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.

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

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.

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