it was no superficial formality, but the stern custom of war that was being complied with.

The flag of German Samoa, taken by New Zealand Armed Forces in Samoa in August 1914.

The flag of German Samoa, taken by New Zealand Armed Forces in Samoa in August 1914.

Within a month of the declaration of war a New Zealand force had captured Western Samoa from Germany. The Union Jack was raised at Apia by New Zealand soldiers at 8.00am on 30 August 1914, the morning after the occupation. The capture was strategically important because there was a radio transmitter in the hills behind Apia capable of sending signals to Berlin and to the German fleet in the Pacific. The New Zealanders’ conquest was a peaceful affair, but it was marred by some disorder when New Zealand soldiers ransacked the liquor store at Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia.

Billy Connell’s War begins


Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Last Friday saw the opening of our exhibition for the centenary of the first world war, Billy Connell’s War – Whanganui in World War I.  There was a great turn-out with 100 people in attendance and the show was well received.  A welcome by the Director Eric Dorfman was followed by a speech and formal opening by Mayor Annette Main before the crowd moved into the exhibition space for the karakia by our local kaumātua and a preview of the show.

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Guests were then given a brown paper bag afternoon tea (cheese or corned beef sandwiches, fruit cake and an Anzac biscuit) and Kirtsy Ross, Curator of 20th Century History at Te Papa, regaled the audience with a talk on her research into New Zealand’s first world war experience and the intricacies (and humours!) of passing on such a legacy.



Guests view some of Billy's photographa

Guests view some of Billy’s photographa

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests collect their afternoon tea

Guests collect their afternoon tea



The exhibition tells the story of Billy Connell, a local man who enlisted and served in the first world war.  Billy Connell was born in Palmerston North in 1993, the son of William and Naomi Connell. William was a carpenter in Palmerston North and later in Marton. By 1911 Naomi Connell had separated from her husband and was living in Durie Terrace in Wanganui, later moving to May Street.  On 5 August 1914 New Zealand declared war on Germany in support of Great Britain Billy Connell enlisted and went off to war with the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He had a camera in his kitbag and took photographs while on service, often illegally. Servicemen were not permitted to take photographs or write about campaigns or battles in case information fell into the hands of the enemy. His images tell the story of an ordinary serviceman during extraordinary times. The photographs were arranged into seven albums. Billy’s sister Mrs Amelia McCullum donated them to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1966.

BCW box logo

Billy Connell’s War is open until September 2016 so come in and follow Billy’s journey through the war.  The Museum is free entry.

My Dearest Mag…

As World War I centenary celebrations are carried out, we remember the people involved; those at the front and those at home, and sometimes the romantic links between them.

The Whanganui Regional Museum was recently donated a letter written by Duncan “Mack” MacKinnon, to his sweetheart Mag (Margaret) Wilson, of Whanganui.  Mack served in the Navy and wrote this letter while in port on 25th May 1918.  He writes that he loves her and wishes he could be with her, but also has an interesting photographic request and some keen observations on the local ladies.  The original letter had very little punctuation with only four full-stops over all three pages, so it has been added to the transcription.

Read on…

2014.61.8 address

H.M. “Flying Foam”

C/o G.P.O. London

28th May 1918

 My Dearest Mag,

Just a few lines in answer to your welcome letter, which I received just before we came away from our base. I mean the one with the little photo in it.  Is very like you dear, but my word why didn’t you smile instead of looking so serious? But I wouldn’t have minded it for anything Mag dear! You can depend I will look well after it but of course, greedy like I am, waiting until the other one comes. Of course I had to have another look in the envelope to see if you had sent my mascot but no such luck, unless it is on the road now. Now you be a little sport & send the lot if you have not already done so. Wish I was only there to take it myself. My word, I bet you would make a fuss! Of course we would have to wait until we had the house to ourselves as I think that would be rather a dangerous job under our old tree or round by the lake, what say you dearest? But I think I would risk it no matter where it was. I have your photo in front of me now & I fancy I can see you laugh as I write this.

2014.61.8 little sport

I am rather amused about what you tell me about Schniede, Mag dear.  But strange, Mag, I always thought to myself that he would never so any good, & the way he was carrying on things like that leak out & soon quite a lot of people get to know about it on the quick, & you know what like a place Wanganui is for gossip. I got to know quite a lot of things, & about people, with knowing Jim Barry. Of course, they make that their business.

2014.61.8 photograph

The picture at the top of this is the entrance to where our base is, although you can’t see the wharfs. We always lie off this pier you see in the picture. A little further out than those little sailing boats you see a little further round is a another pier, although you can’t see it, reserved for ladies if you please for bathing. I often watch them with the glasses when we are in, bobbing up & down & cutting all the capers imaginable. Some of them have got a nasty habit of keeping their behinds well out of the water, especially those built like Mrs McIntyre! Dinkum, if you were only close enough you could smack them with a stick. I don’t think any of them have got any mascots, at least I can’t see any with the glasses but it’s great sport watching them. Of course, if they only knew any one was spying on them there would be a general clear out. I wish you were only among the lot Mag dear, I would soon spot you & then chaff the life out of you afterwards about it.

Well dear, since we came round to this new base we have had hardly any time to ourselves, we have been kept that busy. But I wouldn’t mind that if I could see the end of it in sight & I was on my way back again. I know it will be a great relief.

My 2nd is going to bring his wife over here next month. He belongs to Bristol & has four of a family – three girls & a boy. The girls are all well up & quite able to look after the house while the mother is away.

Well, Mag dearest, news is about as scarce as hens’ teeth until I get your letters so will have to close with kind regards to all, & with lots of love & thousands of kisses from one who loves you dearly.

2014.61.8 kisses

I remain your loving sweetheart,

Duncan MacKinnon

P.S. Have you been pinching any more bike pumps?



His charm and charisma worked on Mag and the couple were married when Mack returned to New Zealand in 1920.

Music from The Great War

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Sheet music from many ages abounds in the Whanganui Regional Museum, and examples from the era of World War 1 will come in useful as the centenary of the Great War looms.  Deborah Wai Kapohe, Wanganui District Council arts facilitator – and opera singer of note – and Libby Sharpe, museum curator, recently brought out some of the collection and talked about the songs.
“This came out of a meeting we had with the museum, the heritage library, the Sarjeant Gallery, all the Queens Park collecting institutions, in direct relation to World War 1 centenary projects,” Deborah says.
With her musical background and Libby’s interest in historical music, it was a foregone conclusion that songs from 1914-18 would somehow feature in the planning.  “These collections have never really been looked at properly, not been catalogued, so I knew there were secret treasures awaiting,” says Libby.
“I was looking for World War 1 New Zealand songs for possible community fundraising projects,” says Deborah, “for a concert or series of concerts, and perhaps to record a few of the best – just simple piano and voice – for people to download from the internet.”
The museum’s sheet music comes from a half dozen large collections donated over the years, some from families, some from music teachers.  “Some 200 war songs were written and published in New Zealand during World War 1,” says Libby, “and some of those were published in Wanganui. I’m assuming there were also some Wanganui composers and librettists.”
Libby sees the music as historical documents, as well as published songs. “There seems to be a general trend,” she says, “that songs at the beginning of the war were patriotic, but as the war progressed they became more mournful. I think that’s an interesting progression. I also think some of the artwork reproduced on the pages is worth looking at. It was the advertising of the day.”
For Deborah it is the music. An accomplished sight reader, she says she can hear the music in her head. She says she can see a simple concert project with music and perhaps readings of letters from the war. “It’s about what happened here at home as well as overseas.”
One of the songs is The Call of the Fern Leaf, (music by Godfrey Copley, words by Alfred S Hughes) from a time when the leaf of the fern was a symbol of New Zealand nationhood, and Pakeha children born in this country were referred to as ‘fern leaves’.  The artwork on the sheet music is a collection of Kiwiana of the day, complete with bandaged, moustached soldier, and it looks like it was executed in crayon. “As a work of art it’s a bit twee,” says Libby, “But as a representation of feeling or sentiment, it’s amazing.”
Another patriotic piece by Copley is Anzac Memories, Poppies of Flanders (for piano and cornet), the art work of which depicts a lonely moon over a graveyard of crosses, the picture surrounded by bright red poppies and a soldier wearing a ‘lemon squeezer’.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 24th July 2013. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.