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Even at the height of the war in South Africa with no access to romantic stationery, enterprising young soldiers made do. In this blog, Associate Curator (History) Gail Romano examines a heartfelt note written on a torn piece of uniform.

‘Love and war have a prescriptive right to go together’ the Christchurch Press declared on Valentine’s Day 1901.1 It was a wry observation noting that love truly did seem to be blind to circumstance. New Zealand men were participating in a war half the world away in South Africa, but when it came to printed declarations of love, apparently no one would know that. And this despite ‘Christmas cards, nursery books, histories, biographies, and magazine literature’ all adapting themes to the khaki reality of the times, valentines kept a traditional style of cupids, flowers, arrows and hearts. 

Perhaps the answer lay in what seems to have been the most common Valentine’s lament of the period. Engagement with this tradition was allegedly declining: ‘A few years ago nearly every girl in her teens was accustomed to look forward to the arrival of the postman on February 14, with some pretty love token … But there seems to be little room nowadays for the poetry of life ...’.2 With the turn of the century, ‘[t]he old festival seems to have quite fallen into oblivion …’.3

Auckland War Memorial Museum, however, has an intriguing ‘card’. 

Letter on fabric, AWMM 2018.13.1


The small square of khaki tunic cloth features a heavy fringe, created by pulling threads, and carries a greeting hand-written in blue ink within and without a heart-shaped frame:

‘Tis a piece of khaki from a jacket I’ve worn
Discarded because it was ragged and torn
‘Tis not guilt (sic) edged nor a costly card
But conveys to you my kindest regard +

From Arthur to Sara[h]
South Africa
Boer War 1899-1902


The concept for this card was not original. Khaki fabric ‘cards’ had appeared during the first Christmas of the war, in 1899. A Glasgow business had issued a standard greeting card with a square of cloth attached and a semi-humorous message that began, ‘This is a little bit of fabric just to keep you in mind of our brave ‘Absent-minded Beggars’ in South Africa, who, I kharkilate, are giving old Kruger his Krugr-uel....’.4 

What may have been one of the earliest examples of an all-cloth card to arrive in New Zealand was acknowledged in the Thames Star.5 The following year it was not so uncommon to receive the khaki greeting as ‘we are not able to buy any cards here.’6 Even the Premier, RJ Seddon received one.7 The Museum has an example of such a Christmas card, although undated. 

Likewise, the poem itself was not original and was used by others in the British & Colonial forces, with modifications.

Was Arthur’s card a valentine? Thames Trooper Arthur Ernest Garner embarked for South Africa with New Zealand’s Sixth Contingent of Mounted Rifles at the end of January 1901. He returned to New Zealand in April 1902, but in July asked the defence authorities for an ‘indulgence passage’ back to South Africa as he wished to join the South African Police.

At this stage, Sarah remains unidentified. Although Arthur’s mother was named Sarah, she had died in 1896, and it was (and remains) uncommon for parents to be addressed by first name. It is possible that Arthur met the Sarah of his card in South Africa and she was one reason he wanted to return to that country. That may be unlikely, though, as the ‘card’ came into the Museum collection from a New Zealand family. As it happened, Arthur’s request for return passage was denied and, certainly, Sarah did not become his wife. In 1905 Arthur married Elizabeth Hughes, a marriage that lasted until Elizabeth’s death in 1942 at the age of 62.

Because Arthur’s message is undated other than with the span of the war, we cannot know for certain this was a valentine. If it was, the most likely date would be February 1902, since the Sixth Contingent was still at sea off the coast of Australia in mid-February 1901 and presumably still had access to regular stationery.

Perhaps Arthur sent his khaki card to Sarah as a Christmas greeting in 1901, or perhaps it was a special thought unrelated to prescribed traditions. Was ‘guilt’ a spelling error or an intended pun? The one thing we can be sure of is that it carried his heart. Maybe that’s all we need to know.



References

1 ‘Topics of the Day. No War in Valentine Land’, Press, 14 February 1901, 4.

2 ‘On Things in General. St Valentine’, New Zealand Herald, 15 February 1899, 3.

3 Daily Telegraph, 14 February 1900, 4.

4 ‘Here and There’, Evening Star, 27 January 1900, 6.

5 Thames Star, 1 February 1900, 2.

6 Ashburton Guardian, 21 December 1900, 3.

7 ‘Cable News’, New Zealand Times, 22 December 1900, 7.