A number of people comment on how interesting they find our ‘heritage page’, many state they always learn something new. We are no different – a colleague was recently talking about how during World War One disgruntled Canterbury soldiers were forced to construct a ‘Bulford Kiwi’ on the side of an English hill. It was all news to me, so I was inspired to find out more.
A quick search in Google showed me that far from being something unknown the Bulford Kiwi on Beacon Hill is quite a landmark. In fact, it was so well known that it was hidden during World War Two as Germans might have used it as a navigational mark.
Let’s face it, there must be few really large white kiwi on hills in England. And large the carving certainly is. In all it covers 1.2 acres and from its feet to the top of its back it is 420 feet high, with the beak 150 feet long.
The kiwi is now cared for by the British Ministry of Defence, but for a time before that the KIWI boot polish company, who had an office in London, paid locals to keep it tidy.
It did become overgrown for a while, but a local scout group took it up as a project and the Chief Scout bestowed upon them a new name – that of the Bulford (Kiwi) pack.
On Beacon Hill
So where is this slice of kiwi land and how did it get to be there? Beacon Hill sits above what is now the Bulford Military Camp. It is located in Wiltshire which, some many know, is an area of chalky deposits. This has given rise to many carvings, both ancient as well as those from the First World War. While these other military monuments share the same age as the kiwi – ‘our’ one is different, being the only national symbol, whereas the others are badges and other ‘official’ designs.
In its time Bulford was the location of a ‘sling camp’ – a staging area for New Zealand soldiers. The War Effort of NZ (1923) describes it as an ‘unloved, bleak and lonely’ area.
The camp was divided into four tent towns – one each for Canterbury, Otago (both struck on the foot of the hill) and Auckland and Wellington (near the gates).
Initially the stay in Sling Camp was a short one, where New Zealanders, and some Australians, were retrained before being sent to the trenches of Europe.
By 1916, however, training time was lengthened; a full course was 30 days long where route marches, endless drills and limited rations were the order of the day. The men became ‘fit, hardy, disciplined, lean visaged’ soldiers.
Signs of decay
At the end of the war, and on into 1919, everyone was tired and the camp was beginning to show signs of decay. An outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918 killed many soldiers.
Although the war was over, senior officers continued to act as if the conflict was still raging. Stiff rationing was enforced, marching and drills were continued and discipline – such as saluting seniors, as well as a living within a regimental schedule – was a hard bed for almost 5000 battle weary soldiers just wanting to go home to lie in.
To top it off, delays in getting enough ships to take kiwi soldiers home meant that a short stay was turning into a long and rather uncomfortable one.
On 15 March 1919 Canterbury and Otago soldiers decided enough was enough and rioted. Although it is stated that about 10,000 pounds worth of damage occurred, the main objective was the officer’s mess – food, cigarettes and all the alcohol were ‘stolen’. A rather wild party ensued; buildings and fixtures were destroyed. Australians followed the South Islanders lead and they too caused damage.
Ironically, the ringleaders were sent home immediately as a punishment. The followers were sentenced to up to 100 days hard labor.
There seems to be some doubt as to whether the kiwi was made after the riot as a punishment, or more likely, was used as a method of keeping discontented soldiers busy before it occurred.
The kiwi was too well planned and executed to suggest a quick response to an outbreak of mutiny. An officer used a sketch he had made of a stuffed kiwi from the British Museum as the design and men of the Canterbury and Otago engineers laid it out.
The kiwi was finished in June 1919, some four months after the riot. One would have assumed that by this time all the kiwi soldiers would have been safety tucked up in their beds in New Zealand. Surprisingly, however, the last official troop ship did not dock in New Zealand until September 1920.
Without regular maintenance the kiwi began to fade. Indeed the whole story of the Bulford kiwi seems to have faded, or even disappeared, on this side of the globe. It is suggested that as it was connected to an incident that tarnished the reputation of the New Zealand soldiers that it was considered best forgotten. However, while here we may have little knowledge of it, the villagers in far off Wiltshire have a lasting memento of hard working – if somewhat high spirited – Canterbury and Otago men who forever placed their mark on English soil.
By Kathleen Stringer
- The Bulford Kiwi as it is today.
- A photograph of the kiwi emblem cut out of chalk.
- A plaque commemorating the kiwi and the Canterbury troops who made it.
- New Zealand soldiers take a break from their work at Sling Camp, England. Behind are frames with sacks for bayonet training. Credit – Wairarapa Archive.