Among the items on show at the ‘Masterton Museum – A Cabinet of Curiosities’ exhibition at Aratoi is a selection of insignia from the Royal Tank Corps. They were presented by the family of Masterton-raised Murdoch McLennan and are mementoes of a remarkable war service.
Murdoch McLennan was the son of Thomas McLennan and his wife Annie McKenzie. Thomas had been born in Nova Scotia and travelled to New Zealand as part of the Rev Norman McLeod’s religious movement at Waipu.
Losing his faith and leaving the sect, Thomas settled in Masterton, living at Kuripuni. A long-term sufferer of tuberculosis, it was reported that he re-joined the Presbyterian Church shortly before his death in 1889, aged 38.
Annie remarried Alfred Andrews and shifted to Nelson. Murdoch, who had commenced his schooling at Masterton School [later Central School] worked on passenger liners between London and New Zealand, before moving to the United States.
According to an American newspaper, he had been living in Ukiah, California, and had been taking part in the United States-Mexico war when World War I broke out in 1914.
In 1917 he joined the British Army, serving first as a sapper, then as a private before becoming an Acting Staff Sergeant in May 1918. It was reported that, despite being a gunner in a British tank, he was the first person to take the American ‘Stars and Stripes’ flag over the top of the German lines.
His tank, which was named ‘Just You Listen’, was part of an attack launched in response to a German drive. Despite the flag suffering at least ten bullet holes, no one in the tank was injured. Murdoch McLennan sent the flag back to Ukiah where it was displayed in a shop window.
McLennan made his way back to New Zealand after being discharged from the British Army in May 1919. He entered Wakari Hospital on his arrival but was quickly transferred to the Auckland Military Hospital where he died on May 19 1920. Although newspaper reports suggested it was because he had suffered a gas attack in France, his military papers record that he died from tuberculosis, the same disease that killed his father.
As well as his insignia being placed with the Masterton Museum, McLennan’s name was added to the list of those on the Masterton Cenotaph, and his mother donated a seat in his name, to be placed in the park near the memorial.