Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an NZME. News Service reporter based in Christchurch.

WWI: Living memorial to the fallen

Tree-lined avenues in North Otago honour 400 locals who died fighting for their country.

Rob Douglas has kept his grandfather's vision alive.
Rob Douglas has kept his grandfather's vision alive.

21 Streets tell a story
Towey St in Oamaru could be in any small town in New Zealand.

Exposed powerlines, modest brick family bungalows, tidy gardens, trimmed front hedges, kids' scooters discarded in driveways.

But what makes this street special - along with dozens in Oamaru, and around North Otago - are the trees that line the grass verge.

In a 100m stretch of Towey St there are 15 trees, each planted with a white memorial cross at its foot. They remember the 400 men from Oamaru and the surrounding districts who were killed in World War I, in what is New Zealand's largest war memorial.

Each cross tells one man's own story in the most basic way: "Rflm J. V. Coney. France 1917", or "Pvte J. W. Johnston. Gallipoli 1915". Or it tells of brothers: "Rflm R. Bartley. France 1918. Rflm J. Bartley. France 1918".

Oamaru's war dead were from all walks of life. Donald Forrester Brown was a farmer who posthumously won the Victoria Cross for heroic deeds during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

Dr Alexander Douglas was port officer of health for Oamaru when the ship Terra Nova arrived back from its ill-fated Antarctic expedition with news that Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his party of four had died on their way back from the South Pole.

The local doctor was sworn to secrecy while a telegram of the news was sent from Oamaru Post Office to London on February 10, 1913.

But Dr Douglas, who was president of the Oamaru Beautifying Society, decided to honour Captain Scott by planting a memorial oak tree in Arun St, overlooking the harbour.

When it became apparent that hundreds of local men had been killed in the Great War of 1914-18, the beautifying society placed an advert in the local paper asking for families to come forward with the names of sons, daughters, husbands and wives who had been killed.

The names were sent in - not from every family, with some too grief-stricken to have such a lasting memorial - and Dr Douglas led a scheme to plant trees in memory of the fallen soldiers from North Otago.

Oaks and other species were planted in 1919 in the form of a wheel, the hub being in central Oamaru, and radiating out into the countryside.

The trees, with plaques, and latterly crosses, are on many Oamaru streets. Where possible, they were planted close to where the dead were from - at entrances to farms, outside houses, or in the case of James Campbell Lumsden, outside their place of work.

Scottish-born Lumsden was working as a flour miller at Dunedin-based Phoenix Company's Waianakarua mill, 22km south of Oamaru, when war broke out.

He left New Zealand in August 1916 and was serving with the Otago Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, when he was killed "in the field, France or Belgium" on June 16, 1917. He was 28.

Lumsden is buried at Messines Ridge British Cemetery in Belgium but an English oak, planted in 1921 at the State Highway 1 roadside, just 100m from the old mill, stands testament to his sacrifice.

"Most war memorials are collective, to remember the boys from the district. But the memorial oaks scheme is an individualised memorial to every single soldier, and that's unique to New Zealand as far as I know," says Dr Douglas' grandson, Rob Douglas, a retired primary school teacher.

Mr Douglas, 72, has been instrumental over two decades in ensuring the dead soldiers' memories live on. He has relocated trees, planted new trees and replaced crosses.

"It gives people who had relatives killed in conflicts - not just World War I, but every war since, right up to Afghanistan - a place to come and to ponder the futility of conflict."

Read earlier stories in this series here.

- NZ Herald

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