1917 The Darkest Hour

By 1917, soldiers and loved ones had begun to lose faith in the ongoing war. Those on the Western Front were living in cold, wet trenches, and those at home were doing what they could to keep the home fires burning. New Zealand would experience the deadliest day in its military history when 845 lives were lost at the Belgian town of Passchendaele.

Issue information

As the war continued its persistent trudge into 1917, New Zealanders began to grow weary of this Great War that seemed to have no end in sight. Those on the Western Front were living in cold, wet trenches, and would experience the deadliest day in New Zealand’s military history when 845 lives were lost at the Belgian town of Passchendaele.

Alongside the horrors of the Western Front, we told the story of mother of ten Ellen Knight. Like many mothers, wives, sisters and daughters she experienced the war from New Zealand shores, relying on letters from loved ones and news reports to stay informed. However, Ellen’s story was grimmer than most – she had lost three sons by the war’s end. 

First Day Cover

All ten stamps were available on a collectable first day cover as a part of this issue. The design featured a war painting titled Observation Post, Winter by William Barnes Wollen.

Miniature Sheets

The set of two miniature sheets in the issue featured letters from members of the Knight family written during the war – Ellen and her sons would write back and forth constantly in a bid to stay connected. The miniature sheet with four stamps featured a newspaper clipping reporting on the Battle of Messines, and the miniature sheet with six stamps featured a newspaper clipping reporting on Passchendaele.

Miniature Sheet First Day Covers

The two-miniature sheet first day covers featured paintings of landscapes from the First World War. The first day cover with four stamps featured The Battle of Polygon Wood by George Edmund Butler, and the first Day cover with six stamps featured Cemetery by Nugent Welch.

Commemorative Book

The story of Ellen Knight and New Zealand’s role in the First World War throughout 1917 was told in greater detail in the commemorative book. The book was the fourth in a series of five and expanded in depth on the story behind each stamp in this issue as well as supplying a more detailed glimpse of life during the War in 1917.

This commemorative book edition told the story of Ellen Knight and follows the paths of some of her children abroad and back home. Ellen’s son George tells of his time in Sling Camp in letters back to his mother describing it as “this other last place on earth”, he later writes to his mother to tell her he has been promoted to company commander after the Battle of Broodseinde. Sadly, the letters from all three sons came to an abrupt end as they cruelly fell victim to this terrible war. Ellen's daughter, meanwhile, had joined the workforce back home as had many women.

The emerging technology of war, the development of plastic surgery and the sinking of a supply ship in New Zealand waters were also explored and expanded on in this commemorative book. This unique collectable contained twelve miniature sheets that were not available individually.

The Ellen Knight Story

Ellen Knight, mother of ten, lived in Dannevirke, while husband Herbert helped their eldest son Douglas at his farm between Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki. Farm workers were exempt from going to war, but George and younger brother Herbert enlisted to do their bit and sailed in February 1915 for Egypt, then
on to Gallipoli.

George regularly wrote to his mother, ensuring that he and his brother would stick together and come home safe. However, on 8 May 1915 the young, boisterous Herbert was shot dead by a sniper at Cape Helles after volunteering to bury a mule. George wrote to break the news, but Ellen had seen the casualty list before George’s letter arrived.

The light-hearted, lovable George had scares – surviving a shoulder wound, illnesses,
a septic finger – before he was tragically shot dead at Passchendaele on New Zealand’s darkest day,
12 October 1917. Before the family found out about George’s tragic end, Ellen’s eldest son William sailed from Wellington, having been excused from the farm. On 1 September 1918 Douglas was killed during the Bancourt Ridge offensive, felled by a shell while returning with an arm wound.

Thankfully Ken, who turned 18 in 1917, was never called up, and took over Douglas’s farm. But daughter Margarette was struck by rheumatoid arthritis in 1918, and her mother became her care giver.

The next war also took its toll on Ellen and her remaining children. Her youngest, Maurice, died aged 36 while training troops in India in 1944. With her eyesight declining, she moved in with daughter Dorothy in Gisborne aged 87, then to a Whakatāne nursing home.

When Ellen died aged 93, her family found the shoebox full of letters. It’s through these letters and interviews with family members that Ellen’s story, and that of her children is told in 1917 The Darkest Hour.

Commemorative Coins

Take a look at the commemorative coins that were also part of this issue. Click here to find out more.

Product Listing for 1917 The Darkest Hour

Click on image to enlarge.

Image Title Description Price
Sheetlet

Mint, used or cancelled sheetlet of ten stamps.

The individual stamps in this issue were:

Single $1.00 'A mother mourns – Ellen Knight' gummed stamp.

Ellen Knight of Dannevirke, mother of ten, saw three of her boys killed during the First World War: Herbert, shot dead by a sniper at Gallipoli in 1915; George, killed at Passchendaele in 1917; and William Douglas, her eldest, felled by a shell in France in 1918.

Single $1.00 'From Egypt to Jerusalem' gummed stamp.

Beginning with the Battle of Rafah in January and ending at the Battle of Jerusalem in December, 1917 saw New Zealand mounted soldiers help capture the Sinai Peninsula from Ottoman forces before pushing into Ottoman Syria.

Single $1.00 'Sling Camp' gummed stamp.

George Knight would arrive at Sling Camp, Salisbury Plain, England in January 1917, one of around 4,000 troops at the camp at any given time. While training new recruits was its primary purpose, Sling also served as a recovery and reconditioning stop for soldiers returning to the front.

Single $2.20 'The Battle of Messines' gummed stamp.

Tasked with removing the Germans from Messines Ridge in Belgium to clear the way for the later assault on Passchendaele, New Zealand soldiers would initially achieve most objectives with minimal losses. German guns would recover, however, and as the New Zealanders were relieved on 9 June many would be killed on their way back from the front.

Single $2.70 'SS Port Kembla' gummed stamp.

A merchant ship carrying war supplies, the SS Port Kembla, was sunk by a German mine just 17 kilometres off Farewell Spit in September 1917. Reports suggested an engine room explosion was responsible, ensuring that New Zealanders were unaware of how close the war had come to their shores.

Single $1.00 'Technology of war' gummed stamp.

Tanks made their first failed appearance on the battlefield in September 1916, but by the time this tank was photographed during the Battle of Messines in 1917, refinements in design were beginning to have some impact. By the end of 1917 tanks were being deployed in great numbers.

Single $1.00 'Plastic surgery' gummed stamp.

During the war New Zealander Harold Gillies, pictured far right, would become a pioneer in facial reconstruction, successfully lobbying for the creation of a specialist facial plastic surgery hospital, The Queen’s Hospital, which opened in Kent in 1917.

Single $1.00 'Passchendaele' gummed stamp.

The deadliest day in New Zealand’s military history, 12 October 1917 saw 845 lives lost at the Belgian village of Passchendaele. Post-war the Tyne Cot Cemetery would memorialise these fallen troops close to where they perished, alongside other sites at Buttes, Polygon Wood and Messines.

Single $2.20 'Social change at home' gummed stamp.

The temperance movement, conscientious objection, mining unrest and shipping strikes all had their day during the First World War. Arguably none had a greater impact on the population at home than six o’clock closing, introduced by temperance supporters as a wartime measure to “retain productivity”.

Single $2.70 'A changing workforce' gummed stamp.

This photo shows the changing nature of New Zealand’s clerical workforce during the late war years. Nearly 60,000 men had left for overseas by 1917, and the country looked to women to fill varied commercial and professional roles left empty, or to ‘keep them warm’ until the men returned.

$15.80
Set of Miniature Sheets Set of two mint, used or cancelled miniature sheets. $15.80
First Day Cover First day cover with ten gummed stamps affixed. $16.30
Set of Miniature Sheet First Day Covers Set of two first day covers with gummed miniature sheets affixed. $16.80
Miniature Sheet Booklet

This book was the fourth in a series of five and expands in depth on the story behind each stamp in this issue as well as supplying a more detailed glimpse of life during the War in 1917. In this commemorative book edition, we followed the story of Ellen Knight and the paths of some of her children abroad and back home. There were also twelve miniature sheets contained within this unique collectable that were not available individually.

Still available to purchase. Click here.

$39.90

Technical information

Date of issue: 5 April 2017
Number of stamps: Ten gummed stamps
Denominations: 6 x $1.00, 2 x $2.20, 2 x $2.70
Designed by: Strategy Design and Advertising, Wellington, New Zealand
Printer and process: Southern Colour Print by offset lithography
Number of colours: Four process colours
Stamp size and format: 36.95mm x 37.5mm (horizontal)
Paper type: Tullis Russell 104gsm red phosphor gummed stamp paper
Number of stamps per sheet: 24
Perforation gauge: 14.4 x 14.62
Special blocks: Plate/imprint blocks could be obtained by purchasing at least six stamps from a sheet. Barcode blocks were available in A and B formats.
Period of sale: These stamps remained on sale until 4 April 2018. First day covers remained on sale until 5 June 2017.