The National Army Museum's travelling exhibition arrived in Levin for one day only, parked up in the library car park. “Heartlanders – New Zealanders of the Great War” tells the stories of ordinary Kiwis. They left their small towns across the country to sail away overseas, not into a great adventure as so many of them thought, but into the hell hole of war.
The travelling exhibition is housed in three large containers and many interesting artefacts are on display, from uniforms, gas masks, weapons, and many photos, most taken by the soldiers themselves. Information boards tell the stories of the battles at Gallipoli, Sinai, Palestine, Belgium and France. Individual soldiers are featured, such as Sergeant Horotio Clark, a shearer from Taumarunui who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal at the Battle of Le Quesnoy. Some made it home at the end of the war, but many didn’t. Then there were the stories of bad rations, rats, lack of water, and the terrible gas clouds. Poison gas was first used by the Germans in Ypres on April 1915, and soon after the Allies adopted the practise. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to “lift the lid” and take a sniff of phosgene gas, to show the putrid smell that the soldiers had to deal with. Luckily we were guaranteed that no harm would come to any of us who braved the smell.
We read about the invention of the periscope rifle, an idea thought up by an Australian builder and produced in a makeshift workshop on the beach at Anzac Cove. A bit of very clever “Number 8 Wire” thinking which would have saved countless lives.
We knew that many New Zealand horses were sent overseas, and only a four returned home, including Bess. The four-year-old black thoroughbred, originally named Zelma, was allocated to the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment and selected by Captain C.G. Powles, who renamed her Bess. (Read our earlier blog about Bess here.) She served him throughout the war in Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and France, and was one of the lucky few to return home. But what we didn’t know was that two companies of New Zealanders served in the Imperial Camel Corps, doing a similar role as the Mounted Rifles. Camels could carry more than horses and were better suited to to the hot desert conditions. Although less skittish than horses, the unneutered male camels were hard to control during mating season, and the Cameliers were often in danger of being bitten or trampled. A rifle butt was the usual weapon of self defence. Fascinating – how come we didn’t know about this before?
Also on display was the Defence Careers Unit bus, a 2009 Mitsubishi with three slide outs, 12m long, and weighing 15 tonne. Robin commented that it would make a great motor-home, and we quickly walked up the steps to check it out.
We settled down in the small theatre and watched a film on what new recruits in communications to the three forces could expect when they joined up. It was interesting to note that whatever role they took on, they were considered soldiers first and foremost and had to be completely fit and active, as well as train and pass exams for whatever technical roles they chose.
The Defence Careers Unit travels around the country visiting schools and colleges on a two year cycle, and expos and other events events as required. Pupils from three local schools had attended today and tried all sorts of things, from walking around kitted out in heavy gear and packs, to doing a few exercises. At the end of the day the slide-outs on the big bus will be put back in place, and the three containers will be loaded onto trucks for the next stop on their journey around the country. They were travelling on to Ohakune, we were told, so we imparted our knowledge about the wonderful Chocolate Éclair Shop in that town. But it seemed we were preaching to the converted, as the Army Museum Attendant we were conversing with was a local and knew all about the delicious squishy éclairs!