Researchers seek return of brigade's missing flags

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The Union Jack flying at the British Embassy, Wellington, 03 February, 2010. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell

With Anzac Day approaching researchers are hoping to locate two missing flags presented to the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in England in 1919 and are looking for help from the public.

"The flags were presented at the end of the First World War when the brigade left Brocton Camp at Cannock Chase, and a farewell parade was held through the streets of Stafford on 10 May 1919," says Neill Atkinson, Chief Historian, Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

"The flags, a Union Jack and a silk New Zealand Ensign, were presented by Mayor Joseph Rushton at Market Square. In return, a New Zealand flag was given to the town by Lieutenant Colonel N F Shepherd and initially kept at St Mary's Church in Stafford.

"In New Zealand the flags were reportedly used at military funerals. Later, to mark the 21st anniversary of the brigade, the flags were handed over to the National War Memorial Committee in October 1936.

"Members of the committee included Lt Col A Cowles, Councillor HAR Huggins, EE Muir, EC Hale, Robert Johnson, JH Hallewell and JG Osborne.

"During the last few years, researchers in New Zealand and England have tried to locate the two flags and a film recording of the 1919 ceremony.

"The New Zealand flag given to the town of Stafford was also lost and a replacement was presented by the UK High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, on Anzac Day 2015 at Cannock Chase."

Neill Atkinson says strong connections remain today. These include a Stafford shield given to the brigade and held at Linton Army Camp which is contested annually by the New Zealand Army. And the National Army Museum in Waiouru holds the dog collar of Freda, a harlequin great Dane who was the brigade's faithful mascot. Freda died in 1918 and is buried at Brocton Camp.

"New Zealand researcher Geoff McMillan, nephew of Rifleman Charles McMillan, one of the 73 buried at Cannock Chase, was unaware of his family's connection until he inherited letters from his grandmother," Neill Atkinson says.

"These letters included correspondence from Maud Levett, a British woman whose own son died on the Somme. Maud Levett adopted rifleman McMillan's grave, suggesting types of seeds to send over and providing a watercolour drawing of the grave with the original wooden headstone.

"Geoff McMillian attended the Cannock Chase Anzac Day commemorations in 2015 and met with Staffordshire historians also searching for the current whereabouts of these items.

"It's nearly 100 years on and the lack of documentation along with the reality that the flags may have disintegrated or not be distinguishable from the hundreds of flags that arrived back in New Zealand, creates a number of challenges.

"However, we are optimistic," Neill Atkinson said.

Anyone who can help locate the missing flags can send information to the Ministry at: info@mch.govt.nz and to Geoff McMillian at: geoffmcmillan8@gmail.com.

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