Recent articles in the Ashburton Guardian and Northern Observer (northern Canterbury ) highlight the family connections that visitors often find at The Great War Exhibition. The full text of the article is below these newspaper images.
When Cathy Henderson, a Rangiora resident, visited The Great War Exhibition with her grandson, Conor Grice, the last thing she expected to see was her uncle and his newly married wife, in full colour, waving farewell to her father’s ship as he headed off to the First World War.
The experience was vivid, fresh and lifelike, due to the image colourisation techniques used by Sir Peter Jackson’s team, who created the exhibition.
Cathy, who has been researching her family history for 20 years, says, “Uncle Albert and Aunt Maude were saying goodbye to Dad. I’d seen the black and white image in the Christchurch Press. Someone had clipped it. But to see it in full colour and so big is incredible.”
Albert Stevens was in Lyttelton with his wife Maude Clemens, on honeymoon, to farewell his ‘brother’ Reginald Stevens, who was on a ship in the first convoy going to Egypt in September 1914.
“My dad, Reggie, and his brother Albert worked on the family farm in Ashton, near Ashburton,” says Cathy. “Then the big adventure came and Reggie went to war with his other brothers, Leslie and Ivan Stevens. Born in 1896, Reggie was 17 when he signed up, but lied, and said he was 19. ”
“Dad didn’t get married until he was fifty, so I’m quite young to have a father who went to war. He was happy man,” she says. “He was a singer and used to sing in the trenches, so we heard. “Silly songs, like vaudeville songs. When I was a kid, he was a comedian, always out at night time, entertaining. He had a troupe of clowns that performed with him, in harlequin suits.”
“He left on one of the first ships sent to war,” Cathy says. “I think it was the Tahiti. He was given the job as a signal officer and said he ate with the officers and put on two stone because he ‘ate like a whale on the briny.’ They stopped in Australia and went through the Suez Canal.”
Her grandson Conor had just visited France and Belgium, touring war sites relevant to the family with his father, Leon Grice, the recent NZ Consular General in Los Angeles.
“It’s fantastic to see Great Uncle Albert in this photo,” says Conor, who loves history and is studying classics, and political science at university. “I’ve spent a good portion of last year writing the story of my great grandfather,” he says. “So to see the context in which he grew up and the people he grew up with, in pictures in museums is incredible.”
Conor says, “When Reggie went through the Suez Canal, he said you could buy a hundred cigarettes or a sack of bananas for two bob [shillings]. It was amazing what they wrote home. Everything was as ‘scarce as a hair on a tin hat,’ or ‘as scarce as a hair on an egg’.”
When Cathy’s aunt recently died, a stack of Reggie’s letters was found under her bed, showing the sombre side of war. He wrote, “I was at the landing of the Dardenelles on the 25th day of April 1915 and I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was terrible, dead laying all around you, some poor chaps with their legs off, some with their mouths blown open with the explosive bullets. … This war is not the game it is cracked up to be.”
A few months later, in October, he wrote home again. “That first and second day was like hell on earth and if hell is any way like that I don’t want to go there… we had three sergeants and 2 corporals and several men killed outright and wounded were laying thick all around, but you soon get used to that after the first day fighting. You don’t care for anything. I have seen such sights that would make your blood run cold … all my mates are either killed or wounded…”
Reggie was struck by a serious case of dysentery and was lucky not to die, as dysentery accounted for one fifth of all casualties in Gallipoli. He wrote, “I have been in bed over a fortnight and the nurses say I will be a month more before I can get out. By Jove it pulls a man down as I am just skin and bone.”
After recovering in Devon with relatives, Reggie was sent to the Western Front in France, driving trucks in the British Service Legion, transporting supplies, soldiers, guns, and ammunition. In August 1918 he was present at the battle of Amiens, his last battle, but did not return to New Zealand until July 1919, lucky to have survived.