A silk dress and the faces of war

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These are the men who left Ashburton to fight.

They are the faces of Far From You, a poignant exhibition at Ashburton Museum for Anzac Day, April 25.

They were chosen at random from archives at the museum and they fought in World War 1, the Boer War and even in the New Zealand Wars.

Many came home.

Some did not, and to each face a story.

Many of the photographs were taken by Arthur Clarke, secretary of the Ashburton Hospital, a keen photographer and recorder of history.

The museum has seven of his albums, and each photograph has a name and a date – valuable information.

Mr Clarke noted, too, if a soldier survived the war.

Or did not.

Many of the photographs were taken in his front porch with the men in civilian clothes.

The exhibition has touching reminders of war and its effect on lives: a calico bag with a lost soldier’s last possessions – two hair brushes, a Testament, a pipe, a shaving brush, a badge.

There is a wedding dress fashioned from a parachute which made its way from the Solomons to Ashburton – and a man who did not.

In World War 2, Vernon Coughlan, of Temuka, was a medic with the 2nd Canterbury Battalion Airborne Division in Bougainville, Solomon Islands, and he planned to marry Maida Leask in Ashburton.

It was Mr Coughlan’s plan to supply the material for the wedding dress, and as he was ground-based he decided the parachute issued as part of his kit was not going to be needed, so he posted it to Maida.

At the end of his service, Mr Coughlan’s orders came to fly home.

But when he was ready to board he decided someone else’s need was greater than his and took another flight.

Mr Coughlan’s original flight was attacked with “all souls lost”.

In 1945 an engagement notice appeared. It read: “The engagement is announced of Maida Margaret, only daughter of Mr and Mrs and the late Mr J R Leask, of Ashburton, and Vernon Arthur, youngest son of the late Mr and Mrs S C Coughlan, of Temuka.”

The story, too, of Gordon John Burgess (Jock) who was serving with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War 2.

In a market in Cairo a mid-blue silk caught his eye and he thought of his girlfriend, Mavis Mackenzie, in Mayfield.

He bought the silk and posted it home – possibly with the promise he would follow to marry.

Mavis made the silk into a going-away outfit for her wedding – in December 1945.

Both dresses are on display in the museum.

Museum staff hope the displays attract as many people as possible, and they may have stories they can relate to the faces of Far From You.