Auckland War Memorial Museum has recently completed the formal acquisition and cataloguing of memorabilia gifted by the 21st Battalion Association after the veteran’s club in Auckland closed its doors in 2005.

The timing of this work is particularly resonant in this period of community upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our sense of local and national community has been both enhanced and threatened by this virus. Online community spirit has been boosted amid reminders that ‘He waka eke noa – we are all in this together’ and that at the heart of all decisions has been individual and collective welfare. But it is simultaneously true that individual isolation and physical disengagement is potentially a longer-term consequence than we may realise.  

by Gail Romano, Associate Curator, History

In some way, the sense of community togetherness during lockdown and collective rejoicing at its end, and the subsequent but contradictory social wariness and awkwardness that for some of us has replaced the enforced isolation is reminiscent of the practical experience for local communities and their returning soldiers during the twentieth century’s world wars. Connected but separate. 

The experiences of home community and those serving on their behalf were never parallel and, understandably, that gap could never completely close. Thus, veterans’ associations have played a varying but important role in the everyday life of those returned from service. For a significant number of returned personnel the ongoing companionship and support of those who shared related memories and feelings was a critical, ongoing part of their post-war civilian life. 

Image: 21 Battalion Association club rooms, August 2005. © Auckland Museum CC BY

The 21st Battalion Association was one such organisation. It came into being on 18 May 1955 with the aim to ‘bring together for mutual enjoyment and assistance all ex-members of the 21st Battalion and their next of kin’. The battalion had been created in 1940, its ranks drawn primarily from Auckland city and districts and Northland, but included men from the Waikato and Hauraki districts, and saw action in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy including the battles of Takrouna, El Alamein, Sangro and Cassino, names which are well-known to many New Zealanders. Association membership was open to all who had served in this battalion and to the families of those who had lost their lives.

Veteran welfare was the association’s focus. The members lived out the association motto ‘Comradeship’, marching together as a unit on Anzac Days, running Poppy Day stalls, enjoying regular social evenings, maintaining a newsletter, arranging hospital visits, and otherwise providing active care and friendship for each other. At its peak membership was over 1400, and in 1966-67 the 21st Battalion became one of the few unit associations to have its own clubroom, in Auckland although local membership branches operated in south Auckland, Dargaville, Whangarei and Hamilton. 

Image: 21st Battalion Association members outside their club rooms, August 2005. © Auckland Museum CC BY

Activities changed over the years with the aging of the membership until the association became non-viable and, in 2005, formally resolved to sound the Last Post. With this decision came the offer to present their collections – the battalion memories - to Auckland War Memorial Museum. 

The association collection comprises battalion and war memorabilia related to this extensive service, but is also significant for its record of the life of a welfare organisation over 50 years of operation and the insights this offers into the experiences of returned servicemen ‘back home’. Association archives and administrative collectibles, including photographs, and clubroom furniture and furnishings document the everyday operation, advocacy, decision-making and comfort provided by a vital service which was nevertheless largely invisible to the wider public except on certain days of the year. 

Image: 21st Battalion members, [Papakura Military Camp], February 1940. AWMM. PH-ALB-550-23-p5.

The year following the donation, 2006, was officially designated Year of the Veteran. Auckland Museum was honoured to recognise this year with an exhibition that replicated the 21st Battalion Association clubrooms. At the opening of the exhibition, Clem Hollies, the last president of the association, addressed the veterans who were attending the event. ‘… I know most of you here,’ he said, ‘still re-live those turbulent years when as young men you left these shores and headed for the unknown. You will recall those comrades and friends of more than 60 years ago. Those with whom we went into camp and overseas, shared tents and cabins and bivouacs and billets and prisoner-of-war huts and hospital wards. Those whom we looked after or who looked after us. They were our cooks, our drivers, our medics, our mortar and anti-tank crews, our officers, our NCO’s. They were our mates on leave who made sure we got back to camp on time. Or perhaps they were those habitual over-stayers who finished up in the glasshouse. But they were all our comrades-in-arms and though none called themselves crusaders, each did his share…’  

And here is the essence of the veterans’ association that can never be fully understood by those who did not serve, regardless of a desire to do so and to provide support: a cohort of men and women that is necessarily dispersed upon return to effectively disappear into a society that while once familiar may not be so easy to adjust to again. The 21st Battalion Association collection offers us a glimpse into this world and all that it meant. 

Thank you 21st Battalion for that gift.


Image: 21st Battalion Association members' 'Last Post' noticeboard recording the members who had passed on or been taken ill since the previous newsletter. The blackboard carries the last list prior to the clubroom’s closure in 2006. Blackboard, 2019.62.326 © Auckland Museum CC BY