Nelson woman's 42-year battle for return of father's lost Gallipoli diary video

MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

Margaret Kearns with a picture of her father, Hartley Palmer and a copied page from his World War 1 diary. Palmer's original diary was taken from him by a researcher and never returned and is now in the Leeds Museum in England.

A Nelson woman's 42-year-long battle to find her father's World War I Gallipoli diary led her to a museum in Leeds, JESSICA LONG reports.

Private Hartley Valentine Palmer of Richmond survived the horrors of war, documenting his battles in 1915, only to find himself wrapped up in a conflict over the possession of his diary.

Palmer documented his World War I landing at Gallipoli, in a small French notebook giving historians insight into a soldier's life on the front. But almost 60 years after the conflict the diary was taken from him by a British researcher who refused to return it to its owner.

Although the Leeds museum has refused requests for the return of the diary, staff agreed to photograph each of its 130 ...
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

Although the Leeds museum has refused requests for the return of the diary, staff agreed to photograph each of its 130 pages. The diary has since been digitised, transcribed and bound in copies.

The diary, bought in Cairo, accompanied Private Palmer of the Canterbury Battalion through the trenches snug in his trouser pocket.

"I had a mate who was writing in diaries, so I bought one and thought I would write something too," Palmer told the media in 1984.

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He wrote harrowing tales of constant shell fire, the landing at Anzac Cove, death and the conditions of war.

In 1974 English historian Peter Liddle interviewed 150 veterans, taking personal memorabilia from some during a research visit to New Zealand.

Liddle hunted Palmer down through the RSA and met him in Blenheim in June 1974.

Ten years later the Nelson Evening Mail reported Palmer as saying, "as soon as he saw my diary he said; 'That's like gold to me'."

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Palmer asked to take the diary to read, to which Palmer agreed, but he didn't realise Liddle intended on keeping it.

He and his family wrote to Liddle several times pleading its return. Liddle was determined to hold onto the material.

The New Zealand Police Association became involved to get the diary back. Liddle said any New Zealand government push to return the diary would not affect his stand. The items belonged to him "unequivocally", he said.

"My position has not changed at all. There is no foundation for such a request," he said in 1984.

Palmer fought to get the diary back until he died in 1987, aged 96, but to no avail. His last wish was to have the diary housed at the National Army Museum in Waiouru.

After Palmer's death his family assumed the diary was lost forever, but in 2016 Palmer's youngest daughter Margaret Kearns wrote a letter to a Nelson genealogy group that had asked for World War I stories.

"I had to explain, yes I am his daughter. My parents were 50 when they had me," Kearns said.

Kearns explained what had happened to her father's diary. Within hours a woman from the group phoned Kearns to say she had found the diary in a British museum in Leeds.

"Thus began the quest of the diary to be returned to NZ or at least a copy as we discovered it was in a fragile condition," Kearns said.

The museum refused to send the diary back but agreed to photograph each of its 130 pages. The diary has since been digitised, transcribed and bound in copies.

Kearns, who lives in Richmond, said she learnt much about her father's time at war when she read it for the first time last year.

"He landed at Gallipoli on Anzac Cove on Anzac Day so he's a true veteran. One of the few. In the diary it tells how they went ashore," she said.

"Then he found out he wasn't receiving any mail because he was reported killed and the family in Brightwater went into mourning." It was a case of mistaken identity.

Death was always close at hand as shown in Palmer's diary, food and water is short and sleep often impossible.

On Sunday, April 25, 1915 Palmer then aged 23 wrote: "It was worse than thunder as we neared the shore we could here (sic) rifles and machine gun ​  pouring out bullets, we are to get ready to go ashore.

"We landed about 7pm found that hundreds of wounded and dead were lying about. Rifle fire and cannon was terrific. Several shells land near the boat as we were landing, we took up a position and dug trenches all night."

Palmer survived and returned to New Zealand where he married and started a new life with his family.

A digitised copy of Hartley Valentine Palmer's diary is available to read online at the Auckland War Memorial Museum's online cenotaph.

 - Stuff

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