On the way to war

This card was posted from Cape Town, South Africa, by a New Zealand soldier on 23rd February 1917.

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Dear M.
Just a note. We have had a fine time here, and think it is a fine place. We have had the best part of a days leave and have made the best of it. The gardens are fine.
Frank Berg and I have had afternoon tea today in the Parliament Buildings. We were invited by a gentleman we met in the gardens, and who is interested in N. Zealanders. His name is Mr. Van de Reif M.P. Grahams Town.
I am sending two small ostrich feathers they are fairly cheap here. We had a good trip over and expect to leave here tomorrow.
I am doing A1. With love from Fred.

Without a second name, Fred’s identity must remain a mystery and I’ve been unable to trace a Grahamstown politician called Van de Reif so far. If you can help, please leave a comment. His generosity towards two young New Zealand soldiers must have been a real treat for them after weeks crammed into a troop ship; a last brief encounter with civilized life before the trenches of the Western Front.

Frank Berg was born in Devonport, Tasmania, on 26th August 1896 to parents Isaac and Elizabeth and moved with the family to Sheffield, west of Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of his enlistment on 19th September 1916, he was working as a labourer at Greendale, south of the city. His father, a bootmaker, must have died soon afterwards because his estate notice appears in the Press in mid-October. There is no mention of compassionate leave in Frank’s army record.

Private Berg, Frank Lewis, 33679, was 5ft 6in tall, 140lbs., 32 inch chest, brown hair and eyes. The Mister Average of his generation, one of thousands like him who volunteered to fight in a European war under conditions they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares. After basic training, he and Fred and the 21st Reinforcements NZEF sailed from Wellington on the troop transport Ulimoroa, 21st January 1917.

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The Ulimaroa leaving Wellington. Photo by J. Dickie. Te Papa collection.

They disembarked at Devonport (Plymouth), England, on 27th March and arrived at Sling Camp the same day. After more training to prepare them for what was to come, they left for France on 26th May. Frank’s record is silent for seven months until, on 26th December, he was sent to hospital suffering from enteritis and enemia. Disease was almost as deadly as the enemy in the Great War but Frank recovered quickly and was back with the 1st Battalion Canterbury Regiment by 12th January 1918, just in time to be sent to England on leave a week later.

Back with his unit by early February, Frank managed to keep his head down and was sent to a School of Instruction in late September. Where, and for what purpose, is not known. He returned to the Front on 15th October.

Frank Berg was reported killed in action on 23rd October 1918, just 19 days before the ceasefire.

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A Triple Tragedy

Aboukir_vThe image at left comes from a postcard by Raphael Tuck and Sons, published around 1908, and features the British armoured cruiser H. M. S. Aboukir. She was launched in 1900 by Fairfields of Govan, Scotland and, on completion two years later, had a short career in the Mediterranean before being withdrawn from service and laid up in reserve in 1912. The rapid development of warships at the time had made her, and the rest of the “Cressy” class to which she belonged, practically obsolete.

She was recommisioned on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and sent on patrol with the 7th Cruiser Squadron to guard the eastern approaches to the English Channel. On the morning of 22nd September, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-9 and when Cressy and Hogue closed to rescue survivors, they were dispatched in the same way. Three cruisers and over 1400 men were lost in less than an hour. You can find the crew list here. Writer Antoine Vanner gives a thorough description of the disaster on his blog.

Aboukir

This image by artist, Norman Wilkinson, was printed in ‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’ (1916). Captions in the book claim “one of the sailors described the last moment as follows: “The captain sings out an order just like on any ordinary occasion, ‘If any man wishes to leave the side of the ship he can do so, every man for himself,’ then we gave a cheer and in we went.”
and
“The horrors of modern warfare are illustrated by the notice issued after this disaster by the British Admiralty, which reads in part, ‘no act of humanity, whether to friend or foe, should lead to neglect of the proper precautions and dispositions of war, and no measure[s] can be taken to save life which prejudice the military situation.'”

Translated into plain language – in the event of this situation being repeated, commanders must put their own ships’ safety first and leave men in the water to their fate.

A Mobile Memorial

The folks over at Historic England featured 7 unusual war memorials in a blog post last week. My favourite was the Tree Cathedral in Bedfordshire. But they didn’t have a memorial that moved.

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This is the Ab class locomotive “Passchendaele”, built in the Addington Railway Workshops, Christchurch, for New Zealand Railways in 1915. It was plain old Ab 608 then of course because the battle didn’t happen until two years later.

New Zealand locomotives didn’t usually have individual names but, in 1925, it was decided to rename the engine in honour of railway workers who fought and died in the Great War.

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Time, and the change to a diesel-powered fleet, put an end to Passchendaele’s service in 1967 but, because of her role as a war memorial, she was saved from the scrap yard. Many years later, the dedicated volunteers at Steam Incorporated accepted the challenge to restore the old loco to full working order – a feat they achieved in time for WWI commemorations. You can find more details of Passchendaele’s history and restoration here.

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On Active Service

The Belgian village of Watou, on the border with France, lay behind Allied lines during the Great War (WWI) and escaped destruction.

Vintage postcard of a street scene in Watou, Belgium. Message dated 1915.

One soldier was able to send this postcard from there while he was being rested from the front. It is marked “On active service” and was sent from Field Post Office D. 49 to a Miss M. W. “Dalzell” in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Many thanks for letter. All continues to go well. Much rain lately. Have spelt your name wrong as usual! Pardonnez!! Best wishes to all for 1916. May its early days see Britannia gloriously triumphant and the war a thing of the past.
Am still very well.
Best Rgds, A. J.

The message is dated 3rd November 1915. A. J. would have to wait another three years and eight days before his wish came true. We have to wonder if he lived to see it.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of a three-month nightmare called Passchendaele that left over half a million men from both sides of the wire dead, wounded or missing.