Guns for everyone

Enemy weapons captured during World War I were distributed to towns, community groups and schools around the country.

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When the Ladies’ Committee of Ngatimoti, near Motueka, wrote to the Defence Department in 1920 asking for guns, they specifically requested Minenwerfers, short-range mortars whose shells shrieked as they fell.

Only Minenwerfers would serve as a suitable memorial for the 12th Nelson Company. Cyprian Brereton, who formally made the application on behalf of the Ladies’ Committee, had been its commanding officer, and stationed at Armentières in northern France, had faced a company of Minenwerfers. The guns, he wrote, were of personal signifiance to his men.

Displaying enemy armaments as trophies was common practice—relics of the Boer and Crimean conflicts already decorated the country—and New Zealand servicemen abroad believed that the guns they captured on the field of battle were theirs, and destined for home, tangible symbols of courage from a war which was impossible to put into words. They anticipated the creation of a national war memorial museum, the proceeds of which might help reimburse the cost of the war effort, or contribute to the welfare of disabled servicemen.

But from the outset, trophy guns became a source of competition and consternation. The British insisted on first pickings of New Zealand-captured armaments for their own museum, while those that made it to Wellington became the subject of nationwide squabbling.

By 1920, about 1500 machine guns, 80 trench mortars and 200 other pieces of artillery had arrived in the country, and a War Trophies Committee was formed to distribute them. The guns would serve as interim war memorials while more permanent monuments were planned.

Town boards vied for the most impressive-looking armaments—field guns were particularly popular—while former officers attempted to obtain artillery that they had personally fought to capture.

Larger items were generally sent to larger towns, while the remainder—mostly machine guns—were distributed to smaller communities, public libraries, RSA clubs, universities and schools.

The Maschinengewehr MG08 machine gun pictured, manufactured in Germany in 1917, was distributed within the Wellington region. For some communities, receiving only small arms when artillery had been anticipated was “a disappointment to those who expected to see something rather impressive in the way of German war efficiency”, complained the Poverty Bay Herald in 1920.

For New Zealanders who had remained home, these guns were the closest they got to the enemy and its technological might. These were relics of threat, and of the bravery that had faced it down.

The guns, however, were not manufactured for the purpose of being long-term outdoor exhibits, and a lack of funds to maintain them, combined with increasing anti-war sentiment in the 1930s, saw many scrapped, buried or thrown into the sea. One field gun awarded to Nelson was removed because “its presence stimulated children to indulge in mimic warfare with dire consequences to windows”, about 30 of which had been broken in the span of two years, reported the Nelson Evening Mail. The Invercargill police buried 15 machine guns in the foundations of a new cell block, as authorities began to worry about the 1500 small arms distributed a decade earlier—especially those that had been sent to schools. In 1939, two machine guns were confiscated from Wanganui Collegiate School teenager Rowe Curtis.

During World War II, trophy machine guns were given a second life, removed from museums and retrofitted to fire British .303 ammunition in the event of a Japanese invasion. This gun was intended to protect the Government Buildings in Wellington; when its service was not required, it returned to being a museum exhibit, and is held by Te Papa today.

The memorial planned by the Ladies’ Committee of Ngatimoti still stands. Ngatimoti was a tiny settlement, meaning it was far more likely to be allocated a pair of Maschinengewehrs than Minenwerfers, but Cyprian Brereton had an ace up his sleeve. The Officer in Charge of War Trophies had served in his company. Ngatimoti got its guns—two, in fact.

One can only assume that, to Brereton and the 12th Nelson Company, the presence of the permanently silenced German mortars alongside the names of their 15 fallen comrades was a reminder not of the horrors they’d faced, but of their victory over them.

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