Love letters, peace babies and dancing in the streets – how Kiwis spent

Harry Delamere Dansey and his fiancee Winifred Patience Barter, photographed in 1915 before he was sent overseas to serve in World War I. They married in 1919 after his safe return home.
MARK DANSEYHarry Delamere Dansey and his fiancee Winifred Patience Barter, photographed in 1915 before he was sent overseas to serve in World War I. They married in 1919 after his safe return home.

A long-in-the-tooth veteran at 22, the young soldier was in London on a final few days of leave when news came through that the end of the war was imminent.

While British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was relaying the ceasefire to Parliament and crowds were clamouring for a speech from King George V at Buckingham Palace, Lowndes was running down to The Strand with other New Zealand soldiers to join the thousands already celebrating.

Huge crowds gathered in Christchurch's Cathedral Square, despite the influenza sweeping the world.
SIR GEORGE GREY SPECIAL COLLECTIONSHuge crowds gathered in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, despite the influenza sweeping the world.

In later life he would recount the “joyous” occasion, with “everyone dancing and leaping around everywhere”, the only minor drawback – for a Kiwi, at least – being the “bloody Aussies playing two-up on every street corner”.

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But though he was at the centre of the world for that historic moment, his heart lay elsewhere – home.

Charles Lowndes holds a photo and letter of his father, Noble Lowndes, who lied about his age as a 17-year-old to become one of the first Kiwis to enlist in World War 1.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFFCharles Lowndes holds a photo and letter of his father, Noble Lowndes, who lied about his age as a 17-year-old to become one of the first Kiwis to enlist in World War 1.

In a letter written later that day to his father, Lowndes described his longing for New Zealand.

“I should very much have liked to have been in Gisborne when the news came through,” he wrote.

“Personally I cannot realise yet that there is no war on, and I can’t help feeling that it is too good to be true.

“However I hope to wake up one of these mornings to see the rugged coastline of dear old NZ looming up in the distance, which to me a few months ago seemed an unnatural or far off dream, for I can honestly say that I did not think I should ever have the good fortune to have seen this war through.”

Lowndes had a remarkable war. Lying about his age so he could enlist at 17, recruit number 732 helped liberate German Samoa before being sent to Europe, eventually being promoted to Company Sergeant Major.

Lowndes served in German Samoa before being shipped to Europe, fighting at the Battle of the Somme before being badly wounded in 1918.
CHARLES LOWNDESLowndes served in German Samoa before being shipped to Europe, fighting at the Battle of the Somme before being badly wounded in 1918.

He was wounded during the Battle of the Somme, served at Passchendaele and almost died in 1918 when 100 shrapnel splinters from an exploding shell ravaging his body.

He also endured the horror of learning his cousin had been killed when he pulled on a new uniform jacket to replace his own mud-ruined one, only to read his relative’s name inside.

Come Armistice Day, after 52 months of service he was ready for the war to end.

Lowndes, promoted to Company Sergeant Major, wrote to his father on Armistice Day, telling of his longing for home in Gisborne.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFFLowndes, promoted to Company Sergeant Major, wrote to his father on Armistice Day, telling of his longing for home in Gisborne.

“I can return home now feeling that I have done my bit and by my actions over here, be in a position to face the world in the face and move on ever upwards,” he wrote.

While Lowndes celebrated on The Strand – only pausing to roll his eyes at the Australians – his countrymen at home were just hours from receiving the news themselves.

Word reached prime minister William Massey late on November 11 and was announced to the nation the following morning shortly before 9am, his message “Armistice signed” sent to post and telegraph offices.

Lowndes served in German Samoa before eventually being sent to Europe.
Lowndes served in German Samoa before eventually being sent to Europe.

Up and down the country bells and whistles sounded, the moment of peace heralded by everything from factory sirens to toots of locomotives.

Workers deserted offices and factory floors in spontaneous celebration, descending on town halls and squares to hear patriotic speeches from mayors and launch into song.

In the capital, hordes gathered outside the Parliamentary Library at 10.30am for the formal announcement from the Governor-General, crowds breaking into the national anthem.

Isobel Haresnape, a nurse in Auckland at the time, described the excitement of seeing people dancing and impromptu bands in the streets for a 1968 recording to mark the 50th anniversary, held by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

“I woke next morning to a tremendous noise of sirens, and bell-ringing, and voices, and feet running, and everyone was wanting to know what it was all about, and I was one of them, and I heard someone say, ‘It’s peace!’.

“I went down to Queen Street where I saw all this excitement. People had benzene tins, and there was, I remember, one band was out. I don’t know if there were any more, but there were a lot of makeshift bands…

“People [were] very hysterically excited, really. People who didn’t know each other, strangers, kissed strangers and went drinking with them in hotels. They danced with them. Everyone was dancing to the bands, or without the bands.”

An Armistice parade on Waimate's main street, 1918. The gathering of crowds helped spread influenza, which eventually left 9000 dead in New Zealand.
WAIMATE MUSEUM AND ARCHIVESAn Armistice parade on Waimate’s main street, 1918. The gathering of crowds helped spread influenza, which eventually left 9000 dead in New Zealand.

Quaker Edward Dowsett was serving two years’ hard labour in Waikato’s Waikeria Prison as a conscientious objector when peace was declared.

Prisoners were informed by warders and then given a “holiday” – which meant being shut in their cells all day.

Dowsett told the same recording: “My first thought was one, like everybody else, of immense relief. My immediate reaction in my cell was to break the law and sing, and I sang Edward Carpenter’s poem ‘England, arise! The long, long night is over.’

“Then I began to wonder whether it really was, and I suppose my next thought was the hope that we had learned our lesson and wouldn’t be such fools as to again embark on a wide-scale war, or for that matter, any war at all.”

Crowds gathered outside the Waverley Hotel and railway station in Queen Street, Auckland to celebrate the announcement of the ceasefire.
AUCKLAND WAR MEMORIAL MUSEUMCrowds gathered outside the Waverley Hotel and railway station in Queen Street, Auckland to celebrate the announcement of the ceasefire.

But while small towns held parades and burned effigies of the Kaiser, the elation and relief – already tinged with sadness for the families of those killed – was marred further by fresh tragedy.

An influenza pandemic was sweeping the world, spread partly by soldiers on the battlefield and returning home, and then by the celebrations themselves.

So great was the concern that in Auckland the chief medical officer warned against public gatherings – a call largely adhered to, despite Haresnape’s recollections.

Shops, businesses, government offices and telephone exchanges were closed on November 12, denying the young nurse and her colleagues vital equipment as they tried in vain that night to save patients at a makeshift hospital.

Chris McKeen/StuffThe Māori Pioneer Battalion was part of the NZEF operations in WWI, which ended 100 years ago.

In Christchurch indoor gatherings were banned, leading to thanksgiving services being held in the open, one in the city’s Cathedral Square; events in Dunedin and Wellington still went ahead.

But the flu was unstoppable. In little over a month it killed 9,000 people in New Zealand, along with soldiers still in camp – half the 18,000 who died while serving. Worldwide the eventual toll was between 50 and 100 million.

Neill Atkinson, chief historian at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage said the pandemic was a “tragedy piled upon tragedy”.

“While people are celebrating and there’s a sense of relief, it’s again in the middle of another really tragic event.

“It was very much a time of mixed feelings – many families were sad about their own loss, and people were worried about sickness.”

New Zealand Engineers resting in a large shell hole at Spree Farm, Ypres Salient, 12 October 1917.
HENRY ARMYTAGE SANDERSNew Zealand Engineers resting in a large shell hole at Spree Farm, Ypres Salient, 12 October 1917.

Despite the death and suffering, new life still flourished.

Children born on and around Armistice Day brought hope for the future, and many were given names to mark this symbolism – the so-called “peace babies”.

Some were named Peace or the Latin version Pax, others christened Victory and occasionally Armistice itself.

Historian Imelda Bargas​ has uncovered around 20 New Zealand children given “Peace” as a first name, another 100 or so having it as a middle name.

While some were happy with the association, for others it was a burden

An Armistice parade on Waimate's main street, 1918.
WAIMATE MUSEUM AND ARCHIVESAn Armistice parade on Waimate’s main street, 1918.

One young man found Armistice Verdun too much to bear, shortening it to “Verdy”, while Peace Towne recalled in 2008 how she was shy and embarrassed by the comments her name generated each year on her birthday.

“It was something they didn’t necessarily want to draw attention to about themselves or cause a conversation that they weren’t comfortable with,” Bargas said.

“A lot of children of this age would have gone through World War II, so it’s hard to say what exactly would have made them drop it. It may have been the attention, or they didn’t feel like using it after World War II.”

But at least one wore her name with pride.

Sylvia Peace Gilmour, holding a netball at her school in 1935. Born on November 12, 1918, the day the Armistice was announced in New Zealand, she chose to go by the name "Peace" for the rest of her life.
ROB MCCARTHYSylvia Peace Gilmour, holding a netball at her school in 1935. Born on November 12, 1918, the day the Armistice was announced in New Zealand, she chose to go by the name “Peace” for the rest of her life.

Sylvia Peace Gilmour was born in New Plymouth on November 12, 1918, daughter of real estate agent and later city mayor Everard Gilmour.

Peace was adamant about being called by her middle name, enduring a longstanding frustration of having post addressed to “Sylvia”.

Forced to occasionally adopt the role of mayoress alongside her father, after her own mother’s death when she was nine, Peace went on to have a fascinating life, representing Wellington at cricket and climbing Mt Taranaki nine times before moving to Waiheke Island, eventually dying in April this year, aged 99.

She even had a road named after her, Peace Avenue, in New Plymouth.

“She was certainly proud of her name,” her son, Rob McCarthy, said. “She introduced herself as that name to people, always as Peace McCarthy [her married name]. Everyone knew her by that, it was just what she called herself.

“It was never a topic that was discussed at length, other than that her dad wanted her name to be a symbol of ongoing peace, and that didn’t happen.”

Harry Delamere Dansey was to spend four long years fighting his way through Europe, then working to rebuild it.
MARK DANSEYHarry Delamere Dansey was to spend four long years fighting his way through Europe, then working to rebuild it.

While the idea of peace was starting to sink in at home, around 58,000 Kiwis were still serving overseas at the time of the Armistice.

Among them was Captain Harry Dansey, an engineer in charge of bridge construction for the Army Corps in northern France.

A widower of almost 40 when war broke out, he already had a distinguished career in the railway industry behind him.

Believed to be New Zealand’s first qualified Maori engineer, he was running an Auckland consultancy firm and engaged to Winifred Barter when he signed up, as did his two brothers.

Members of the Maori Pioneer Battalion taking a break from trench improvement work near Gommecourt, France, on July 25, 1918.
HENRY ARMYTAGE SANDERSMembers of the Maori Pioneer Battalion taking a break from trench improvement work near Gommecourt, France, on July 25, 1918.

Sent to Egypt for officer training, he later joined the newly-formed Māori Pioneer Battalion, supervising trench digging during the Battle of the Somme and repeatedly escaping death as shells fell around him.

“During the Somme he wrote about the strain, particularly with junior subordinates dying,” explained his grandson Mark Dansey, who transcribed all of his 20 or so letters, now held at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

“There was one letter to his father – he grew grey hairs and felt like he wanted to shout as loud as possible to relieve the tension.”

In 1917 his engineering expertise was recognised and he was pressed into supervising railway and bridge construction, a role he held until the end of the war, earning a mention in despatches and being awarded the Military Cross.

When the Armistice came – four days after he turned 44 – he was still running bridging operations at Sebourg on the Belgian border, barely finding time for sleep.

Second lieutenant Harry Dansey, photographed in September 1915 shortly before he departed New Zealand for Egypt and Europe.
MARK DANSEYSecond lieutenant Harry Dansey, photographed in September 1915 shortly before he departed New Zealand for Egypt and Europe.

He finally wrote to Winifred on November 15:

“The end of the war has at last arrived my dearest heart and my thoughts are ever with you and our next meeting never to part again.

“I dare not tell you indeed it would be quite beyond my power to express the awful trial I have passed through the last few weeks.

“If the war had lasted another week I would have been a physical and a mental wreck. The strain on my power of endurance was too great for me to escape the consequences that were perfectly plain to me & yet I was powerless to avert them…

“I feel as if I could sleep for a month without stirring. The end of the war was accepted on the battlefield like anything else and the only outward sign of the time was just an expression of satisfaction on the faces of the soldiers.”

Dansey eventually returned home in 1919, marrying his sweetheart that October. They had three sons and a daughter, and when he died in 1942 at 67 he was mayor of Rotorua.

Like so many other New Zealanders, Dansey’s Armistice Day was spent in the mud and blood-spattered fields of the Western Front.

But, like Lowndes, his heart lay at home.

He wrote to Winifred: “Oh my darling I wonder if you really know how much of the heaven I dream of is enveloped in you.

“I wonder if you know that in the midst of feelings of despair and disheartening, the girl I truly love dearer than life always stood out as a beacon light in my loneliness.”

Sunday Star Times