Dedicated group rescues memorial to the fallen

A memorial flagpole made by Alexander McKenzie to remember his sons Ian and George, who were killed on the same day during the Battle of the Somme, is carefully carried down Bluff Hill by volunteers on Saturday. Photos: Karen Pasco/Supplied

A flagpole erected by Bluff father Alexander McKenzie in remembrance of his two sons, who died on the same day during World War 1,  took a dignified and respectful journey to a new temporary resting place on Saturday. Southland Express editor Karen Pasco watched as about 30 people took turns to carefully carry the pole of remembrance from Bluff Hill to Te Rau Aroha marae.

THE rain is falling.

It is 9.45am on Saturday in Bluff. It is an unremarkable sort of day, slightly miserable even, with drenching drizzle falling from a grey sky.

In McDougall St, a crowd is gathering. They are all kitted out in raincoats, thermals, hats and tramping boots, to try to fend off the elements.

They are told by New Zealand Remembrance Army Southland co-ordinator Peter “Robbo” Robertson to get back in their cars until 10am, to stay dry until they embark on their walk up Bluff Hill.

None do.

These 30 or so people are about to make their way up a dirt road, on to the mountainbike track and then up a steep and unforgiving makeshift pathway, recently created with a chainsaw, so a precious cargo can make a safe passage to its new temporary abode.

These people have volunteered their time, to make sure a father’s final lovingly handcrafted tribute to his sons can be preserved not only as a reminder of the sacrifice of his family, but also that of families in Bluff and further afield.

The flagpole was skilfully carved by Mr McKenzie, in honour of his two sons Lance-corporal Ian Roy McKenzie and Corporal George Douglas McKenzie, who were both killed in action on the same day, September 27, 1916, aged 21 and 23 respectively, during the Battle of the Somme. It was made for his, no doubt heartbroken, wife Beatrice, who could peer up and see the flagpole out the kitchen window of their home at the corner of Bann and Liffey Sts and remember her fallen boys.

Mr Robertson is reluctant to say how he even found out about the McKenzie family memorial, believed to be have been created more than a century ago, finally disclosing it might have been over a beer at the RSA. At first, he was told it was a grave site but subsequently, after further research, found out it was a flagpole lovingly created by Mr McKenzie for his sons along with a memorial stone and picket fence, Mr Robertson said.

“So we went from hunting the grounds to hunting the locals, gathering information, stories, maps, pictures and some good yarns, not all of them accurate.

“It was like an investigation, putting all the dots together.”

When Mr Robertson posted about the search for the memorial on Facebook about 18 months ago, war historian, researcher and fallen soldier advocate Ann Robbie answered the call.

For more than three decades, Mrs Robbie, who also plays the bagpipes, has ensured southern war casualties are remembered through her work restoring war memorials and piping at remembrance ceremonies. This project, you could say, was right up her alley.

“So I got involved and started the groundwork. There was a lot of groundwork – papers to be sorted through, reading to be done, archives to be gone through at the museum and asking people.”

She then had to decide what information she had was relevant and what was not.

While Mrs Robbie was chatting about the search at a garden club meeting, one attendee offered to pay for the helicopter to scout the site from above.

This proved extremely successful. A week ago, after only five minutes of pinpointing the location from above, the flagpole was found.

For Mrs Robbie it was a testament to a father’s love.

‘‘He’s hand carved that and it’s beautiful because it’s a square at the base and then you can see it’s gone into an octagonal where it’s been hand carved as well and then it goes into a round at the top. We’re expecting it to be the equivalent of about 7m tall when it was originally built. But to actually get it up on to the point as well, how on earth did he do that? I’d love to be able to talk to him and just see.’’

There is still work to be done up the hill. They are yet to find the memorial plaque and the picket fence that were also part of the McKenzies’ memorial. It is hoped a new flagpole can be erected on the site with a walking track up to it so people can go up and pay their

However, it was decided, given the condition of the flagpole, weather beaten and scalded by fire, it was necessary to get it down off the hill as soon as possible.

So it was on Saturday, after climbing the steep incline to the pole and after a ghostly lament piped by Mrs Robbie, the journey for this un-assuming, crumbly piece of wood, began.

The first part of the passage was perhaps the hardest.

Under meticulous direction, the volunteers were split into two teams, one to hold the pole on their shoulders, while the other group manoeuvred its way through the legs and arms of those holding it — social distancing went slightly out of the window. They had to push past prickly bushes and gorse, to get in position so the pole could be slowly and methodically passed through the hands of the second group.

Once down from the hill the volunteers made their way to 60 Liffey St, where they stopped for a minute’s silence. This wooden villa is believed to be where the McKenzie boys lived
before they went to war.

A further amble to Gore St and there was another stop outside the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, where the flag was flying at half-mast to mark the occasion. A solemn rendition of the Ode is given.

‘‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.’’

From here the group, made up of men and women, boys and girls, still taking it in turns, made the final leg of the trek to the Te Rau Aroha marae.

After a welcome outside, the pole was taken into the marae, where it was blessed and the volunteers were welcomed. The emotion felt by marae chairman Bubba Thompson as he
delivered his address in te reo Maori was raw and overwhelming.

‘‘I could not stop thinking about those young kids, you know, and the pain their mum and dad had to endure back home. Never to see their children again and the pain being so much that the dad built this flagpole in memory of his two sons. The whole story was such an emotional one for me.

‘‘It’s just a good thing for all the tamariki to remember this is what war does — the pain. It was a real live symbol of aroha. There were thousands of people that were lost. It just brought everything out,’’ he said.

On the last part of the trip, volunteers transferred the pole just metres away to the war memorial whare, where it will stay until it can be decided where it will finally be housed.

In a last act of respect, Mrs Robbie propped up a photograph of the two boys, taken with their Bluff West End cricket team in 1908, then kissed her hand before resting it on the pole.

For Mr Robertson, the whole experience was ‘‘bloody brilliant’’.

‘‘It’s pride in what we’ve accomplished. There’s still a lot of work to go, but pride in the community, the search team, the locals — I couldn’t be happier,’’ he said.

‘‘A lot of people probably don’t realise the significance of what has been done yet, but in time with a track up there, a new plaque, a pole, it’s a bit of history for Bluff brought to life.

‘‘To find something like this it reinforces to our young people, our future, that it was actually a real thing. People did die for their future and that’s where the pride comes from.’’

One can only imagine the grief this father experienced as he lovingly carved the pole for his sons and wife. You wonder, if in doing so, it helped him with his anguish. It was hoped by all those who helped deliver his memorial to its temporary home on Saturday, that he and Mrs McKenzie would be thrilled their sons would never be forgotten.