by PETER OWENS

The parish priest of Waikiwi, Invercargill, Fr Tony Harrison, recently conducted a signficant public service in his role as an army chaplain – to 24 Territorial Battalion.

On November 11, Armistice Day, more than 200 people gathered for a special memorial service at Otama in Southland, about 15 km north of Gore.

The service not only commemorated the men from the Otama area who had been killed on active service, but to solemnise the laying up of a special flag in the Otama Community Centre. This is a UK Union flag made from English linen and riddled with bullet holes.

The flag had been taken to Europe by local soldiers and New Zealand troops fought beneath it at the great battle of Passchendaele in World War I, at which many Allied and German soldiers died. After the war ended, the flag was brought home to Otama, by local man Bill Dickson, who had fought at Passchendaele. When the local memorial cenotaph was erected and dedicated in 1926, the flag was flown at half-mast and continued to be flown during every ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day commemorations.

The flag has continued to be held by family members until recently, when its condition caused concern. The linen of the flag was later found to be more than 118 years old. Current custodians, Bob and Merle Miller of Otama, approached the New Zealand Army to seek assistance in preserving this valuable piece of New Zealand history. Many people were involved in the restoration and encasement of the flag – including serving and retired military personnel, Creativity Plus in Invercargill and the Southland Museum. It was a real Southland community effort.

The restored flag was handed over to the Otama community on Armistice Day.

The simple but moving service was organised by Staff Sergeant Darren Ryan (NZ Army) and conducted by New Zealand Army Chaplain (Major) Tony Harrison E.D. The service began with the display containing the flag being piped into the community centre by local man, Bruce McLeod who played the traditional Retreat tune. “When the Battle’s Over”.

This was followed by an address by SSgt Ryan in his capacity as Parade Marshall. Major Harrison led various prayers, as well as the recitation of the “Ode for the Fallen” by Lawrence Binyon. 
The congregation was particularly impressed by an unusual presentation by two students from the Otama School.  Molly Salter (8) and Kewene Donaldson (12) spoke about two servicemen who had grown up in the area and died during the war.

Molly talked about her great-great-great-great uncle George Arthur Morris while Kewene spoke on behalf of the McKay family about Peter McKay. Another pupil rang the school bell to mark the ending of the two-minute silence.

The Clutha-Southland Member of Parliament, Hamish Walker was present and read from Ecclesiasticus 44:1-5. He joined with Gore District Mayor. Tracy Hicks in laying a wreath.  Mr Hicks gave the address. He thanked those who had taken care of the flag. “It is a treasure not just for this community but the wider community and our nation,” he said.

Conservator Laurence Le Ber, who had been responsible for preparing the linen flag, detailed aspects of this work.

Just before the blessing which concluded the ceremony, Bob Miller, on behalf of the family of the late Bill Dickson and the Otama community thanked everyone for their generous assistance in restoring the flag and its permanent installation in the Otama Community Centre.

The service concluded with a blessing pronounced by Major Harrison and “Lament for the Fallen” played on the pipes by Bruce McLeod.  The Otama community invited all present to remain for a late morning tea.

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