Century-old photos pose a war puzzle

By Anne Penketh

Tantalising mystery surrounds pictures of unknown woman in uniform of World War I Kiwi officer

The woman in the uniform of a WWI NZ officer and (right) in civilian clothes. The unidentified man is wearing the uniform of a lieutenant in the 7th Southland Mounted Rifles.
The woman in the uniform of a WWI NZ officer and (right) in civilian clothes. The unidentified man is wearing the uniform of a lieutenant in the 7th Southland Mounted Rifles.

Intriguing photographs have surfaced of a young woman wearing the uniform of a New Zealand military officer in the Somme region of northern France where the horrendous battle of World War I was fought.

Her identity is not known. In one of four photographs which are almost 100 years old, the woman, wearing the distinctive "lemon-squeezer" New Zealand military hat, salutes while holding a cane in front of a tree in a walled garden. In contrast with the usual battlefield pictures, she is standing in a relaxed setting outside a house with shuttered windows.

The woman, who wears a wedding ring, is shown both in uniform and wearing a blouse and skirt, in the four grainy black and white glass negatives found in the village of Hallencourt, which was a base behind the lines during the 1916 battle.

The woman's jacket has the rank of lieutenant clearly marked on the sleeves. She is wearing jodhpurs and has spurs on a pair of ankle boots.

In another picture, a New Zealand officer, smoking a pipe, is seated beside her. His identity is also unknown, although a New Zealand military analyst said he was a lieutenant in the 7th Southland Mounted Rifles.

Other photos show him standing beside her, and posing with a group of Kiwi cavalrymen.

The pictures have mystified Dominique Zanardi, a cafe owner in the Somme village of Pozieres who runs a museum of wartime memorabilia. "It's unusual for a woman to have been an officer then," he said.

He had previously seen photographs of French locals dressing up in uniform, "but the sleeves are too long for them, and something seems wrong, whereas this uniform fits the woman perfectly".

New Zealand historian Andrew Macdonald said that "clearly, the woman is wearing the officer's spare tunic". But were they married, or was the mystery woman the French mistress of the Kiwi officer? The enigma remains.

Mr Zanardi received the plates - in a battered wartime cardboard box containing 25 negative plates - from a contact.

The other pictures show British officers and a South African in similar poses, occasionally sitting with their hosts.

"In the rear bases, the officers stayed with the locals. There must have been two million soldiers at the height of the war, and they needed to stay somewhere," said Mr Zanardi.

Photographer Bernard Gardin, who transferred the pictures onto digital media, said several plates were damaged by fungus. "They are very fragile, and hate humidity," he said.

He is transferring another pack of about 40 plates which were found in the village of Guignemicourt, not far from Hallencourt.

Almost 100 years after the beginning of the 1914-1918 war, the Somme continues to yield its secrets. Soldiers' bodies are occasionally dug up in the fields, and Mr Zanardi says local people are still coming forward with memorabilia from barns and attics. The latest pack of 40 plates was discovered by a farmer after he bought a house, and last year, 400 glass negatives were found on a rubbish heap.

The photographs of the Kiwi officers date from 1916, when 15,000 New Zealand soldiers were deployed in the Somme.

Mr Zanardi noted that the New Zealand military moved their insignia on to epaulettes in 1917 when their uniforms were revised. Earlier in the war German snipers had targeted the Commonwealth officers, whose rank was clearly visible.

The New Zealand Division went into action on September 15, 1916, in support of a major push in which British tanks were used for the first time to seize the village of Flers, near Longueval.

By the time the division withdrew in October, more than 2,000 New Zealanders were dead.

Tell us: Do you recognise the woman in the photos? Contact newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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