'Moving' tribute to Nelson's WWI heroes

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:58 05/08/2014
MaryAnn Mann
BREAK FROM TRAINING: Percy Neal, centre, with colleagues in front of the Sphinx, Egypt, in February 1915.
MaryAnn Mann
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ
REMEMBERED: MaryAnn Mann of Richmond finds the name of her grandfather Stanley Webby who served in World War I, amongst a wall of 2429 names at the World War I exhibition at The Nelson Provincial Museum.

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A gathering of Nelson people descended from the region's World War I soldiers and civilians helped create a "very moving" event marking the start of a commemorative exhibition at the Nelson Provincial Museum.

The involvement of Nelson province at home and at war during the Great War is explored in the exhibition, which has its official public opening at the museum this evening.

More than 2400 men and women from this region served in armed forces, including nurses, padres and medical staff. Almost 600 died.

Museum chief executive Peter Millward said about 100 people turned out last night to the pre-opening event for family members and the researchers who have spent a huge amount of time compiling the collection that features online, interactive material.

More than 300 people then packed the hall at Nelson College for Girls to hear Victoria University associate professor of history Dr Jim McAloon deliver the Nelson Historical Society's biennial James Jenkins Memorial Lecture, "Nelson and the First World War: Community, Loyalty and Dissent".

Millward said the story of Nelson's involvement in the Great War was the museum's most significant community exhibition alongside the 2010 Nelson Haven Ahoy!, which explored early maritime migration to the colony of Nelson in the early 1840s.

He said what struck him last night was that many who featured in the WW I display were from the same families as those featured in Haven Ahoy!, two generations later.

"It was very moving last night and families were really very thrilled with the whole thing.

"They were delighted to see their own family members written on the wall, and to be able to share quiet time with the people who researched their family stories with them."

Millward said it was also interesting to see people meeting who were related and who had not seen each other for decades.

"That just made it a real delight."

The story of the Great War being told at the museum, and its impact on daily life in this region is followed through diaries, photos, letters and precious objects from the regional heritage collection and through the generosity of families.

Viewers will gain an insight into the lives and deaths of soldiers and civilians who played vital roles during the period from August 1914 to the end of 1919.

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Millward said the exhibition would evolve over several years as stories were researched and displayed in the museum's upstairs gallery. A recreation of a small community hall will be the exhibition's centrepiece; the type of hall that was used for meetings, enlistment, fundraising events and patriotic functions.

"They were central to community life and will be central to the exhibition."

Chris Pugsley, one of New Zealand's leading military historians, said the Nelson province had a proud record of service during the Great War. "The stories of the men and women who were involved overseas and the work of those on the home front is incredibly well documented and represented in the museum collection."

The exhibition will feature large images and recreations of the front page of the Nelson Evening Mail with "live" stories each day.

It has been created with major funding from New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and a number of local benefactors and sponsors.

Millward said entry to the "must-see exhibition" would be free for Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough residents.

Rai's brothers in arms

Percy Neal and his brother William, the eldest sons of Rai Valley farmers, were among the region's first men to enlist when war broke out. As keen horsemen they enlisted on August 15, 1914 and joined the 10th [Nelson] Mounted Rifles.

On October 16 that year Troopers Percy and Will Neal embarked, with their beloved horses, from Lyttelton with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles as part of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

On December 3 they arrived on the SS Ruapehu in Egypt's Alexandria where the troops set up training camp.

They were later sent to Gallipoli, where they fought in one of the battles of the failed nine-month campaign which began on April 25, 1915.

The brothers were together when William Neal was killed on August 7, 1915.

He was killed on Walker's Ridge in the Sari Bair range on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Percy didn't escape the war unscathed. He was shot in the leg and sent to England to recover before he was sent back to the Middle East. He was given an honourable discharge on April 11, 1919.

He returned home initially to the Rai Valley area where his daughters, Gwen and Dorothy, were born in the decade after his return. He later moved to Upper Moutere.

The Richmond sisters [Gwen Wright and Dorothy Harvey] told the Nelson Mail in 2010 that Percy always wore a scarf around his neck before the war, but gave up the accessory afterwards.

"Will was wearing a chequered scarf when he died, so Dad never wore one again."

The brothers' nephew, Kerry Neal and his wife, Pam, represented the family at last night's exhibition event.

- The Nelson Mail

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