By Brett Kennedy
A WORLD War 1 field gun has been removed from Vansittart Park to undergo just its second restoration in over 100 years since it was captured in France during the height of battle.
The German-made 1917 Krupp 77mm field gun was removed from its parkland rotunda on Tuesday with the $20,000 project funded by Mount Gambier City Council.
Mount Gambier man Murray Langford will complete the restoration, three decades since he last refurbished the weapon following a seven-year campaign to retain it in the city as a public asset.
Captured by Australian forces at Warfusee Abancourt near Amiens, France on August 8, 1918, the war relic was donated to Adelaide City Council before being gifted to the Blue Lake city in 1920 following a concerted push from City Council.
Originally placed in the Cave Gardens, the gun was later moved to Vansittart Park where it remained for six decades before its deteriorating condition became hazardous, with City Council advertising the historical artefact for sale in September 1984.
It triggered a strong response from the Mount Gambier Veteran and Vintage Car Club – led by president Mr Langford at the time – publicly expressing disappointment over the “hasty” decision and offering to complete a full restoration at no cost to council.
“At the time it was to be sold back in 1984, kids would ride their bikes down or walk down and I think every child in Mount Gambier played on it so it meant something to the people,” Mr Langford said.
“It’s not quite the same today because kids have other things to play on but there are still a lot of people who remember it as a child and now take their kids down to play on it,” he said.
“It is also one of the very few things we have here in the Mount to remind us of World War I and the people we lost in that war.
“We thought it was really important to have it there as a memento of the sacrifice that was made.”
After taking possession of the gun in late 1984, the car club faced a difficult seven-year campaign to fundraise for the project, struggling to cover the estimated $15,000 restoration.
Undeterred by several setbacks, Mr Langford continued to champion the project and through community donations totaling $6000 and more than 2300 hours of donated labour, the gun was returned to Vansittart Park on November 3, 1991 in a new purpose-built rotunda.
“We had people from the Australian War Memorial visit at the time who said it was the best Krupp field gun restoration they had seen in the country outside those in their museum,” Mr Langford said.
Mr Langford said while the restoration would be “not quite the same” this time around, he was relieved project funding had been secured, eliminating many of the obstacles experienced in the 1980s.
Mount Gambier Community RSL president Bob Sandow said Murray Langford had been pivotal in ensuring the war relic remained in ownership of the people of Mount Gambier.
“We owe the restoration of that gun to Murray’s foresight and vision,” Mr Sandow.
“These things have been earned by somebody’s blood and tears,” he said.
Council building maintenance coordinator Trevor Pettingill expected the restoration to take a minimum of eight weeks, with the refurbished gun to be returned to the rotunda, which also houses a French mortar.
“We’ve had it now since the early 1920s – I actually remember as a kid myself – we don’t want to lose that history,” Mr Pettingill said.
He urged the community to treat the war relic with the respect it deserves upon its return.
“You can’t lock it behind doors, we hope the community looks after it.”
HISTORY OF THE “PARK GUN”
1917 – German weapons manufacturer Krupp builds the 77mm field gun.
August 8, 1918 – The Australian Imperial Force 27th Battalion captures the gun at Warfusee Abancourt near Amiens, France. It is shipped to Australia aboard the SS Boral and gifted to Adelaide City Council.
1920 – The gun is donated by Adelaide City Council to Mount Gambier City Council and it is placed in the Cave Gardens. It is later moved to Vansittart Park where its condition slowly deteriorates over six decades.
September 1984 – After removing the gun from Vansittart Park due to safety concerns regarding its condition, Mount Gambier City Council advertises the war relic for sale.
October 1984 – The Mount Gambier Veteran and Vintage Car Club makes a pitch to save the gun, offering to provide all materials, costs and labour associated with a restoration.
November 1984 – City Council agrees to the car club’s restoration proposal, with work starting in 1985.
April 1985 – The club establishes a project funding committee. The Mount Gambier Community RSL ($500) and council ($300) are among the first contributors.
May 1985 – The car club and RSL disagree over whether a council-led public appeal should be established, with the car club calling for a “personal approach”.
August 26, 1986 – The car club “desperately” requests $20,000 from the Australian Bicentennial Authority for the restoration and to construct a shelter to house the relic. The request is denied in October 1986.
March 2, 1987 – Mount Gambier Mayor Don McDonnell launches a public appeal to raise $15,000 for the project.
April 1987 – The Australia Army 27th Battalion donates $200 towards the restoration.
May 1991 – Council announces it will build a $40,000 rotunda to house the war relic at Vansittart Park.
November 3, 1991 – Two draught horses are used to move the war relic into place at Vansittart Park in a public ceremony.
March 21, 2013 – A heavy storm displaces a tree, which falls on the rotunda and dislodges the roof, causing minor damage to the field gun’s armour.
February 23, 2021 – The field gun is removed from Vansittart Park for restoration.