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Jun 13 / Simon

Wartime kiwi carves out a place in history

The Times, 13-6-2017
By Simon Tait

The Bulford Kiwi, carved into Salisbury Plain by New Zealand soldiers as a First World War memorial to their fallen fellows, has been scheduled a monument to mark the centenary of the New Zealanders’ key success, the Battle of Messines, tomorrow (June 14).

But the creation of the 130m tall bird with its 45m beak, which joins such topographic icons as The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington near Eastbourne, was no spontaneous outpouring of comradely grief.

In the weeks after the end of the war, fed up with unrelenting discipline and delayed transportation home, some troops of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade cut loose and looted the canteen and officers’ mess. The ring leaders were jailed, but to keep the rest occupied they were set to work creating the kiwi. It took them two months.

The Bulford Kiwi became a site of homage for New Zealanders paying their respects to 17,000 of their countrymen killed in the war, 5,000 of them at Messines. But while volunteers have tended it, visitor numbers diminished, though the New Zealand High Commissioner still makes an annual pilgrimage. The government, on the advice of Historic England (HE) which has also restored it, has now protected it adding it to the National Heritage List for England as a monument.

It is one of two memorials to New Zealand’s Great War dead joining the list of monuments today. At Cannock Chase in Staffordshire the government has added a restored model of the Messines battleground, made by German prisoners of war in 1918 to the instructions of survivors of the battle.

“The taking of the Messines Ridge was one of the war’s most stirring attacks, and this model lay-out remains as testimony to the planning which made possible the victory,” said Roger Bowdler, HE’s Director of Listing. “Like so much of our historic environment, these lasting reminders enable us to connect with lives and events from the past that made us who we are as a nation. The kiwi is a pretty unusual bit of New Zealand in this country, there’s so little of it representing New Zealand’s role in the war, and it’s an old Wessex tradition of hill figures given a modern twist. One hundred years on it’s right to remember New Zealand’s valour.”

The Battle of Messines in which the New Zealand Rifle Brigade distinguished itself and won a VC was a crucial victory for the Allies, breaking a stalemate on the Flanders front and opening the salient for the ensuing Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele. The action included one of the heaviest allied artillery bombardments of the war, including the detonation of 19 giant mines beneath German lines.

“It’s fantastic to see Historic England (through the Culture Secretary) protecting two very significant sites of huge importance for New Zealand,” said Sir Jerry Mateparae, New Zealand’s High Commissioner. “The special connections that were forged 100 years ago, with communities in the UK where New Zealanders trained, are still strong today and it’s moving to see these sites protected for generations to come.”

Sling Camp, an annexe of Bulford, was the principal training depot for the New Zealand troops in the First World War. Designed to accommodate up to 4,000 men, by the end of 1918 there were 4,500, and in Canterbury Battalion mutiny threatened. Sling was dismantled later in 1919.

Working to a sketch by Sergeant Major Percy Blenkarne who had been sent to the Natural History Museum to draw a stuffed specimen, it took the battalion most of February and March 1919 to complete, with chalk having to be transported and laid on soil.

The terrain model of the battleground around Messines was made in 1918 when the New Zealand Rifle Brigade were back at Brocton Camp on Cannock Chase. Made by German prisoners under the instructions of Messines surveyors as a three-dimensional teaching aid, to a scale of 1:50. Made of concrete, re-used brick, pebbles and soil, it has all the principal features of the battle-hewn town. The only First World War terrain model known to have survived was a tourist attraction for a while, but was later overgrown and buried under quarry waste. It was excavated in 2013.