War records minefield

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 30/03/2014

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Hundreds of New Zealanders have had applications for the Gallipoli ballot rejected - with some finding Grandad wasn't the war hero they thought.

More than 260 disappointed applicants have had entries to the centenary celebrations in Turkey on April 25, 2015 invalidated by the Defence Force, with the military double-checking all personnel files with Archives New Zealand.

Entries were also rejected for being late, filled out by non-New Zealand citizens, and not containing enough information. Some desperate to get a spot at Anzac Cove tried to sneak in multiple entries.

With the centenary of the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landing next year, the country's interest in war history has exploded. As a result, places at the Anzac Day commemorations in Gallipoli have been limited by the Turkish Government to 2000 Kiwis and 8000 Australians - figures roughly based on the number of deaths suffered by each country with Australia losing 8500 men and New Zealand 2721.

More than 10,000 people wanted to attend and have entered a ballot, the results of which will be announced this week by Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Twenty per cent of the highly coveted spots are reserved for people who had an ancestor at Gallipoli, or who are veterans of any war. They also get another crack at the general ballot.

Each entry in these special categories has been double-checked by the Defence Force through Archives, which has digitised more than 160,000 personnel files from World War I in a massive six-year project.

The work has more than doubled Archives' workload as it deals with those logging in to check ancestors' files, or coming in to dig through the stacks.

But searches do not always prove fruitful. "There will be a tale that's passed down through families that just doesn't check out, or people come here thinking something happened on a particular date and it didn't,"

Archives online manager Alan Ferriss said. "Every file is a mystery, you never know what you'll find."

A common mistake was assuming if a relative fought in World War I they were at Gallipoli, which was often not the case. Sometimes descendants learnt they had fought in a different war, hadn't left the country at all, or weren't even listed as being in the army.

Other relatives found parts of a file embarrassing, and asked to edit it. This often involved a medical record which they felt reflected badly on their ancestor, such as a sexually transmitted illness.

Not only was it inappropriate to rewrite history, but it took away from the great work army nurses had done in controlling sexually transmitted infections, Ferriss said.

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And no matter what was found, cracking open a long-forgotten war file was a poignant experience.

"It's very rare for someone not to have a reaction. If someone in your family participated in one of these conflicts it tends to have a big effect on the family, and the country as well."

When Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae's staff last visited the stacks, they opened the file of a soldier from a desert conflict and sand flew into the room, silencing its occupants.

ARCHIVES REVEAL HISTORY AND MYSTERY

A forgotten family soldier resplendent with medals, a man so keen to go to war he falsified his name and the curious case of death by liquid tear gas.

Stories such as these are being uncovered as thousands of New Zealanders research their family history ahead of the centenary of World War I.

History masters graduate Lillie Le Dorre, 23, plugged her great-grandfather's name into the Archives search engine, Archway, not really expecting any results - as far as her family knew, none of their relations had been involved.

To her surprise, the Wellingtonian found her great-grandfather Alexander McKitterich had been an army sergeant in both world wars, controlling logistics from Trentham.

A Christian man, he was eventually discharged from the army due to his age - but not before racking up decades' worth of service medals.

"I'm aware that my great-grandfather wasn't a 'hero' in the sense that he didn't storm trenches and kill enemies, but he served his country in other ways," said Le Dorre.

Other files uncovered by archivists include that of William Lawrence, who died by inhaling concentrated liquid tear gas - but was it suicide or an honest mistake?

The ageing soldier was separated from his wife and children, was due to go into battle the next day, and had been told not to touch the bottle as it contained liquid tear gas. On the other hand, the bottle looked like rum.

Then there's John Allman Marchant, who tried to get into the army, failed for medical reasons, but succeeded under a different name. This emerged only when he died in the Battle of the Somme.

- Sunday Star Times

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