Great effort from a small nation
WWI: 100 YEARS ON New Zealand might not have been prepared for the full enormity of the Great War, but it had done its best, as Bill O’Byrne reports.
New Zealand was ready for war in 1914.
It just wasn’t ready for the war that it got.
‘‘But then no country in 1914 was really prepared for the type of war they got,’’ says military historian Glyn Harper.
Harper, the professor of war studies at Massey University, and a former officer in both the Australian and New Zealand armies, says due to compulsory military training, New Zealand had about 25,000 men trained to various levels to call upon.
‘‘But we were more prepared for a Boer War type of colonial policing action than a long, drawn out total war that happened,’’ he says.
‘‘Everyone makes their military plans based on their last war, and the Boer War (1899-1902) had been a police action which suited our people and there had been relatively few casualties.’’
New Zealand sent about 6000 men to the Boer war and of those 69 died in combat, with more dying from accidents and illness, mainly enteric fever, also known as typhoid. So the expectation was of something as low key and limited.
In the first two months of World War I, France, Russia and Germany suffered a million casualties.
‘‘The person who came closest [to realising how bad things were going to get] was actually [former British Boer War commander] Lord Kitchener, who was the War Secretary. In 1914 he was saying, ‘this isn’t going to be easy and we should be preparing for a long, protracted war lasting three or four years’,’’ Harper says.
‘‘People were quite astounded by that but he was proved to be right.’’
Getting men ready for battle had been a bit of a tradition in New Zealand.
European settlers had a history of forming militias from the 1840s, with many towns having one as protection against perceived Maori threats.
During the 1880s came the fear of Russian naval intrusions.
That may have been unlikely, but New Zealand put a lot of resources into coastal forts, such as Fort Dorset in Wellington, to repel Russian warships.
There was also a tradition of putting on a uniform and marching around town to impress the women, but it all took a more formal turn in 1909 when compulsory military training was introduced as part of an empire-wide preparation for possible war.
In 1910, British Major General Alexander Godley arrived as commandant of the New Zealand Military Forces. He and his staff were out to create a modern army.
Harper said officer training had been particularly ad hoc. This was about to change.
Traditionally, the volunteers who made up the New Zealand military bodies voted for their officers, which meant the voting soldiery could be swayed less by the military nous of a potential officer, and more by their willingness to put on the occasional cask of ale.
‘‘Officer training was also classbound, in that the people appointed tended to be from the middle classes or the professions and teachers,’’ Harper says.
‘‘There was an examination system, and while it was ad hoc, it had improved from the volunteer system when units could elect their officers. So they had some training but nothing near what they actually needed.’’
With the emphasis on increased professionalism, New Zealand sent some officers to Australia’s Royal Military College, Duntroon, near Canberra for training. That opened in 1911 and it was a three-year course.
The first intake went straight to Gallipoli before they were officially finished.
The need to mobilise and house large numbers of men was a challenge to the rapidly growing army.
The territorials did a two-week camp at a temporary location that could handle a short term influx of men and horses.
That system wouldn’t work for men camped in one spot for months at a time.
‘‘[When war broke out] we had no large training camps. Trentham soon became overcrowded and was a major health hazard with several outbreaks of infectious disease, including meningitis, which proved fatal for some people in 1915.
‘‘So we had to set up other camps and regular training systems for our soldiers, and that took some time.’’
Featherston Camp in the Wairarapa was New Zealand’s largest, with nearly 60,000 men passing through it.
About 79 per cent of the initial troops sent overseas had received some training in New Zealand, a good result considering the rapid changes in 1914.
‘‘The speed of the mobilisation reflects Godley’s administrative ability,’’ Harper says.
‘‘They sent two large bodies of men overseas in 1914 – one to Samoa very quickly, which was nearly 2000 men and equipment, and then there was the main body which was nearly 8500 and nearly 4000 horses.
‘‘Some people say that would be the equivalent of Britain sending about 400,000 men, so it was an incredible achievement.
‘‘[However] the ones that went away in 1914 had inconsistent training . . . some of them would have had quite a bit of training and been regular attendees of annual camps and part of the territorial force; some had been out of the territorials for some time, and some had no training whatsoever.
‘‘But as the war progressed we set up military camps around the country. . . The training lasted several months and was very solid.’’
Harper says a constant flow of experienced troops came back to New Zealand to train reinforcements in the latest tactics.
He said the personal kit they received was satisfactory, but while their woollen uniforms might have been OK for the Western Front, they were very uncomfortable in the heat of Egypt and Gallipoli.
Their boots, called Bill Masseys after the prime minister of the day, were heavy, hobnail boots that needed a lot of breaking in and blisters were common but the boots lasted well.
As for personal weaponry, the standard issue Long Tom .303 which New Zealand bought secondhand from Canada was already dated and was largely replaced during the Gallipoli campaign.
Waiting for orders: The Wellington Contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force has dinner while in camp at Awapuni Racecourse, Palmerston North, awaiting its dispatch to foreign fields.
Real achievement: War historian Glyn Harper says aspects of New Zealand’s mobilisation for the war were incredible.