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Tree guardian . . . Donald Ellis, who keeps areas around North Otago's memorial oaks tidy, tends to his great-uncle's cross and oak tree. Earnest Islip was killed in action at Passchendaele in May 1917. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Many locals are so used to Oamaru’s memorial oaks, they don’t necessarily give them a second thought until Anzac Day.

However, they are unique, living memorials to those from North Otago who died during World War 1.

All around the Waitaki district, oak trees – and the occasional elm – can be found with a small white cross at their base that bears the name, rank and death details of one of more than 400 North Otago soldiers.

The concept was started by Oamaru Beautifying Society president Dr Alexander Douglas, based on the oak planted in Arun St in remembrance of Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

News of Scott’s death was sent to London from Oamaru in 1913 when Terra Nova, Scott’s main supply vessel, anchored off Oamaru Harbour.

At the end of 1918, Dr Douglas suggested an oak, with a bronze plaque, should be planted for every fallen North Otago soldier.

The idea was put to the local country and borough councils, who wholeheartedly supported the idea.

Mighty Oaks, a book written by Dr Douglas’s grandson, Rob Douglas, reported an advertisement was placed in the Oamaru Mail on January 15, 1919 asking for people who would like their fallen relatives remembered and to make sure details of name, rank and place of death were correct.

Some families did not want a tree planted as it would be a constant reminder of the death of a loved one.

Originally, trees were planted at the junction of Wansbeck, Towey and Severn Sts and Awamoa Rd, in a star formation that reached down to Shag Point, inland to Livingstone, up the Waitaki Valley to Kurow and north, to the Waitaki River bridge.

The scheme was dedicated in 1919 by Viscount Lord Jellicoe, who unveiled a granite memorial stone alongside the oak of North Otago’s only Victoria Cross winner, Donald Forrester Brown.

While there are about 400 trees, Rob Douglas believes up to 560 men originally from North Otago might have been killed in the war. Many would have enlisted in other parts of the country or overseas.

The original wooden crosses with brass plaques have long since been replaced by concrete crosses with details etched into them.

They are maintained by local Rotary club members, and before each Anzac Day, local scout groups place a poppy on each cross.

Mr Douglas said he took great pleasure in the respect shown by those willing to help maintain the crosses.

“It really does warm my heart greatly to see, for Anzac Day, the memorial oaks with a poppy attached to them.

“It means people notice and are prepared to put a memorial up to the soldiers that gave the supreme sacrifice. It’s a wonderful thing.”

He said more people knew the story behind the memorial oaks today than in the past.

“There is more awareness about what’s going on. When it’s obvious things are happening to an oak tree .. people get on the phone and ask what’s going on.

“There’s no reason to suppose that the oak trees can’t grow for another 600 years. They may well go on forever.

“But the local population needs to be aware that if a branch is knocked off by a passing truck, or a car smashes into them, we will take appropriate measures to fix the trees up as much as possible.”

Maheno man Donald Ellis regularly maintains the grassed areas around oaks throughout the district.

His involvement started about three years ago, when he planted an oak in memory of his great-uncle, Earnest Islip, who was killed in action at Passchendaele on May 17, 1917. He was awarded the Military Medal during the campaign.

Mr Islip’s tree and cross are close to where he used to live at Maheno.

Mr Ellis takes pride in the work he does to help maintain the area around the oaks.

“I’ve got a line trimmer and I just buzz the grass around them and pick up any litter in the vicinity. I do that about three times a year,” he said.

He had come to know a lot of the names on the crosses by heart and often thought about the stories of the soldiers commemorated by the oak trees.

“I’m building a mental story about a lot of soldiers. Each one is unique. They were somebody’s son, brother, uncle, great-uncle .. and there’s nobody around that can do it, and I knew I could, so I enjoy being able to help.

“If I don’t go back for a while, you get there and it’s one hell of a mess, so what I’ve done before is always lost. I find the more regularly I go back, it’s easier.”

He said it was an “honour” to be involved and hoped someone would one day take over from him.

“I hope we can keep going long after my generation and get the next generation into it.”

A group of oak trees and crosses on Severn St dedicated to North Otago’s World War 1 fallen. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD