Descendants of Kiwi soldiers who fought at Gallipoli believe WW1 diaries were stolen
A treasure-trove of New Zealand war memorabilia, containing precious diaries and photos of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, is held under lock and key, tucked away in the bowels of Leeds University.
For more than 40 years, some of the families of these soldiers have waged their own battle with the university – and the man who took these prized memories more than 18,000km away from where the families say they belong.
The collection was collated by celebrated English historian Peter Liddle.
Margaret Kearns, daughter of Gallipoli veteran Hartley Palmer, believes his diaries have been "stolen". Liddle, now retired, emphatically denies any of the material he was given was stolen, saying it was gifted to him by the military men.
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A New Zealand Government inquiry subsequently found there was nothing illegal about the material being removed from New Zealand.
The Liddle Collection is now held at the Leeds University Special Collections library, and repeated calls for the material to be repatriated and cared for in New Zealand museums have been refused.
Liddle began assembling material privately in the early 1970s. The mission brought him to New Zealand's shores on numerous occasions as he sought war memorabilia and interviews with returned servicemen, most of them over 80 years old by then.
The collection features letters, diaries, official and personal papers, photographs, newspapers, artwork and recollections of well over 4000 people who experienced World War I, and another 500 items from World War II soldiers.
It is described as one of Britain's most valuable Great War collections and has been awarded designation status, signifying its international importance.
Of special significance to New Zealand are 14 original diaries.
They are accounts by ordinary Kiwis, such as Pukekohe barman Allan Alexander and Nelson carpenter Albert William Marris. Cyril James Claridge came from Morrinsville and served in the Auckland Infantry Battalion.
Alfred George Jennings of Taranaki was the son of Taumarunui MP William Thomas Jennings. His two brothers accompanied him to war but were killed, one at Anzac Cove.
Jennings suffered from shell shock after 10 weeks at Gallipoli and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. Both his diaries – from October 1914 to August 1915, and 1916 to 1917 – are in the Liddle collection.
Francis Morphet Twisleton came from Gisborne. Harmond Neill Berry came from Te Awamutu.
Kearns' father, Hartley Valentine Palmer, was a Nelson farmer.
NOTES ON A WAR
Private H.V. Palmer, 6/320, 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Battalion, was on leave in Cairo in March 1915 when he bought a small French notebook and started recording his experiences of souvenir hunting, army drill and observations about the quality of the food.
The tone changed dramatically after April 25 when the entries describe terrible noise, confusion, spy scares, deaths and terribly wounded comrades whom he could not help.
Palmer, a 23-year-old Territorial who volunteered immediately after war broke out, narrowly escaped death himself.
In fact, for a long time his Nelson family thought he was dead after he was mistakenly reported as having been killed in action. Years later, he would recount that the bell-ringer at the memorial service was annoyed at his time being wasted.
In the end the enteric fever that was rife among the Anzacs (and often fatal) ended Palmer's war and he was evacuated sick in August 1915.
All of this he recorded in the little 130-page notebook that accompanied him through a campaign that few of his original platoon of 60 survived.
Palmer returned to New Zealand and resumed farming when his health recovered. His pre-war girlfriend had not waited for him, but Palmer eventually married and raised a family.
He wrote a book on his experiences, The Trail I Followed, and returned to Gallipoli on the 50th anniversary of the campaign.
He was long retired when, 60 years after Gallipoli, word came through that a visiting British historian was researching the campaign, and had approached the Returned Services Association for contacts.
This was a time when interest elsewhere in Gallipoli was at a low ebb and anti-Vietnam War protesters were disrupting Anzac Day services.
It would be 10 years before Christopher Pugsley's book Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story and Maurice Shadbolt's 1982 play Once on Chunuk Bair placed the Great War before a new generation.
And so in June 1974 Palmer drove to Blenheim to meet Liddle, taking the diary along.
A DAUGHTER'S DIARY CAMPAIGN
Last year, as New Zealand marked the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, the New Zealand Society of Genealogists asked Kiwis to share war stories, and Margaret Kearns responded.
Despite handing over his diary to Liddle, her father had remembered everything.
His family's understanding was that the actual document was lost when it was loaned to a British historian in 1974 and never returned.
The genealogist group, based in Nelson, traced the diary to the Liddle Collection.
Kearns said it became a race against time to get the diary returned, her brothers were in their 90s and frail but she said contact with the Leeds University led her to believe her request was impossible.
At least, she said, she learnt much about her father's time at war after reading the digital copy of his diary for the first time last year.
"He [Hartley] agreed to participate [in Liddle's research campaign] and drove to Blenheim for a meeting, taking his diary with him and loaning it to Peter Liddle. He did not expect it to be taken to England. The family wrote letters asking for its return, as well as to Liddle."
Kearns said she'd been asked to prove the existence of those letters, but she said technology in those days meant it wasn't possible.
Leeds University refused to send the diary back to New Zealand but settled on photographing each of the 130 pages which have since been digitised, transcribed and bound in copies.
After Kearns went public with her family's story a few months ago, descendants of Great War soldiers, who had also had contact with Liddle, came forward with their own concerns.
Darryl Annear of Whanganui is the grandson of Albert Frederick Cooper, a private in the Wellington Battalion. Annear had a similar recollection of events.
He understood his uncle loaned his grandfather's diary to Liddle but it was never returned.
Leeds University holds 22 letters written to Cooper's sister Eleanor, his Gallipoli diary and pay book.
Stuff traced Berry's descendants to Ruakaka, in Northland.
Grandson Bob Mumford remembers a flag he hung on his wall as a seven-year-old child. It was one of the only items he had of his grandfather's.
"It's rather tatty, but it's got all of his campaigns marked on it."
He says it was "absolutely amazing" to learn his grandfather had a diary. He never knew Berry had written one.
"I've never known a lot. It wasn't spoken about in those days. He did collect quite a lot of memorabilia."
He says most of those items were now housed in the Te Awamutu Museum, apart from his diary which is now part of the Liddle Collection in Leeds.
He says war memorabilia is of huge national importance to New Zealanders, given the relative youth of this country.
NEW ZEALAND'S RECOVERY ATTEMPTS
The families were not alone in their concern. Eight years after Liddle's visit, the Ministry of Defence began investigating how he had managed to take these historical treasures out of the country.
It found Liddle agreed to an
approach from the Australian Joint Copying Project in 1982 for the collection to be microfilmed.
But Liddle later changed his mind, saying "my archives would be severely undermined in value by my co-operation with your project". He regarded the collection as "his personal property" with a commercial value.
The matter was was also raised with the then-Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, documents released under the Official Information Act show.
The Minister of Defence, David Thomson, directed the Secretary of Defence to investigate the matter and to "consult with other interested Government organisations in an attempt to have the diaries, or at least copies of them, returned to New Zealand".
This never occurred. Following a meeting attended by a historian from the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Internal Affairs chief historian, Alexander Turnbull Library's chief librarian and Pugsley, it was agreed "as far as can be ascertained, Mr Liddle had done nothing illegal during his work in New Zealand".
But the Alexander Turnbull Library continued its attempt to obtain, at least, copies of the material removed from New Zealand by Liddle.
That attempt failed, and soon after the Ministry of Defence stopped efforts to return the New Zealand material from the United Kingdom.
This decision was apparently prompted by the "interested parties" agreeing that the Alexander Turnbull Library was the appropriate government agency to pursue the matter. But the trail went cold.
The ministry report noted it had lost all traces of the report compiled by Pugsley on the New Zealand material.
WHO IS PETER LIDDLE?
This week Stuff tracked Liddle down to his home in a village near Ripon, North Yorkshire. Now 83 and retired from Leeds University for more than a decade, Liddle partially opens his door but is not prepared to welcome visitors.
When asked about the Great War diaries, he becomes defensive and says all questions in relation to the collection should be referred to the university. "They own the diaries, the diaries are theirs."
Allegations by soldiers' families that he "stole" the material are rejected emphatically.
He says the diaries were "given to me as I was building up an archive with a view to it being in the public domain, and it is in the public domain."
Asked if the families could have the diaries returned, he says, "no".
"Well, I mean that's not up to me. It's up to the university. They would have to write to the university and see what the librarian said to them."
Liddle says there is documentation at the university that supports him and notes he has been given full permission by the families to keep the material.
But he says the contents of the documentation would need to be specified by the university's staff.
"New Zealanders who are not well informed on this accuse me of stealing these diaries? I think that's appalling … and inappropriate accusation which is just groundless."
Liddle is asked if he would be happy for the diaries to be repatriated to New Zealand but he says it was not his "affair" and that they did not belong to him.
He says the families were in no way misled, and looked visibly distressed at being asked about the diaries.
In a statement, a University of Leeds spokesperson said: "We understand the Liddle Collection which we hold in trust has international significance, and we investigate and consider all requests very seriously.
"We are committed to dealing with requests on a case-by-case basis and ask for clear evidence to support the transfer of these historic materials."
Palmer died in 1987, aged 96, having never seen his diary again.
Palmer's daughter, Margaret Kearns, raises her head from the photographed pages of her father's diary.
She's sitting in her living room in Stoke close to where her father grew up and retired. Hartley's photo sits beside her. He's dressed in uniform holding a rifle, his cheeks smooth and eyes youthful and bright.
He survived the war, she says. But another battle continues.
Additional reporting: Jonathan Corke
- Sunday Star Times