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Topic: Herman Rolfes’s personal effects

Is part of topic World War I

Towards the end of 1918, Mrs Frances Rolfes, a widow living in Kaikoura, received a package containing the personal effects of her only son, Herman. A little canvas bag contained all that the army could send back of her son - his body had been buried with four of his comrades near where they had been killed on 24 August during the Battle of Bapaume. The contents of the package were pitifully few: Herman’s pay book, some cap and shoulder badges from his uniform, a pass for three days leave that he was given before being sent to France, and ‘bed chits’ for nights he spent at soldiers’ hostels in London and Edinburgh.

At about the same time, Mrs Rolfes received a letter of condolence from the chaplain of Herman’s unit, the 2nd Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment. He told her that Herman had been hit by a machine gun bullet while his unit was attacking German positions. Chaplain Cruickshank assured Herman’s mother that his death was instantaneous, and gave her map references for his grave.

Mrs Rolfe also had a photograph taken in Christchurch, probably on Herman’s final home leave before leaving New Zealand. She kept another, smaller photograph in a little purse which she used every day for years afterwards. She also kept a brief obituary published in the local newspaper, and a small memorial cross which the people of Kaikoura gave her.

Over two years after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Mrs Rolfes began to receive more official acknowledgement of her son’s death. In 1921 she was sent a Memorial Scroll bearing Herman's name and, in 1922, a ‘Next of Kin Memorial Plaque’. Then, in October 1923 she was sent two medals - the Victory Medal and the British War Medal - to acknowledge his war service.  It was not until 1928 that a friend visiting France was able to locate Herman’s grave and send her a photograph of the weathered marker with five names on it.

About 18,000 other New Zealand families shared Mrs Rolfes’ experience of loss and grieving for a son, brother, or father buried far away, and many kept similar collections of mementoes. The grief endured for years. Herman’s sister, Phyllis, inherited the collection, and eventually donated it to the nation in 1966.

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