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Centenary of the return of the Willochra

The ship Willochra arrived at Glasgow Wharf in Wellington with the first large group of wounded men from Gallipoli, during the afternoon of 15 July 1915.

“The exuberance of… the welcome yesterday to sick and wounded soldiers who were passengers …. was tempered by a sadness which could not be shaken off” summarised a local paper, describing scenes of tearful gratitude the journalist witnessed.

The welcoming ceremony was large scale and the first of it’s kind. A half day holiday in Wellington City on 15 July 1915, saw unprecedented crowds on the piers and along the route of the official route to the town hall, which was also crammed and overflowing. Public sentiment around the return of ‘The Heroes of the Dardanelles’ reached fever pitch across the country, as the men arrived in towns in the North and South Islands.

Many men returning to North Island towns travelled up the Main Trunk Line on a ‘purpose-fitted’ ‘Red Cross Train’ that departed at 8pm from Wellington. Residents at towns on the route crowded the train, shouting blessings and thanks. Soldiers were gifted cigarettes, chocolates, fruit and flowers, steaming cups of tea and coffee to combat the heavy frost, as well as cakes and sandwiches. Paekakariki, Palmerston North, Taihape, Taumarunui, Te Kuiti, Te Awamutu, Frankton – at stops on the Main Trunk Line residents turned out in imposing numbers.

The body of returning soldiers was made up of wounded and those returning due to illness or injury. “The Willochra welcomes set the bar for later shiploads of men,” says historian Imelda Bargas. “Particularly enthusiastic welcomes were extended to men who returned on the Willochra, the country’s hospital ships Maheno and Marama and where there was anything particularly interesting about an arrival... by comparison individuals and small groups arriving home received little fanfare.” Her story on returning soldiers features on http://ww100.govt.nz/returning-home-from-war.

The tone of welcoming events was captured by a local paper which reported “The people cheered those men who were able to hobble to the motor cars provided for them, but when the sick men on stretchers were carried past… the cheering broke off suddenly, and in the absolute silence which followed, women sobbed openly, and men’s faces hardened in the effort of self-control.”

On 8 August, the Chunuk Bair Offensive, Gallipoli, will be commemorated at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. A ceremony will also take place at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli on the same day.


Updated on 23rd July 2015