The brave women of WW1
GISBORNE has made more effort to remember its women of World War 1 who went overseas than any other New Zealand city.
With Tairawhiti Museum’s recent exhibition and Kay Morris Matthew’s book Recovery, it has led the way in honouring the women as well as the men.
As we commemorate the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day today, many people are able to envisage their grandparents and great-grandparents on the day that they found out that the Great War was finally over after more than four gruelling years.
But in the case of one Gisborne man, Bill Falwasser, the connection to the war of a century ago is much closer as his mother, Peggy Alexandria Te Huinga Pitt (later Falwasser and Kaua) was born in Egypt during the Gallipoli campaign.
Asked why his grandmother, Katarina (Kitty) Rangikawhiti Pitt, nee Rogers, followed her husband Captain William Tutepuaki Pitt to the war zone, Bill laughs. The family story is that she went to make sure he behaved himself.
She travelled with Margaret Buck, wife of Dr Te Rangihiroa Peter Buck, who was Pakeha, born in Northern Ireland and brought up in Otago. Bill’s mother told him the women left New Zealand two weeks after their husbands sailed. “I think they got to go because Peter Buck’s wife had some sway,” he says. When he left New Zealand in February 1915, he may not have known Kitty was pregnant — and she might not have been sure either, when she sailed, as it seems unlikely that she would have chosen riskier Egypt over New Zealand for her baby’s birth.
Born in AlexandriaHer baby was born in September 1915 in Alexandria and named for her friend — Peggy being a common nickname for Margaret — and the city.
“The nurses wanted her name to be something to do with Egypt,” explains Bill.
Captain Pitt had fought in the South African War round the turn of the century. He had married Kitty, who came from Rotorua, in 1909, and was 37 at the beginning of World War One. Captain Pitt served at Gallipoli but was invalided out of the army because of heart problems.
The family arrived home in Gisborne in early 1916 and was given a welcome at Kaiti. In a newspaper article reporting this, Peggy is referred to as “Egypt”.
There is a famous photograph taken a couple of years later (pictured above) in which Peggy sits between Te Puea Herangi and her father. The photo has been used in some books to point out the contrast between Te Puea, who opposed her tribe’s men going to the war, and Captain Pitt who had served and was encouraging service.
Captain Pitt worked for the government as a welfare officer and died aged 60 in 1937 while Kitty lived until 1956.
Says Bill, “My grandfather was a quiet ‘man’s man’ sort of person. He preferred to mix with rugby players, bowlers and cricketers rather than go to dances, whereas Nan was the other way. She preferred cards. I remember Mum taking her to Te Karaka for a card game on a Friday and picking her up on Monday morning! “It was my job to empty the ashtrays if they played at home. They used to drop a few shillings on the floor, so I got quite rich.”
Sir Apirana NgataPeggy Pitt went to work with Sir Apirana Ngata as a young woman. “She was his chauffeur. She drove him everywhere. We used to hear stories of her driving him to Waiomatatini, and all over the place. Sometimes they’d get stuck and have to get someone with a tractor or a horse,” says Bill.
She married Henry Falwasser, who had served in the 28th Maori Battalion’s D Company, and died in 1960. She later married Pita Kaua who had served in C Company. He died in 1989. Peggy was an expert in kapa haka and very well known for her community work. She was given the Queen’s Service Medal in 2005 and a Sir Kingi Ihaka Medal in 2006, shortly before her death at the age of 91.
“A lot of the older people would have known that Mum was born in Egypt, but the younger ones don’t know. We have told our grandchildren,” says Bill.
Peggy’s exotic birthplace made no difference to her until she planned to go to China with the National Council of Women, Bill remembers. “She didn’t have a birth certificate so she couldn’t get a passport. She applied for one and through various channels and organisations she finally got one. They had to certify that she was born in Egypt, and they went back through the army records. It took a while to get that passport.”
Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand women overseas in World War 1 (pictured above) tells the story of Katarina Pitt, Margaret Buck (who was awarded an MBE for her work as housekeeper at the nurses’ home at New Zealand’s convalescent hospital at Hornchurch, England) and many other women who served.