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31 August 2005

World War One Medal Presentation ceremony, parliament

Speech by the Rt. Hon Helen Clark

Today’s ceremony marks the end of a sad chapter in our history which began ninety years ago.

In 1915, the soldiers whose memories we honour today were all in uniform. They had all volunteered to serve their country in the Great War. Private Victor Manson Spencer was fighting at ANZAC Cove, while Privates Jack Braithwaite and Frank Hughes were completing their training in New Zealand.

By 1916, they had all arrived in France ready for service on the Western Front. There, they experienced the horrors of trench warfare during World War One – massed attacks on well-protected trenches, the barbed wire and machine guns, poison gas, the incessant rain and mud, and appalling living conditions.

All three men lost personal battles – whether with military discipline, or with their ability to endure the terrors of life in the trenches. And in so doing, they ran foul of the harsh military discipline of the day, which could only recognise dissent or shell shock as the offences of mutiny or desertion, punishable by death by firing squad. Privates Hughes and Braithwaite were executed in France in 1916, and Private Spencer was executed in Belgium in 1918.

The truth of their tragic fates was also buried. Their courts-martial files were locked away, with the intention that the details – even the very fact – of their executions would not be made public for one hundred years. War service medals were never issued, and certificates of service were never written. While the rest of New Zealand honoured the nation’s war dead every ANZAC Day, what must the families of Privates Braithwaite, Hughes and Spencer have thought, and how much sharper and deeper was their grief?

Not until the 1980s did researchers uncover the hidden history of the execution of New Zealand soldiers in the First World War. With the release of the courts-martial records, it was revealed for the first time that the horrors of that conflict were not confined to the front line, and that New Zealand casualties were not solely the result of enemy action.

It is easy enough to dismiss the events of a distant war as characteristic of the harsh standards of the time. However, there are those among us today – and I would like to single out Mark Peck, the Member of Parliament for Invercargill, in particular – who recognised the scale and significance of the lasting injustice perpetrated almost ninety years ago on Privates Braithwaite, Hughes and Spencer, and on Privates John King and John Joseph Sweeney, whose families will shortly be present at a similar ceremony in Canberra. During the 1990s, Mark championed the memories of these soldiers, and his efforts were rewarded in 2000 with the passage of the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act.

This Act pardoned Private Braithwaite of the offence of mutiny, and Privates Hughes and Spencer of the offence of desertion. Today, we are assembled to honour their memory, and to issue the medals, certificates and medallions which they earned by reason of their service in the First World War.

Now the service of Privates Jack Braithwaite, Frank Hughes and Victor Manson Spencer be remembered with pride and sorrow whenever New Zealand commemorates those who died in war, and in the service of peace.

I would now ask representatives of the Braithwaite, Hughes and Spencer families to come forward, please, to accept the medals, certificates and medallions.

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