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High Country Heroes - Their Deeds Remembered

Kiwis remembered the fallen of bygone years at Armistice Day commemorations, large and small, throughout the county on Sunday 11 November. The following is CPL Prouting’s personal account of high country mustering gang whose deeds are emblematic of the bravery and sacrifice of a generation of men who gave their lives in the Great War.

Around the turn of the century, Mesopotamia Station (South Canterbury) was a high country sheep farm nearly 100,000 acres in size. It employed all sorts of characters, from rabbiters, wagoneers and cooks to farm hands, shearers and a full mustering gang. Musterers were some of the hardest men in those days. Unlike the blokes from the Speights ads they didn’t use horses to muster the slopes. They traversed the mountains on foot, often for weeks and in some of the harshest weather New Zealand has to offer.

When the Great War broke out, the mustering gang left Mesopotamia along with the farm manager and one of the wagoneers to fight on foreign soil. Of the eight that left, only two came home.

I come from Mesopotamia, my family have been running the farm for three generations. As I grew up I walked past the memorial to those men everyday on my way to school. But it wasn’t until I was older that I began to realise the real meaning of the inscription in stone.

I am proud of the country I was brought up in, and when I read in the August 07 issue of Air Force News that Renus and Jopie van der Vegte were looking for surviving members of PLTOFF Vincent Matthias – and Matthias was born in Geraldine, I had to look further.

I made contact with Mr Tom Pike, who is a member of the Geraldine RSA. He set research in motion, and though I have spoken or emailed several members of the Geraldine RSA, I ended up dealing with the secretary Mr Ian Blackmore. During our communications Mr Blackmore informed me the RSA would be holding a Remembrance Service at the Mesopotamia Memorial, and invited me to attend. As a service member and as a Prouting, I couldn’t possibly refuse.

I managed to arrive at the memorial five minutes before the bus on 11 November 2007. The atmosphere was convivial and surprisingly casual as people gathered around the stone chatting with each other and with me. I met Mr Blackmore, Mr Pike, and the president of the RSA – Mr Robert Wood. I was also introduced to the man who had conducted most of the research into PLTOFF Matthias, Mr Noel Horgan It was not long however before the vicar was ready to begin.

The service was short, but encompassed the feeling of the men and women who had come to pay their respects. The last post and reveille has always been an emotional ceremony, but out in the countryside the ‘silence’ was filled with birdsong, a breeze in the trees and occasional bark of a dog. It really drove home exactly what these men had given up to fight for us.

I had been asked to lay the wreath, and though my military movements may have seemed out of place in the casual atmosphere of a kiwi farm, it was symbolic of how ‘out of place’ it was that these men – no different to you or I – gave up their lives for a future they would never see.

I was invited to speak, and expressed my thanks and respect to the men I never met, but who’s names are as familiar to me as the land I grew up on. They were of a hardier breed than I. They didn’t join up for free medical and dental, they didn’t join up for the free training or the lifestyle. They gave up the only lifestyle they knew to fight a foreign war in a land they did not know. For the farms they would never own, for the girls they would never marry and the children they would never have.

My father, as the oldest Mesopotamia Prouting, spoke as well and told of the men who had left and the struggle to choose the names to go on the memorial. There are other men who had worked on the property but did not leave Mesopotamia directly to serve. The service wasn’t just for them however – but all men of the back country and the farms of New Zealand who made that ultimate sacrifice.

The mood lightened a little again as afternoon tea was announced and we all made our way into the school grounds for bikkies and a cuppa joe. I was surprised to discover just how many people had turned up to such an isolated spot. There were nearly fifty people, and nearly half of them from England. There were only a few war stories – most people were more interested to know what the armed forces are like today, and I was happy to share my enthusiasm for the changes and especially the upgrades we are experiencing.

As the afternoon drew to a close and the bus rolled away again, I took a moment to reflect on what had been expressed that day. There is a plaque on Flanders Field which states, “From the farthest ends of the earth they came.” High up in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, those young musterers did come from the very ends of the earth. Yet though their memory is faded, and their memorial isolated – they will be remembered.