There and Back Again; The Incredible Journey of the C Section, 3rd Field Ambulance Red Cross Flag, from Western Australia, to the first wave at Gallipoli, to Edmonton (Canada), and back again,
by Doug Buhler.
A little more than a year ago I was in a parking lot of a local restaurant about to drive back to the office after taking a business lunch when I received a phone call out of the blue from a Western Canadian militaria dealer from whom I had been buying some Canadian military cap badges from over the years. I was told how they were in possession of a grand piece of military history and if I knew of the Gallipoli Campaign of World War One.
My attention was instantly piqued, as not only did I know of the campaign, but also I considered it amongst one of the most famous and tragic battles of the war. I also was well aware of its tremendous national importance to the countries of Australia and New Zealand. The battle is extremely similar to how the April 1917 battle of Vimy Ridge is a symbol of sacrifice and national pride to all Canadians.
I was told how they were in possession of a large Red Cross flag that landed in the first wave of the Gallipoli landings and that it was the very flag that was written about in several Australian history books about the landings at Gallipoli. Naturally, I was instantly skeptical about this story.
Flags are very evocative icons of history and are amongst the most emotionally powerful genres of militaria collecting. They represent small units to armies and nations, and are symbolic to and of the men who fought under those flags. None evoke a more emotional response than that of medic flags, where soldiers sought refuge, healing and hope in the heat of battle.
However, any experienced collector worth their salt knows to “buy the item and not the story.” My response was that there had to be absolute iron clad provenance on a claim like this and while I was interested in hearing more, I needed the complete provenance package beyond a story.
The dealer claimed that a member of the medical unit, the same unit that landed in the first wave of landings, that of the Bearers Section which is C Section, 3rd Field Ambulance, personalized the flag. The name written on the flag was A.D. Kemp and they had a handwriting match from his Australian War Records.
To top it off the personalization was dated to the month and year of the landings, April 1915, and while the exact date was damaged by mothing, there was clearly a date that was written at one time. The landings were the morning of April 25, 1915. Not only that but the flag was written about in the book “The Body Snatchers” by Sue and Ron Austin, which tells the detailed history of the 3rd Field Ambulance. It is clearly written that A.D. Kemp took the flag and in 1918 gave the flag to the section commanding officer, Captain Douglas McWhae.
I was galvanized by this claim of provenance. To have a personalization on an artifact with a unit, name and date is nearly impossible to find, and is a collectors dream as inside every collector is a researcher waiting to get out. Names, units and dates are the keys to unlocking the exact history of an item. But to also have a handwriting match and for the artifact to be written about in a history book on the unit, this was simply too much good fortune. I turned from excited to skeptic again.
I asked the dealer to email me photos of the flag, the personalization and the entire provenance they had so I could examine this for myself. I thought about this on my drive home, the discussion of the business lunch now a long forgotten memory. I thought to myself, how does a flag with this type of alleged provenance come to be in Canada? How would something like this leave the possession of this McWhae, who was the Commanding Officer of the unit at the time of the landings? How does the one even begin to authenticate all of this? But I was excited to learn more.
Upon my arrival to the office, the emails were there waiting. Well, work could wait, this was by far more important! There were about a dozen images of the flag that clearly showed natural age and patina. I performed a quick search on Australian Medic Flags of WW1 and quickly saw the flag matched the known size, style and fabric of those same flags. One was on display in a museum in Tasmania, and this was an exact match. The image of the handwriting on the flag was convincing as well, it was aged and appeared to have been written with a period writing implement. But one image was very convincing: the image of the signatures of A.D. Kemp both on the flag and from his Australian War Records. It was a perfect match.
There was now no doubt in my mind they were in possession of an Australian WW1 Red Cross flag. However questions still burned. Could someone have read the book, been in possession of this flag, pulled the records of A.D. Kemp and copied the signature, faking the entire personalization? And how does this flag even get to Canada? I called the dealer for more information.
The flag had come into possession of a young Australian more than three decades ago whilst doing a job cleaning out an “old house”. That same Australian asked if he could keep the flag and was given permission to do so. Many years later the Australian immigrated to Canada, bringing the flag with him. He sold the flag to the dealer a couple of years ago. That was the story of how the flag got to Canada.
My next question was that of authenticity. I stated that anyone could have read the book and faked the personalization to drive the price up of a collectible but still relatively inexpensive Red Cross flag. There had to be more to it before I was willing to bite. This is when they sent to me to the website blog of historian and researcher Steven Clifford who the dealer had enlisted to do the research on the personalization when they first bought the flag.
After reading the two blogs I was fairly certain that the personalization was authentic, felt certain that the flag was authentic and pretty sure that this was the very flag that landed in the first wave of the Gallipoli landings. I called back and asked the “how much” question and choked when I found out! $25,000 was a lot of money. A similar flag had sold a little more than a decade earlier for $15,000 and it was not a first wave flag. I am a collector of history and this seemed to be an iconic item that dripped pure history of a famous battle that had national significance to Australia.
So after eliciting the guarantees that I could return the flag if not completely satisfied it was real when I did my own due diligence and research, I bought the flag. I had to sell a few items out of my collection to do so, but this piece I felt this was a “Holy Grail” of collecting.
I received the flag a few days after payment was made and when I opened the package I could not believe my eyes. Things always look better in person than in photos, but this blew me away. It was no longer white, but taupe in color, the fabric turned color from dirt settling on the flag. If the flag was flying, how could there be dirt evenly distributed on the flag? If it was hanging in a home, or folded up and put away, there would not be even distribution. I was puzzled by this but would find the answer soon after.
The age was apparent, it was fragile and had plenty of moth nips and the materials were of the period, the construction and sewing from an age gone by. It was clear this was a 100-year-old flag. Examining the personalization under magnification it was also clear it was aged and faded, as old as the flag itself.
I immediately contacted Steven Clifford and told him I was in possession of the flag, and he shed some more light on his research, which dispelled any doubt in my mind. I began to do my own secondary research and requested the Australian War Records of Douglas McWhae and A.D. Kemp from the military archives of Australia. I went online seeking out images of the flags, specifically looking for Red Cross flags that flew in Gallipoli.
I had several pre-war images of the flags, but it was difficult to find anything from Gallipoli. I reached out to an Australian collecting colleague and told him that I had something very important to his country and described the flag. He was able to give me the links to several Australian government archives I could search. I used the provided links and went to the Australian government photo archives and limited the search to 3rd Field Ambulance and Gallipoli. I found many images of men, Simpson and his donkey, the beaches, huts, terrain, all kinds of images. Many were shot from far away. I downloaded all the images I could and blew them up and began searching for any images of a Red Cross flag flying.
After hours of searching I gave up and began looking at all archived records of Gallipoli that were available online. I then saw a picture of another medics unit flag on top of a hut and not flying. I immediately had an epiphany; I was looking for a flying flag, not a flag on top of a hut or dugout. The angle of the shots would make it nearly impossible to see but I doubled back and was rewarded.
I had passed this photo countless times already but there it was, clear as day once you saw it. The exact flag, mounted on the roof of a hut dugout into the cliffs of Gallipoli, from the 3rd Field Ambulance. This would explain the dirt evenly distributed over the flag! Months of wind and shell bursts would cover this flag with fine coats of dust and dirt, permeating the fabric to its dull taupe color. Combined with 100 years of natural age it gave this flag its fantastic patina and tone.
So this was one question I felt I had answered. But I was still curious as how to why this flag, given its emotional significance to the unit and surely to its former CO, Douglas McWhae, came to be abandoned and later making its way to Canada? I wouldn’t have that answer for nearly a year.
Satisfied I now had period images of the flag my attention turned to the war diaries of the 3rd Field Ambulance. I managed to find them, again online in an Australian government digital archive, and downloaded pages of them. Focusing on the weeks leading to the landings I began to read the story of the 3rd Field Ambulance as written by the officers commanding.
It was a fascinating read and I felt I was there with the men who wrote those diaries. (If you have never read a unit war diary, I strongly encourage it!) McWhae had been mentioned multiple times as well as the men and their brave actions finding and tending to the wounded, injured and dying. It also detailed the horrific conditions and casualties the unarmed me of the 3rd Field Ambulance were suffering. I knew McWhae suffered a serious head/eye wound 2 days in, and it was written about in detail, in the diaries.
It was while reading these diaries that I knew that this flag had to be repatriated back to Australia for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the landings (April 25, 2015), but I didn’t know how I could make that happen. But I felt a sense of guilt that this flag was in a Canadian private collection when it should be on display for all of Australians.
After many more weeks of study and research I had decided to write some form of article but I did not want to simply re-do the fantastic work that Steven had already done. And being very busy in my professional and personal life, I put the project on hold till I could crystalize something, the flag folded as I received it, and stored safely inside a locked glass cabinet for invited guests to see in a room which houses other artifacts, uniforms, maps, helmets and military ephemera of my collection.
Well weeks passed into months and I began to be concerned in late 2014 that the time was coming fast. I had thought about simply bringing the flag to Australia myself in April of 2015 and presenting it to “somebody”, but was not sure to whom. However, I knew that was a fantasy given I had a trip booked to go to Ypres in April with my eldest son to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the first battle for Canadian soldiers in WW1 and the first gas attack by the Germans.
It was then in December that I received an email from a Wendy Lugg, the Honorary Artist in Residence of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society. She had been doing some research on Captain Douglas McWhae for her commemorative display of the battle of Gallipoli, and came across the 2 blog posts written by Steven. She had contacted him about the flag and he subsequently gave her my contact information. She had contacted me to determine if there was any way the flag could be repatriated back to Western Australia, the place of its “birth”.
Needless to say I was immediately excited about the prospects and engaged Wendy in many emails about how we could make this happen. It turned out she had a strong personal connection to the flag. Her grandfather landed in the first tow of the first wave at Gallipoli and was seriously wounded there. As 3rd Field Ambulance was assigned to her grandfathers unit, the chances are extremely high, members of the Bearers Section (C Section was the Bearers Section) would have assisted him and he would have been in a 3rd Field Ambulance dressing station.
Wendy got the curator of the Museum involved and he sent it up the chain of command. Here is where it got very discouraging. Without getting into details the response was curt and short. Undeterred I offered a crowdfunding solution which would bring the flag home without a penny of government funding involved. I did not even get a response on that suggestions and was left simply perplexed and confused.
It was then that the very person who found the flag in Australia those many years ago and later sold it to the militaria dealer, contacted me. He had found out the story again via the blogs of Steven, and got my number. It was then I found out the flag was not found in an “old house” but was found while he was cleaning out waste from the roof of the Perth Beatty Park Aquatic Centre in 1983. They had done many veteran gatherings there in the decades past after the war, McWhae had lived there after the war and this must have been how the flag had wound up there. He was given permission to keep the flag, brought it with him to and 30 years later sold it to the dealer, much to his regret.
He had heard that the purchase of the flag was rejected by officials of the Australian War Museum and was very dismayed by this, as was I. I told him about my crowdfunding proposal and he thought it was a great idea. He had many connections to the media back in Australia and combined with my collector connections and with Wendy’s connections in Australia felt it would be successful. So undaunted, I took another run at repatriating this flag to its rightful home.
I contacted Wendy who agreed this was an avenue well worth trying. Despite many hurdles, trials and tribulations, and more discouragement than encouragement, she made enough headway to get the Australian Culture Fund involved in piloting a crowd funding campaign.
This would ensure the flag could be bought, safely conserved and displayed, and brought to towns and cities all across Western Australia from the 100th Anniversary of the landings to the anniversary of wars end in November 2018, and from then to go on a permanent display for future generations of Australians to witness and reflect on.
Wendy, with her own funds, then flew the daylong flight to Edmonton, in Western Canada on March 22nd to collect the flag in person. I looked after her accommodations while she was our guest in Canada and we spent the next day in the accompaniment of the flag and its rich history. I will say, I have seen many a collector gaze for the first time at an artifact dear to them. I do not think I have seen a reaction quite like Wendy’s. It was part awe, part unbelief, part sadness, and part joy. We spoke all morning about the flag, the men, the battle and its significance to Western Australia and the country as a whole.
Later that day the Edmonton Journal came by with a photographer and journalist to do an article about the story also picked up by other papers in Western Canada. The same day an article was run by a major paper in Western Australia. The next day I was asked to do a radio interview by CBC Radio, the Canadian equivalent of the BBC.
To see the media attention on this flag and its journey was incredible. To most, history is boring and not as newsworthy as some celebrities Botox injections gone bad or as interesting as funny cat pictures. But this was very encouraging.
Wendy flew home to Australia the next day, and emailed me upon touchdown in Perth. The flag, finally, had come home.
I am anxious with anticipation on seeing the display that Wendy herself is building at the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and what the reaction the populace of Western Australia will be. I am so proud to have played a small part in bringing this flag, so representative of the blood, sweat and tears of a nation, back home.
The Australian Cultural Fund is looking to raise $35,000 AUD over the next 90 days to cover the cost of the flag, its safe conservation and display, the ability to display it across Western Australia and its eventual permanent display. I have already donated $500. Australian residents will enjoy a tax receipt for donations over $2 AUD.
If you can spare a couple of dollars would you please donate to see this historical artifact safely preserved and displayed for generations to come.
Thank you for taking the time to read the story.
Please read on for important links, how to donate, and fantastic images.
You can donate here:
Links to the blogs written by Steven Clifford on the flag:
Links to the news articles and radio interview:
Edmonton manâ€™s historic flag from Gallipoli beach returns to Australia
(begin from the 6.45 mark)
Too see Images scroll down
The C Section, 3rd Field Ambulance Gallipoli Flag that landed in the first wave with the 11th Battalion
Personalization on the flag: "Flag of C Section 3rd Fld Amb April __ 1915", with a signature by "AD Kemp"
Handwriting match of AD Kemp with a file from his war records
Actual flag in use in Gallipoli shortly after the landings
One of the books where it is written about, The Body Snatchers
The text describing Kemp keeping the flag and passing it to McWhae.
Videographer filming story on the flag with a proud Wendy in my “Canadian Room”
Wendy and I holding the flag for the photographer in my “Canadian Room”
Article in Edmonton Journal about the flag
The 50 men of the 3rd Field Ambulance, C Section (Bearers Section), pre-battle before embarkation to Gallipoli. In this image is the famous Simpson; McWhae at the head as CO, and somewhere in this image is AD Kemp. (Courtesy State Library of Western Australia)
The post Gallipoli battle picture, of the 14 surviving and non-critically wounded men of C Section standing in the same positions as the post-embarkation photo above. This photo was taken after the battle. McWhae had been seriously wounded on day 2, April 27 1915 and lost an eye. Simpson was killed in action. AD Kemp, who kept the flag after the evacuation of Gallipoli and brought home with him, is pictured in this image. (Courtesy State Library of Western Australia)
Please donate if you wish!
Thanks again for reading this story!
PS a very special thanks to member Sandgroper for his assistance in this project as well!