Enjoying the unseasonal weather yesterday, I took another spin around Brocton Field on Cannock Chase before heading out to Blithfield Reservoir. I’ve been idly looking for an oddly English monument for some time, but in the way of things I sometimes do, I resolved to discover it by chance, rather than look it up on a map or consult the internet. I came upon it quite accidentally just near Coppice Hill.
Freda’s Grave is the memorial to the much-loved Dalmatian mascot of the New Zealand Rifles, stationed at Brocton during the First World War. I’ll leave it to New Zealand History Online to tell the story, it’s heart wrenching.
Freda, the Dalmatian mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, was stationed with the Brigade at Cannock Chase, near Brocton in England. The 5 (Reserve) Battalion had been at Brocton since September 1917, and Freda was probably acquired there.
Another story is that Freda was picked up and adopted as the brigade mascot in France, accompanying the unit back to Cannock Chase in 1918. According to a local historian, Freda had provided warmth and companionship to New Zealand soldiers amidst the death and destruction of the Western Front battlefields.
While this story may not be true, the men in camp faced an equally dangerous enemy when the global influenza pandemic arrived in October 1918. The Cannock Chase War Cemetery is now the resting place for about 50 members of the brigade who ‘died of disease’ between late October and late November 1918. Freda also died about this time and was buried at Cannock Chase. Members of the brigade erected a headstone in her memory.
For the next 20 years, townspeople of nearby Brereton kept Freda’s grave tidy, laying crosses and flowers each year. After it was vandalised, the Friends of Cannock Chase laid a new marble headstone in her honour in 1964. The headstone was renewed again in 2001, and the grave remains a feature of historical tours. In 2010 Freda inspired the community’s Armistice Day activities. Working dogs and their owners were invited to a special service at her grave to celebrate the loyalty and service of such dogs.
Freda’s collar was returned to New Zealand and is held at the Army Museum at Waiouru.
I make no apologies for banging on about two of my favourite subjects again – Cannock Chase and local history. This is an epic, barren, cinematic landscape, laden with an often troubled history. This land gives up it’s knowledge and secrets gradually. Over the years I’ve been exploring here, I still don’t feel I know enough about this place. For instance, how many realise that at the time of the army encampments, POW huts and latterly RAF Hednesford, there were virtually no trees on the Chase at all? The woodlands and plantations were only replanted by the Forrestry Commission after the war.
Please, if you’ve never been, do go. This is the ideal season and it’s a gorgeous place, full of surprises and stunning, wild beauty.