Allan Uren finds a private collection of wartime memorabilia hidden in a small town basement.
I hope this letter reaches you without the mark of a censor’s hand.
Life here in the trenches could be worse and it’s best not to make a fuss of what you can’t control and just get on with it. I’m grateful beyond words for the parcel you sent, especially the socks. It may be overstating my gratitude for something as simple as socks but for the most part my feet are wet, with trench foot a greater hazard than getting shot it seems. It is a joy to peel off the evil smelling wet old socks at night and pull on the new dry ones. I may make it a ritual when I’m home to change my socks at lunchtime just to enjoy that small pleasure.
I did expect this to be the greatest of adventures but for the most part boredom is the norm. So far I’ve been on sentry duty, maintaining the trenches, cleaning my rifle, digging latrines… I thought all the rabbit shooting I did back home would prepare me for the job at hand but I fear having another human in my sights may not be as easy.
Most of the chaps here are good blokes and despite the grimness we have some good laughs. There’s been a tale circulating how some of the lads have been dealing with the rats. The other day we doused our bivouac with creosote to try and deter their nocturnal invasion. It almost suffocated us but didn’t deter the rats. At the usual time they pattered down the steps, paused, sneezed, gave us that nonchalant ‘what are you going to do’ look then got to work on our belongings.
I’m looking forward to some leave. We are billeted behind the lines in tents. A bath and a clean uniform will be a real treat. The colours and smell of the spring flowers are an elixir after the stench of the trenches. Leave isn’t a holiday however and there’s still training and xxxxxxxxxxx. The rationale being that idle hands may get up to mischief. Hopefully I will have time to do some landscape painting. It is peaceful sitting amongst the apple trees that have just finished blooming. With each brush stroke the war seems further away.
Well I must close I’m hoping this letter finds you in the best of health, as it leaves me at present.
MORE THAN ONE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER A YOUNG MAN PAINTED HIS PICTURES OF THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE, HIS GRANDSON – LET’S CALL HIM XXXXXX – HAS MADE IT HIS LIFE’S WORK TO PRESERVE HIS MEMORY AND THAT OF THE MORE THAN 18,000 NEW ZEALANDERS KILLED IN WORLD WAR I. XXXXXX STARTED COLLECTING MEMORABILIA FROM THAT WAR, INCLUDING FIREARMS, WHEN HE WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD. IT STARTED WITH LEAD SOLDIERS; HE WOULD ARRANGE THEM IN THE ATTACKING PATTERNS OF OPPOSING ARMIES. NOW IN HIS LATE FIFTIES, HE HAS AMASSED AN EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION OF OBJECTS USED IN BOTH WORLD WARS.
The grandfather was born in 1895 and died when XXXXXX was a boy of two, so he doesn’t remember much about him, but family stories run deep. Like a lot of young New Zealanders, the grandson grew up shooting rabbits, which sparked an early interest in collecting firearms. But when he was away on his OE his mother sold his treasured shotgun and all four of the .22 rifles he had used when out shooting with his dad. It took him ten years, but he finally tracked one down by keeping an eye out on auction sites and checking each serial number. He’s still looking for the others.
Somewhere in a small town in New Zealand, XXXXXX escorts me down some stairs guarded by metal bars. The gate rattles and clangs as he opens it. At the bottom, I’m surprised to be in a wine cellar with a large mirror on one wall. He fiddles with a lock on the mirror and our reflections move out of view as the secret door swings silently open to reveal a darkened room. It’s a bunker of sorts, and seems colder than the 17 degrees showing on the small thermometer on the wall. The room is the size of a small bathroom, with every wall covered with WWI memorabilia. There’s a gas mask, trenching tool, grenades, helmets, firearms. There’s a Browning BAR machine gun that has been valued at tens of thousands of dollars. Seventy per cent of the collection was actually used in various conflicts.
XXXXXX hands me a German Luger, a P08 (the 08 denotes manufactured in 1908) 9mm, a semi-automatic pistol designed by Georg J Luger. Luger took a clunky pistol designed by Hugo Borchardt and refined it. If you’ve watched enough war movies, the Luger is instantly recognisable; it’s the one used by Colonel Vogel against Indiana Jones. It’s also known as a Parabellum-Pistole, which comes from the Latin “si vis pacem, para bellum” / “if you want peace prepare for war”, the not very peaceful motto of the German arms maker Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken.
The gun is heavy, the grip surprisingly warm to the touch, perhaps because it is made of walnut. Etched in the surface is a myriad of criss-crosses that feel slightly prickly on my palm. The metal barrel has a burnished sheen that also seems to give it warmth. There are areas of wear especially where the toggle has slid back and forth during firing. The Luger has a toggle-lock action that uses a jointed arm to lock, as opposed to the slide actions of many other semi-automatic pistols. It works like a foot and knee joint flexing to push a round from the magazine into the chamber. After a round is fired, the barrel and toggle assembly travel roughly 13 mm rearward due to recoil. The toggle strikes a cam built into the frame, causing the knee joint to hinge and the toggle and breech assembly to unlock. The barrel strikes the frame and stops its rearward movement, but the toggle assembly continues moving, bending the knee joint, extracting the spent casing from the chamber, and ejecting it. The toggle and breech assembly then travels forward under spring tension and the next round is loaded from the magazine into the chamber. The entire sequence occurs in a fraction of a second and contributes to the mud- resistance of the pistol.
Everything about the weapon is surprising –– not least of all how beautiful it is, and made with such craftsmanship and masterful engineering that after more than a hundred years it still functions smoothly. The lyrics of the brilliant, and dark (it obliquely references the Aramoana tragedy), Mutton Birds’ song ‘A Thing Well Made’ come to mind: “To make a thing like that you’d need to know what you were about. You’d need to know where you were going. And go there in a straight line.” I can’t shake a feeling of abhorrence that this object has potentially been used to kill. I hand it to XXXXXX and as he places it back on the wall, he tells me his grandfather took the Luger from a German soldier as a trophy. When he returned home from the war, he told his mother “it was either him or me”.
What is the difference between collecting and, say, hoarding or, worse, stockpiling? In a collection, items are catalogued, sorted, and objectively maintained like books in a library. The guns in XXXXXX’S collection need to be licensed with endorsements, from ‘P6 Collector – Prohibited Firearms’ to ‘P9 Theatrical – Prohibited Magazines’. Even though only blanks can be used with collectible firearms, the authorities, reassuringly, ask a lot of questions about storage (racks, cabinets, strong rooms, locks) and what exactly you plan to do with the items in question. Also, it’s best not to let everyone know where you’re keeping the things; hence the XXXXXX’S in this article.
Following World War II, there was an influx into Aotearoa of rifles bought home by servicemen. When government hunters started to invade the hills in an effort to reduce the exploding deer population, many were armed with ex- military Lee-Enfields, as they were rugged and could withstand being lugged around the New Zealand backcountry.
One of XXXXXX’s collecting goals is finding the rifle his grandfather was issued with. He knows the chances are slim, but it doesn’t stop him looking. He has the serial number of the weapon, and he scours the catalogues of upcoming auctions –– maybe one day he’ll get lucky. For now, he’s content to own a standard- issue SMLE .303 Lee-Enfield rifle. SMLE stands for Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield. It was first produced in 1895 and was the main service rifle of countries in the British Empire and Commonwealth for more than 60 years. The Canadian Rangers, a part time force mainly devoted to Arctic Patrols, only stopped using them in 2018. They needed a gun that would operate in the extreme cold of an Arctic winter.
During the First World War, whenever possible the weapons of wounded or dead soldiers were gathered and returned to the home front to be repaired by gunsmiths and then reissued. There was a considerable quantity of these so-called “battlefield arms”. In Germany, they made up nearly half of new production. One of the reasons for the chronic shortage of rifles in the Russian army was because of the late introduction of an effective policy for the retrieval of arms after battles. Today, some collectors consider a firearm to be worthless if all the serial numbers of each part of the weapon don’t match. But as XXXXXX points out, different serial numbers suggest a firearm saw battle, that it bears a story, not just of being fired in anger, but maybe, as some weapons were, of being used as a trench shovel, or a crutch.
When I ask XXXXXX why he collects the memorabilia of war, the passion is clear in his answer: he’s not only honouring his forbearer’s memory, but also preserving a history that changed the world and still impacts us more than a hundred years later. World War I gave us zippers, trench coats, Pilates, and daylight saving time. (Daylight saving was first implemented in Germany in April 1916 as a wartime measure to conserve coal, though, fun fact, it was based in part on an idea mooted in 1902 by William Willett, a British builder who was the great-great grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin.) It also gave us unfathomable grief, grief deepened by a cultural habit of not expressing anger in healthy ways or talking openly about difficult subjects. There are generations of men who learnt to not discuss trauma, to bottle it up, to soldier on.
For XXXXXX, the experience of owning and managing his collection is a deeply personal one, that also connects him to a wider history. It is about who he is and where he’s come from. And it’s about remembering what happened on those beautiful landscapes, captured long ago in sketches well made.
Just a quick note to say I’m in fine fettle but in hospital after being gassed. I enclose a sketch of the last distinct impression I had before the shell came across. After that things seemed a trifle amiss and my interest for impressions had evaporated leaving a healthy longing to reach the dressing station by the shortest and safest route.
I’ll write again soon. With lots of love XXXXXX
WORDS & PHOTOS: ALLAN UREN
Allan Uren is a mountaineer, rock climber, skier and, in his spare time, a painter and decorator. He’s written for New Zealand Geographic and Wilderness Magazine, and has a short story in To The Mountains, a collection of New Zealand alpine writing.