Now a source of pride, the Bulford Kiwi on Beacon Hill was originally hatched from a post-WWI mutiny.
And there it is, as big as a dinosaur, standing in chalky relief from the grassy slope of Beacon Hill, which rolls gently up from Salisbury Plain.
Take a walk up the hill and the big bird becomes foreshortened – a bit like those ads they paint on football fields for television cameras. To get the full effect of this 99-year-old patch of kiwiana, you need to stand back and get a wider perspective. That’s what Colleen Brown has done in The Bulford Kiwi, her deeply researched and intriguing history about an Anzac monument that was actually built by Anzacs.
Brown, a South Auckland local body politician and disability advocate, had a great-uncle who died of pneumonia while waiting for his ride home from Sling Camp in 1919. Her curiosity about why a man who had survived the war would die in the English winter after the Armistice led her to the kiwi and the troubled history of Sling.
Her account explains that the symbol wasn’t exactly carved with pride. It was a make-work task for the Kiwi troops whose restlessness had turned to rioting.
The soldiers, who thought they had done their duty for king and country, were stuck some 20,000km from Civvy Street and still enduring the monotony of army life.
Meanwhile, the British military bureaucracy, waterfront industrial action by English port workers who found themselves being replaced by demobbed servicemen, unreliable ships and an ineffective New Zealand Ministry of Defence all conspired against the men wanting to get home quickly.
The evacuation of Gallipoli had proved a triumphant retreat. By contrast, getting the victorious New Zealand troops out of England was a prolonged muddle.
In the middle of the chaos, the kiwi was hatched – camp commander Brigadier General Alexander Stewart, who had been dealing with the riots and looting for which eight soldiers were jailed, proposed carving the symbol into the hillside.
It wasn’t an original idea. As well as many prehistoric carvings on the plain’s chalk plateau, a set of regimental emblems – the Fovant Badges – had been carved into a hill 30km away by troops garrisoned nearby from 1916 onwards. The biggest was an Australian military crest.
So, off went Sergeant Major Percy Blenkarne of the Army Education Unit to the British Natural History Museum to find a kiwi to sketch. Along came Sergeant Major Victor Low of the 5th Tunnelling Company to survey the site. The job of project manager went to Captain Harry Clark, a sapper. He marched his reluctant troops up to the top of the hill and – after a day of excavation and barrow-pushing – marched them down again.
Digging down 30cm across nearly 18,000sq m took three months. The kiwi was finished on June 28, 1919, the day Germany finally signed a peace treaty with the Allies.
The last New Zealand troops left the camp in November 1919, a year after the Armistice.
The kiwi they left behind has had a chequered history over the decades. It was covered up during World War II so German aircraft couldn’t use it as a marker. It changed shape slightly from the original during one restoration, and responsibility for its maintenance was passed from an initial arrangement with the Kiwi shoe polish company to local Scouts, before it fell into disrepair.
Brown chronicles the years of buck-passing in painstaking detail, noting it didn’t help that successive New Zealand governments wouldn’t contribute to its upkeep.
In 1980, Danny Fisher, the commander of a British army signal squadron based at Bulford Camp, and his troops took on the job of restoring the kiwi.
A scheduled monument since 2017, its upkeep is now carried out by personnel at the base, where there is a Bulford Kiwi School and a Kiwi Barracks and the streets bear the names Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Gallipoli and Gaza.
Brown’s book concludes with the words of Fisher, whose initiative ensured the Bulford Kiwi will celebrate its centennial in 2019.
It was now, he said, something passed down “between soldiers, not governments” and a legacy “to the old soldiers in the new country from the young soldiers in the old country. Our link is carved forever in the timeless hills on Salisbury Plain.”
The Bulford Kiwi by Colleen Brown (Bateman $39.99)
This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.