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Pair hunt military history

To complete a memorial to the Masterton Drill Hall, historians Alan Fielding (left) and Neil Frances are on the hunt for a badge for the 9th Wellington and East Coast Mounted Rifles unit. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

History deserves memorial

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

To help commemorate a significant part of Wairarapa’s military history, two Masterton men are appealing to the public to have a search through their old family memorabilia.

Historians Neil Frances and Alan Fielding have spent the past eight years working on a public memorial to the old Masterton Drill Hall: the headquarters for the two major units of the region’s Territorial Army.

An example of a unit badge for the 9th Wellington and East Coast Mounted Rifles regiment. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

These “two military families”, the 9th Wellington East Coast Mounted Rifles and 17th Ruahine Infantry Regiment, consisted of men from Wairarapa and southern Hawke’s Bay who served overseas in World War I.

The memorial, which Frances and Feilding propose to erect near the site of the Drill Hall on the corner of Chapel St and Lincoln Rd, will consist of two steel effigies of Wairarapa soldiers, wearing the signature insignia for each territorial unit.

However, to complete the project, the organisers need one small, but significant item – a unit badge for the Wellington East Coast Mounted Rifles (WECMR) regiment.

To craft the insignia for the steel soldiers, Frances and Fielding needed to source the actual unit badges, so that a 3D cast can be reproduced by the sculptor.

Frances was able to find a badge for the Ruahine Infantry Regiment (featuring a star and fern leaves) on TradeMe – but so far has had “no luck” tracking down a WECMR badge – which features a rearing horse.

Frances said “many hundreds” of Wairarapa men served with the 9th WECMR regiment, all of whom will have had a badge.

He and Fielding are confident there will be descendants of these men still living here who will have their relatives’ badges in storage.

“The 9th [regiment] stretched all the way from Cape Palliser up to Gisborne. We reckon there are still many badges around – but [the family] may not be aware they’re from that particular unit,” Frances said.

“We’re hopeful one of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren will have one we can buy or borrow so we can keep this project moving.”

“Often, these items get tossed aside when people are packing up their houses – they’ll end up in a shoebox on the top shelf of the wardrobe,” Fielding said.

“If you think you might have seen a badge while doing a clean out, we’d be very grateful if you got in touch.”

The Masterton Drill Hall, the subject of the proposed memorial, was first opened on November 23, 1886 – built with funds from both government and community investment.

At the time, the 30m by 17m wooden building was used as a base for volunteer militias and to hold public events, such as “dances, art exhibitions and flower shows”.

In 1911, the Drill Hall became the Wairarapa Headquarters for the Territorial Army and became the region’s centre for army recruitment for both World Wars.

Two of the “many hundreds” of Wairarapa men who served with the WECMR unit during World War I. PHOTO/FILE

Several notable Wairarapa men left for military training and war service from the Drill Hall: including George Hood, after whom Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome is named, and Norman Cameron, one of the first Wairarapa soldiers to die at Gallipoli.

Cameron’s family donated the land for what was formerly known as Cameron and Soldiers Memorial Park (now Trust House Memorial Park) on Dixon St.

Both Cameron and Hood were members of the 9th WECMR unit.

Army personnel vacated the Drill Hall building in the 1950s when a new premises was built on Cornwall Place (now Kokiri Place) – so the old hall was used by the former Masterton Amateur Theatrical Society as a rehearsal and performance space.

The old building also continued to host events, including a large model railway exhibition in the 1970s.

It was eventually demolished in 1981 and the site became the Lincoln Rd carpark of the then Masterton Borough Council.

Frances said the Drill Hall was an important part of Wairarapa’s history, which “deserves to be memorialised”.

“For almost 100 years, it was a prominent community building. It was the headquarters for two of our major military units, in which many people from Wairarapa served.

“Anyone who has lived in Wairarapa after the 1980s won’t know it existed.”

Frances and Fielding have been able to secure grants from Wairarapa businesses and organisations towards the memorial project, as well as donations from the wider community, and plan to use “local labour” to construct the memorial.

As well as the steel statues, the memorial will consist of a plaque, information board, and surrounding plantings of blue, white, and red flowers, representing the New Zealand flag.

The organisers hope to have the memorial completed by the end of this year.

If you can provide a unit badge for the 9th Wellington East Coast Mounted Rifles, contact Neil Frances by email: [email protected].

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