Victoria Cross Corner
Sunday 29 January 1956, when the Victoria Cross Memorial was unveiled, was a memorable day in Dunedin, New Zealand – everyone was there, dressed in their best.
The unveiling of the memorial, outside the main entrance to the Dunedin RSA on the corner of Burlington Street and Moray Place, was a grand occasion attended by the Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Willoughby Norrie and Lady Norrie.
A plaque lists the names of the 22 recipients of the Victoria Cross, nine of whom were in attendance that day, and one of them – the Reverend Keith Elliott – dedicated the memorial. Reflecting the language of the time, the plaque pays tribute to soldiers of “the Maori War 1864, South African War 1899 – 1902, The Great War 1914 – 1918 and The World War 1939 – 1945”.
A Hero’s Painful Memories
Bernard “Tiny” Freyberg VC, CMG, DSO ended World War One a highly decorated hero – celebrated in Britain as well as his homeland of New Zealand. He had served with the British forces: his Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was won at Gallipoli, his Victoria Cross (VC) on the Somme and, at the age of 27, he was made the youngest Brigadier-General in the British Army. He would go on to command the 2nd New Zealand Division in World War Two and become Governor-General of New Zealand.
Born in London, he grew up in New Zealand after his family emigrated and he attended Wellington College, in the capital city.
In 1921, still suffering from the many wounds he received during the war, he returned to New Zealand for several weeks to recuperate. He turned down all requests for public appearances and a civic reception, but he did take time to visit his old school and address an assembly of the boys.
One of those schoolboys, Max Riske, vividly recalled the event some 60 years later in a radio interview. As Max explains, the boys were expecting a stirring speech from a glorious war hero – but got something quite different from the man who had lost two brothers and many friends in the war.
“All my mates ever got were wooden crosses”
Corporal Cyril Bassett was the only New Zealander to be awarded a Victoria Cross for the Gallipoli campaign. In this 1916 film clip he is congratulated by fellow Kiwi soldiers shortly after being presented with his medal. His modesty can be seen in his bearing – while smiling and shaking hands jovially, he still appears reserved. Throughout his life, Bassett had mixed feelings about his VC. “All my mates ever got,” he said, “were wooden crosses.”
A sea of faces say goodbye in Dunedin
Tahuna Park in Dunedin was the initial training camp for soldiers of the Otago and Southland Section of the Main Body of the NZEF. It was also the site for this civic reception farewelling the men on 16 September 1914. The Otago Daily Times reported that “seldom, if ever, has such a large Dunedin crowd been gathered together at one time." (17 September 1914, p. 2).
The soldiers seem all smiles and expectant faces, and eager to be off to war. The film also gives rare glimpses of how Dunedin people felt as their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons headed off to the front. There is a sense of apprehension amongst this sea of faces, and it was well founded. Many of the troops shown in this film later became casualties of the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign.