Teacher honours grandfather’s story
A Timaru teacher has written a play to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele in October, using her grandfather’s war diaries.
Craighead Diocesan School teacher Glenys Whittington used the diary entries of her grandpa, Harry Osborne, who was a stretcher bearer and member of the Wellington Regimental brass band as the foundation of the play.
Osborne marked his 24th birthday at Passchendaele in Belgium on October 4, 1917, the day known as Broodseinde when 320 New Zealanders died fighting.
History records the Anzacs captured Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs on the ridge above Passchendaele in Flanders, Belgium.
Though considered a successful attack by war strategists, the surviving troops were emotionally drained, Whittington said.
‘‘Being a stretcher bearer was an awful job and very dangerous as they were not armed. It was called the hardest job in the army,’’ Whittington said.
He had to collect the injured on the battle field and then the corpses, some lay for three days, she said.
With so many casualties, Osborne wrote of having to play the Last Post many times.
The young soldier’s diaries describe his friend being killed in front of him, horses being stuck in mud up to their bellies and soldiers drowning in shell holes filled with water.
‘‘They were not supposed to keep diaries, but most soldiers did and their letters were censored.’’
The over-riding focus of his writings, was the importance placed on not letting his mates down.
On October 12, in appalling weather conditions, another advance failed with the loss of 845 Kiwis. There was no respite until the Canadians relieved the Anzacs six days later and eventually occupied the ruins on November 6, he wrote.
The Anzacs then had to march 281 kilometres, carrying full kit, through Belgium after Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
Osborne had suffered gas gangrene (a bacterial infection) during the war and had weak lungs as a result. Whittington recalls how when he got agitated he would march up and down in the kitchen and sing a war song.
‘‘Few families in South Canterbury would have been unaffected (by the war).’’
Whittington inherited the diaries at age 16 when her grandfather died.
Having spent her young adult life working in professional theatres, this is her first attempt at playwriting. ‘‘It’s been something of a labour of love.’’
The performance, directed by Craighead drama head of department Gillian Towle, includes songs and poetry read by two Craighead students, she said.
‘‘I’ll play the role of my grand- father, Harry Osborne.’’
Osborne’s great-great nephew Lewis Osborne will play cornet solo in the production.
Whittington thinks her grandfather would be chuffed to know not just his story was being remembered but those of the men of South Canterbury.
In Flanders Fields Passchendaele: Swear You’ll Never Forget will be staged at the South Canterbury Museum from October 11 to 13 at 7.30pm with a donation entry. Reservations can be made via email firstname.lastname@example.org
The cast and crew, from left, director Gillian Towle, singer Charlotte Howe, writer/actor Glenys Whittington, actor Kate Jackson and production crew members Barbara Morris and Gareth Sutton.
Word War I stretcher bearer and bugle player Harry Osborne.