Two Wellingtonians at WarNovember 28th, 2014 By Jared Davidson
Exhibitions at Archives New Zealand have recently been on hiatus. So when Jack Hayes of the United Services Medals Trust suggested we show off some of our collections, it was an opportunity hard to refuse. With little budget but a lot of help from staff at both Archives and the National Library, the empty foyer outside of the Constitution Room is now on its way to becoming an engaging public space. As an archivist rather than a curator, it also prompted some quick learning on my part.
‘Edward White & Evelyn Brooke: Two Wellingtonians at War’ is a joint First World War display between Archives New Zealand and the Medals Trust. Based on the original medals of two Wellingtonians, Major Edward White and Matron Evelyn Brooke, the display features rare film, large-scale paintings from the National Collection of War Art, and other objects.
As an infantry officer and respected matron, the wartime experience of Edward and Evelyn was very different. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Matron Evelyn Brooke was working as a Nursing Sister at Wellington Hospital. Like a number of nurses she quickly enlisted, with rapid results. Only a day after joining the Army Medical team, she was on her way to Samoa as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. There she was based at Apia, acting as second in command to the Hospital Matron until April 1915, when she was promoted and placed in charge.
Evelyn’s care and expertise were further recognised in July, when she embarked on the New Zealand Hospital Ship Maheno. Previously a passenger ship, the Maheno (along with sister ship Marama) had been converted to a floating hospital after massive casualties from Gallipoli and Egypt. By May 1917, Evelyn had completed numerous voyages to and from Europe, tending to thousands of wounded and earning the Royal Red Cross in the process. She gained her second Royal Red Cross (Bar) in 1918 for her work in France, becoming one of the few nurses to do so.
Like Evelyn, Major Edward White was also decorated for gallantry. A Territorial since 1902, Edward volunteered in May 1916 and embarked on the troopship Willorcha that October. After Officer training he was sent to the Western Front, taking command of Wellington Infantry regiments until he was hospitalised a year later (he was sent to the New Zealand Officers Convalescent Home at Brighton, England, where Evelyn was Matron at the time).
Refreshed and required by the New Zealand Division, Edward returned to France in December 1917, taking charge of a Wellington company in the 3rd Battalion. He participated in the final battles of the war and following the Armistice, proceeded with his company to be part of the Occupation force at Cologne. His leadership during the attack of Le Quesnoy on 4 November was recognised with a Military Cross.
To support the medals of Evelyn and Edward, we decided to showcase some of our large format war art. This collection of over 1500 works includes art formally commissioned by the New Zealand government, and unofficial works that were acquired by or donated to the collection. Using original artwork saved us from having to print and frame reproductions. Plus, they are impressive works in their own right.
Working with Geoff Shepherd from Collection Care, we chose five paintings that related to the wartime experience of Edward and Evelyn, or drew on the concept of ‘pathways’ (referencing their unique paths to receiving medals, and Wilfred Owen’s "An Imperial Elegy"). At the same time, I wanted work that would reflect the gritty nature of the Western Front, and not glorify their experience. After all, most medal winners saw themselves as no different from the other women and men they served alongside.
‘Two Wellingtonians at War’ is not of the scale of A Contemporary Conversation, the excellent exhibition now showing at the National Library. Instead, the result is a small, quiet display that speaks volumes about a turbulent, unprecedented, and violent time.
You are welcome to view these little-seen works between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday at Archives New Zealand, 10 Mulgrave Street. The display continues through to February 2015. For those who can’t visit, you can view the complete collection of war art online.