Remembering Stevenage and the brave New Zealanders
PUBLISHED: 11:04 02 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:08 02 May 2018
Fallen Australian and New Zealand troops have been remembered across the world as part of ANZAC Day, but it may come as surprise to some that Stevenage has its own special connection to the national day of remembrance.
Marking the day last Wednesday, Bill Stratford – a former Grenadier Guard and a member of the Stevenage branch of the Royal British Legion – laid a wreath at the war memorial in Stevenage Old Town to commemerate the Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives.
More than 100 years earlier, the Bowling Green where the memorial stands and beyond was home to the New Zealand Divisional Reserve Signal Company.
Bill told the Comet why Stevenage was used as a base for troops, saying: “Over 100 years ago, Stevenage used to be a small agricultural town with around 5,000 people.
“It was out of the way and a safe place to house Commonwealth troops from 1915 onwards, who were being deployed around the UK before they went off to fight in Europe.”
Based at a camp in North Road, near to the site where Lister Hospital now stands, the Kiwi troops erected telegraph and telephone poles in the town and trained in Whitney Wood – opposite John Henry Newman School – while officers often drank at The White Lion pub, which still stands today albeit under the new name of the Mulberry Tree.
The soldiers became very popular during their deployment in Stevenage. The signal company often put on performances at the town hall, providing single acts from 1917 onwards while they teamed up with the Royal Engineers – also based in the town – to put on bigger shows.
Performances included live music and a pantomime group known as the Kiwi Pierrots.
Years later, a resident of Stevenage at the time recalled how people who could not get tickets to sold out shows often gather outside to watch through the windows.
The soldiers and civilians also faced off in sporting events, including bowls and tennis, while Stevenage Cricket Club allowed the New Zealanders to use the pitch for football, hockey and cricket, as well as an annual sports day.
When war ended, the town’s people and Kiwi troops celebrated together, throwing an open air armistice carnival where a German U-boat submarine and an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm II were burnt in the High Street.
On December 9, the company received their evacuation notice to leave Stevenage in the second week of January, 1919, although this was delayed in until February 21 when the men departed for Sutton Coldfield to await their return to New Zealand.
Upon departing the town, one soldier remarked: “We shall never like another place as well as Stevenage this side of New Zealand.”
Bill explained that while the soldiers left in February 1919, one remained.
“Sergeant George Vivian Thomas Moore is buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas Church in Stevenage,” he said.
“He is the only ANZAC soldier based in Stevenage buried here that we know of.”
Born in Napier on July 15, 1877, Sgt Moore served in the Boer War from 1900 to 1901.
During the First World War he was involved in the Battle of Gallipoli and recommended for the Military Medal for bravery during the Battle of the Somme – which he received in Stevenage on October 12, 1918.
On June 7, 1917, he suffered gunshot wounds to the face – but astonishingly returned to his unit just two days later.
He survived the war but died from pneumonia at Hitchin Military Hospital on December 10, 1918, aged 41.
The company and the town were left stunned by his sudden passing, with an extract from the Herts Express on December 21, 1918, reporting “practically the whole of the Reserve Company attended the funeral” and “the grave will always be an honoured one, for he came from the ends of the earth to help in the day of stern necessity”.
The story of Sgt Moore and the New Zealand troops based in Stevenage is one Bill feels must be remembered.
“I think it’s a poignant story that very few people know about,” he said.
“These soldiers travelled half way around the world, some of them without a choice as they were conscripted, and a lot of them never came back.”