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New Zealand soldier hopes to return WWI German wallet

It’s just an empty wallet, but for Private Hayden Cullen, of Cambridge, no price could be put on reuniting it with the family of the German officer who saved his great grandfather’s life in the First World War.

It would also bring a sense of closure on a remarkable battlefield story.

[See updated news story - First World War battlefield mystery finally solved]

Private Hayden Cullen will use his trip to Belgium to commemorate the Battle of Passchendaele centenary to try to reunite a wallet with the family of the German officer who saved his great grandfather’s life in the First World War. Image courtesy of the NZDF.

Private Cullen is under no illusion about the enormity of the task.

“I know it’s a long shot but if one miracle can happen – why can’t another?”

Private Cullen is a member of the New Zealand Army Band, based at Burnham Army Camp near Christchurch. And he is with the band as part of the New Zealand Defence Force contingent travelling to Belgium to commemorate the Battle of Passchendaele centenary on 12 October.     

Being with the contingent will give him the opportunity to appreciate better what his great-grandfather, Private Ray Cullen, experienced in the latter part of the war.

In November 1918 Private Cullen was serving in the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, part of the New Zealand Division, during the liberation of the French township of Le Quesnoy, which had been in German hands since 1914.

According to letters sent home by Private Cullen, during a German artillery barrage a shell exploded in the machine gun post occupied by him and five of his crew. Private Cullen was the only survivor and, seriously wounded, he attempted to get back to friendly lines.

However, he collapsed because of blood loss and was saved miraculously when a German officer and his men, who were coming to surrender, stumbled across him.

The German officer instructed his men to make a stretcher from their tunics and they carried Private Cullen to get medical attention.

Before being marched off to captivity, the German officer is said to have given his wallet to Private Cullen, which he took back to the family farm outside Te Awamutu after the war. Over the years, the family has attempted to identify the family of the wallet’s owner but to no avail.

The wallet that German officer H Held gave to Private Ray Cullen during the liberation of Le Quesnoy in 1918. Image courtesy of the NZDF.

“They’re pinning their hopes on me now, so in a last-ditch effort I’ve brought the wallet back to Europe,” Private Cullen said. “You never know who you might meet over here – even 99 years later!

“Failing that, I’m hoping the power of the media and social media will connect our family with the family of the German officer – Herr H. Held, of Hannover. We owe them a great deal for what their ancestor did for ours.”

The New Zealand National Commemorative Service for the Battle of Passchendaele centenary is at Tyne Cot Cemetery at 11am on 12 October. On the same day, the Sunset Ceremony will be held at Buttes New British Cemetery at 7.15 pm.


Updated on 20th October 2017