'Ordinary solider' the face of WW1 stamp

Soldier chosen to be the face of the Great War

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:00 26/07/2014
Meville Mirfin stamp
ORDINARY SOLDIER: A New Zealand Post 80 cent stamp featuring Meville Mirfin.

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His ship was torpedoed by Germans, his hospital bombed from a Zeppelin, but Melville Mirfin made it back home.

And now, a suitcase of memories belonging to the World War I soldier from a tiny West Coast town has been stamped in history.

Mirfin, of Ikamatua south of Reefton, who was a boarder at Nelson College, is the "ordinary soldier" chosen as the face of the official New Zealand Post WWI stamp and coin programme to be launched in Wellington on August 4.

The special Ceremony of Remembrance that begins at Queen's Wharf will mark the day that war began 100 years earlier.

Reference to the Mirfin family features on three of the four commemorative stamps, including the portrait of Melville, a postcard he wrote and a family photo outside their Ikamatua farm house, Oulton.

Melville and three of his seven brothers, Stanley [also a Nelson College boarder], Ashton and George fought in the Great War and all returned.

This is remarkable in itself, and their equally remarkable stories which had been stored in the suitcase in the Mirfin home in Richmond, have materialised with prompting by descendant Zane Mirfin, support from the head of the Nelson Provincial Museum Peter Millward, and finally selection by the stamp programme's head of research Aaron Brown.

He said research and concept development began about a year ago, and was finely honed to the stage the Mirfin story was settled on. Brown said he had been working on around 10 possibilities from around the country that would have fitted the bill.

"One intention was to find at the very least, a soldier who had been in the war from 1914-1918, and at best, a family that might have been able to fill that role."

Brown met with Stuart and Sherry Mirfin, who "rifled through the suitcase and told the family story".

He said what made it even better was that it was "unique and unpublished content".

Stuart Mirfin, whose father was Ashton [Ash], said such acknowledgement was a huge honour, considering the experiences and stories so many families had.

"As a family we're greatly honoured because there are likely to be thousands of others like us."

Stuart said his father was a great collector and diary keeper, which meant they had a rich source of recall of events experienced by the brothers.

Stuart said his father wrote "very precise, clear letters" and when he came back from war, many people gave him back the letters he wrote.

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"He put them all together and put them in the suitcase."

Stuart said his father was almost 50 when Stuart was born, and it was rare to have family still alive who could talk about a parent's experience of World War I.

All but Melville, who became a banker in Palmerston North, were involved in farming.

Jessie - the only girl in the family - was the eldest, followed by Walker, Stanley, Melville, Rollo, twins Ashton and Bryson and then George.

Stuart said he was not sure how rare it was for all members of a family who went to war to return. Only George was wounded, but each had close brushes with death - including a couple before they had arrived at the battlefields.

"I know of others from the district whose families never returned, so when you consider the losses some families endured, this was remarkable."

Early volunteer Melville [Mel] Mirfin, a Palmerston North bank officer in 1914, volunteered for war soon after it was declared on August 4, 1914. Within days he was on a troop ship bound for Samoa - a German protectorate from 1900 to 1914. When war broke out the German colony (of Western Samoa)was occupied by 1400 troops from New Zealand.

"New Zealand took a great chance going there. They knew the size of the garrison was small but there was a big battleship cruising the Pacific," Stuart said.

The armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst - the flagship of the German East Asia Squadron, was known to be lurking nearby.

"It could have blown them out the ocean."

Melville, who became a sergeant, went to Samoa as a medic. He was there until the end of 1914, came back to New Zealand for a short time, then boarded a troop ship bound for Egypt. He was then posted to Salonica (Thessaloniki) in Greece.

He left Alexandria on the ill-fated transport ship Marquette, torpedoed by the Germans in the Aegean Sea in late 1915.

Of the 741 people on board, 167 were lost, including 10 members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, 19 male Medical Corps staff and three New Zealand soldiers.

"She went down fast and there were two remarkable things about it - it contained the first New Zealand women killed in action.

"Mel was mentioned in dispatches and got a citation for bravery, for saving lives. He was a good swimmer and managed to get people on to lifeboats. There was also a French destroyer nearby that was quickly on the scene," Stuart said.

Those rescued continued on to Salonica and set up the hospital. In a letter to Stuart's father, Mel described the time they were bombed - by a Zeppelin airship.

"They were all outside enjoying a nice evening when this great dark shadow appeared and they started hearing these loud bangs. There was no sound except for bombs being dropped, possibly grenades of some sort."

Melville was back in Egypt in 1916 but it was not long before he was sent to the Western Front, where he helped set up a stationary hospital. He served the rest of his time there. In 1919 he helped repatriate New Zealand soldiers in London, before he returned to Palmerston North and his job back at the Bank of New South Wales.

"They paid his wages the whole time he was at war. They even sent him spending money while he was in London," Stuart said.

He remembered Melville as a very distinguished man.

"He stood so straight and had such a strong presence. He was always immaculately dressed."

Sergeant and cook Stanley Mirfin, a cook who also became a sergeant, went to war in 1916. The launching pad for him was Egypt before heading to the Western Front.

"I think even then he was more interested in cooking. He worked a lot on outback places as a cook before the war."

Stuart said his father Ashton's diary revealed some quiet, poignant moments when troops ambled about close to enemy lines, checking out their mates, and in this case, family.

One entry said: "It's a bit quiet today so I'll walk over and see how Stan is getting on."

Stan had come across a badly wounded German on the frontline.

"He was in a shell hole, dying. Stan got down in the water and held his hand. The German took off his watch and gave it to Stan. He died there, in that heap of water," Stuart said.

Stan returned to New Zealand to work on farms around the country, and later became a butcher in Motueka.

‘Terrible combat' Ashton Mirfin left the farm in Ikamatua to join the war in 1917. He, Bryson and George had an agreement that whoever were the first two called up would go, and the third would remain to look after the farm.

Bryson ended up staying.

"Dad talked about the war quite a bit. It didn't seem to faze him any great deal. He went straight to the UK from New Zealand and joined the Western Front in late 1917."

Stuart said his father, a private, who saw terrible frontline combat, talked of how the worst thing he ever saw was in the UK, before he reached the battlefields.

He was on a train in southern England and was one of two men from each carriage assigned to collect food parcels from the village they were pulling into.

"At the first stop they jumped down off the train, but jumped on to the track. No-one told them another train was coming the other way.

"Dad somehow got out of the way, but it took the buttons off his coat. His mate was cut to pieces in front of him, along with 11 or 12 other New Zealanders - cut to pieces on the track.

"He never saw a sight worse than that."

Stuart said his father was offered stripes while fighting on the front, but

refused them on the basis he had been told the German gunners sought them out especially.

Ash came back to New Zealand in 1919 after being a member of the occupying army that marched into Cologne during the Occupation of the Rhineland. He returned to the farm at Ikamatua.

"There was a function to welcome him and another soldier home and the next day he was digging potatoes. That's what his father expected him to do."

Nearly died George Mirfin was the youngest in the family but just about didn't make it to war. He nearly died of seasickness on the journey to Europe.

"They buried 20 men at sea from the ship he was on. They all died of seasickness but an older soldier on board saved his life, by making sure George had plenty of fluids.

"They used to hold him down and pour water into him because it was dehydration that killed them."

Ashton and George, also a private, served together but George's war effort ended in northern France when he was badly injured with a shrapnel blast that went through his back and out his shoulder.

Ashton and George returned to the farm. Ashton left in 1963 to retire to Nelson.

The commemorative ceremony in Wellington begins at 5.15pm on August 4 from Queen's Wharf. A contingent including Pipes and Drums, the 1st 7th Battalion Band and 2nd Engineers and Signals will leave there (opposite Post Office Square - the original home of New Zealand Post) and march to Te Papa where there will be a Ceremony of Remembrance for those who served during WWI and those who didn't come home. The official New Zealand Post WWI stamp and coin programme will also be launched.

- The Nelson Mail

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