World War I: The Kiwi story
How the 1914-18 conflict unfolded in words and historic photos.
World War I, 1914–18
‘ When New Zealanders went to war, they were ignorant of its causes and innocent of its meaning.’
After decades of simmering tensions, conflicting national interests and a complex network of rival alliances, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became the spark that set Europe ablaze and the world at war.
New Zealand, as a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically committed to war and embraced the war effort.
Young men enthusiastically joined up to fight for King and Empire, with 14,000 volunteering in the first week. Most troops were confident the war would soon be over and they would be ‘home by Christmas’.
New Zealand’s population in 1914 was just over 1,000,000.
103,000 New Zealand soldiers served overseas.
2227 Māori served overseas.
550 nurses served overseas.
1000-plus Pacific peoples served overseas with contingents from the Cook Islands and Niue. All were volunteers.
28 New Zealand soldiers were court-martialled and sentenced to death, with five executed. In September 2000, all five men received posthumous pardons.
Before 1914, all young men had compulsory military training in New Zealand’s Territorial Force. The eligible age for service was 20–40 years old.
In 1916, conscription by monthly ballot was introduced. In total 19,548 conscripts served overseas.
Other specialist units included the NZ Engineers, NZ Machine Gun Corps, NZ Pioneer (Maori) Battalion, NZ Tunnelling Company, NZ Medical Corps, NZ Veterinary Corps, Camel Corps, and NZ Cyclists’ Corps.
‘ If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are, I know where they are, They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.’
The infantry formed the backbone of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), and more than half of all New Zealanders served in infantry units.
Infantrymen fought on foot, leaving the relative safety of the trenches to go ‘over the top’ in frontal attacks against entrenched enemy positions. Fighting was at close-quarters with weapons such as rifles and bayonets, with other units in support. Casualties were consistently heavy.
By 1917, the infantry was drawn from the four military districts of Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.
‘All through the long night those big guns flashed and growled’.
The artillery was the second-largest component of the NZEF after the infantry. Artillery units used wheeled cannons, known as field guns or howitzers, against enemy forces and fortifications, and to clear obstacles such as barbed wire so the infantry could advance.
Guns and ammunition were transported to gun positions using horses and mules.
High-explosive and shrapnel shells dominated World War I battlefields. Prolonged barrages shook men’s nerves. Constant concussions and the fear of being blown to pieces, shattered by shell fragments or buried alive were realities soldiers had to face.
‘ There is no romance about war, it spells suffering, hunger, and filth, and how thankful I am every day that I came to do what I could to help and relieve our brave boys.’
Five hundred and fifty nurses served in New Zealand units during World War I. Some New Zealand women served in other Imperial nursing units.
During the Gallipoli campaign they worked on hospital ships the Maheno and Marama. Ten nurses died on 23 October 1915 when the British transport Marquette was torpedoed and sank in the Aegean Sea.
On the Western Front they served in stationary hospitals, often quite close to the Front. Although officially prohibited from serving at the Front, many nurses came very close to the bullets and the shells.
13 New Zealand nurses were killed in the war.
On the Sea and in the Air
About 500 New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy during the war, as New Zealand did not have its own navy.
A gift from the New Zealand people, the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand operated within the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. HMS New Zealand took part in the Battle of Heligoland Bight, August 1914; the Battle of Dogger Bank, January 1915; and the Battle of Jutland, May 1916.
Aeroplanes were new technology in 1915. Their usefulness in
war quickly became apparent, first for aerial observation of the battlefields and later for warfare. Flying schools at Ōrākei and Canterbury trained New Zealand aviators who went on to serve in the Royal Air Force.
76 New Zealand pilots were killed in the war.
Te Hokowhitu a Tū: The First Maori Contingent
In total, 2227 Māori served with the New Zealand forces. This was the first time a Māori contigent served with the New Zealand Army in a major conflict.
They took part in the Gallipoli Campaign and later formed the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion and served with distinction on the Western Front.
In March 1919, they were the only battalion of the NZEF to return to New Zealand as a complete unit. As such, they received a rousing welcome with parades and receptions throughout the country.
336 members of the Pioneer Battalion died on active service and 734 were wounded.
Niue and the Cook Islands offered men for the NZEF as soon as news of war reached the Pacific. They served on the Western Front and in the Middle East. Individual men from Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu also served with the NZEF.
Pacific soldiers faced many difficulties during the war. Most spoke no English and many struggled to adjust to the army diet and wearing boots. The greatest danger, though, was European diseases, especially in the cold climate of northern France.
Of the more than 1000 Pacific soldiers who served, 42 died in service.
‘Many years before the war of 1914–18, I had reached the point of view that war – all war – was wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.’
While most New Zealanders supported their country’s participation in World War I, a small but significant group opposed it on religious, political, philosophical or personal grounds. In 1916, conscription was introduced, forcing balloted men to serve.
Some 600 men declared conscientious objections. Around 286 were imprisoned in New Zealand as an example to other would-be objectors. Others accepted non-combatant service or were exempt.
Fourteen imprisoned objectors were forcibly dispatched overseas in July 1917, with some transported to the Western Front and subjected to military punishments and incarceration.
The Animals of War
Donkeys were used to carry water and supplies in the harsh terrain of Gallipoli with its steep hills and stony ground.
Horace Moore-Jones’s iconic painting encapsulates the spirit of Anzac.
Ten thousand New Zealand horses went to war, but most never returned. Bess (top right), who served in the Middle East and France, was one of the few who made it home.
Dogs were used on the battlefields to run messages and act as patrol dogs. Caesar the bulldog was the official mascot of 4th Battalion (A company) New Zealand Rifle Brigade. He helped find wounded soldiers in the field. Sadly, Caesar was killed in action in 1916.
Women made a vital contribution to New Zealand’s war effort in munitions and uniform factories. By 1916, they were filling gaps in many professions, including the public service, banking and clerical occupations, and on farms.
Knitting was an essential task – a pair of socks lasted only two months on the Western Front – as was making other comforts.
Through patriotic societies they raised nearly £6.5 million for European relief funds.
Children and schools also wrote letters and sent care packages, with 24,000 parcels a month sent to troops.
Brothers in Arms
‘I prayed so hard that you might both come back to me … but it is a hard task to be a mother of soldiers.’
Mrs Knight’s three elder sons went away to war, and not one of them returned. This field of crosses remembers the families who suffered multiple losses.
696 families lost more than one child.
51 families lost three sons; one lost two sons and a daughter.
9 families lost four brothers.
18 sets of brothers died on the same day.
The sense that the conflict would be short lived and ‘over by Christmas’ was reinforced by New Zealand’s first engagement in World War I.
In August 1914, the Advance Party of the Samoa Expeditionary Force seized a wireless station in the German colony of Sāmoa. The small German garrison was hugely outnumbered and surrendered without any resistance.
At the same time, Japan sided with the Allies and declared war on Germany – this helped to ensure Allied naval domination of the Pacific.
The Gallipoli Peninsula is in modern-day Turkey but in 1915 it
was part of the Ottoman Empire who were fighting alongside Germany. Britain and its Allies devised a plan to land forces at Gallipoli, move inland and take the capital Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was hoped this would ease pressure on the Western Front.
On Sunday 25 April 1915, Australian and New Zealand troops came ashore on a narrow beach overlooked by steep, heavily defended hills. Anzac Cove was to be fiercely defended for eight months. But with no significant advances, Gallipoli was evacuated in December 1915.
2779 New Zealanders lost their lives in the Gallipoli Campaign.
The Murphy Brothers
Battle of Chunuk Bair, August 1915
The Gallipoli Campaign had stalled. In an attempt to break the stalemate, a major offensive was mounted. On 8 August 1915, the New Zealand infantry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, eventually occupied the summit of Chunuk Bair. With the help of other Allied units, they held it for two days.
849 New Zealanders lost their lives at Chunuk Bair – their names are listed on the Chunuk Bair Memorial.
Michael and Richard Murphy came from Taranaki. Mick was a self-employed contractor and Dick a farmer. They enlisted in August 1914 and, taking their horses with them, served in the Wellington Mounted Rifles.
Michael and Richard were both killed on 9 August 1915. A third brother Paddy died of illness in England in 1917.
The Middle East
‘We were just about a forgotten unit on a forgotten front.’
From 1916 to 1918, New Zealanders fought in the Middle East. They fought on horse and camel in the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade as part of an Anzac Mounted Division within the British Imperial Camel Corps. Mounted riflemen rode to the scene of a battle on horses before going into action as regular infantrymen.
The Turkish advance on the Suez Canal was stopped and the enemy was gradually pushed into the Sinai Desert towards the Palestine frontier in a series of decisive raids in which the New Zealanders and Australians played a major part.
This war ended on the road to Damascus in 1918.
640 New Zealanders lost their lives in the Middle East Campaign.
The Western Front
‘Pity for the tired men, Up the line and down again – Tramping where their comrades fell. Flotsam on the fringe of hell.’
After the evacuation of Gallipoli, the New Zealand Division was established as a unit separate from the Australian Division. Major General Sir Andrew Russell, KCMG, commanded the Kiwis.
After training at Sling Camp in England, the New Zealand Division travelled to France in April 1916 and began fighting on the Western Front.
This Front consisted of parallel lines of German and Allied trenches stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Between the lines was no-man’s land, exposed to artillery and machine-gun fire and protected by barbed wire.
More New Zealanders died in Europe between 1916 and 1918 than in the six years of World War II.
The Somme, 1916
On 1 July 1916, British and French forces launched an offensive which would become known as the Battle of the Somme – it lasted for 141 days. The first day of the battle is regarded as one of the bloodiest days of the war.
The Somme saw technological innovations such as the growing size and accuracy of artillery, and chemical and aerial warfare.
New Zealand entered the conflict on 15 September in the Battle of Flers–Courcelette, during which armoured tanks were used for the first time.
603 New Zealanders lost their lives at the Somme on 15 September 1916.
The New Zealand Division continued fighting for 23 consecutive days. By the time they withdrew, there were 8000 New Zealand casualties with over 2000 dead.
The Bogle Brothers
Battle of the Flers-Corcette, 15-16 September 1916
Captain-Surgeon Gilbert Vere Bogle was the second of James and Annie Bogle’s three sons to die in World War I. As the Regimental Medical Officer attached to the 1st Battalion, 3rd New Zealand Rifle he established an aid station near Flers and organised dressing and evacuation of the wounded. He worked ceaselessly in the open under continual shellfire for 36 hours without rest until he was killed by a shell on 17 September.
Gilbert was Mentioned in Dispatches for special devotion to duty.
As the local doctor in Waipukurau he was not just respected – he was ‘beloved’.
12 October Passchendaele New Zealand’s darkest day
The New Zealand Division spent most of 1917 in the deadly battlefields of the Ypres (Ieper) Salient in Flanders, Belgium. They were involved in three major battles:
The Battle of Messines, 7 June 1917
The Battle of Broodseinde, 4 October 1917
The Battle of Passchendaele, 12 October 1917
Over 846 New Zealanders lost their lives at Passchendaele.
Driving rain and artillery had turned the terrain into a shattered landscape of mud and shell craters. Helpless soldiers were mown down by machine-gun fire, artillery and mustard gas. Casualties were horrific – 12 October remains the New Zealand Army’s darkest day.
The Hamblyn Brothers
‘There are many homes where sorrow is a visitor, and to most people the sound of the doorbell is a fearsome thing.’
The Battle of Messines, June 1917
Messines was the first big Allied push of 1917. Meticulously planned, the action started on 7 June with the detonation of huge underground mines that apparently rattled teacups in London.
The battle was considered a great victory. Newspapers described it as the ‘biggest and boldest attack of the war’ but casualties were high.
700 New Zealanders were killed at Messines, with 3700 casualties.
The Hamblyn family suffered immense loss, Thomas and William were killed on the same day, 8 June 1917, at the Battle of Messines. In all, four of the seven brothers were killed in action on the Western Front.
The Newlove Brothers
Battle of Passchendaele, October 1917
Many New Zealand families suffered multiple tragedies at Passchendaele. The 1176 names on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery include at least six sets of brothers.
Among them are the three Newlove brothers who were all killed within eight days of each other.
From Tākaka in Golden Bay, the Newlove family had eight boys.
Charles went missing during the 4 October attack at Gravenstafel Spur. Edwin and Leslie were killed at Bellevue Spur, on 12 October 1917, New Zealand’s darkest day.
The Somme, 1918
In March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive which saw all the hard-won gains of 1917 overrun. New Zealand troops rushed to hold the line around Mailly-Maillet, repelling a series of German attacks.
500 New Zealanders lost their lives in these actions, with some 2400 casualties.
In the week before the end of the war, New Zealanders were fighting in Northern France. Their last major action was the liberation of the medieval fortress town of Le Quesnoy.
Telegrams of the New Zealand losses at Le Quesnoy were received after Armistice had been celebrated – devastating news so close to the end.
The Pity of War
‘ They have poured out their blood like water…’
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice was signed. The war was over.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
After the Armistice
From December 1918 until March 1919, New Zealanders took part
in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland and were stationed
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles peace agreement was signed on 28 June 1919 by Germany and the Allied Powers. Prime Minister William Massey signed for New Zealand. There were some harsh penalties imposed on Germany; some claim these contributed to the next war.
New Zealand troops were held at Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, where in March 1919 they rioted over delays to returning home. Transport issues and the influenza pandemic meant that the last group of New Zealand soldiers did not arrive home until May 1920.
The Legacy of War
‘Almost a generation of the best men were wiped out.’
World War I claimed the lives of some 16 million people in a conflict that engulfed much of the world. New Zealand’s per capita losses were higher than any of the other dominions.
Those who returned were scarred physically through wounds, amputations, blindness and the terrible effects of gas. They also suffered emotionally and mentally. Many found it impossible to talk about what the war was like.
The RSA provided comradeship and practical assistance to the returned soldiers.
E kore rātou e kaumātuatia
Pēnei i a tātou kua mahue nei
E kore hoki rātou e ngoikore
Ahakoa pehea i ngā āhuatanga o te wā I te hekenga atu o te rā
Tae noa ki te arangamai i te ata
Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them
We will remember them
This presentation was prepared by the Fields of Remembrance Trust, made up of the Passchendaele Society, the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association New Zealand and the Auckland RSA. It was formed in 2012 to "honour those who served and fought for our nation" during WWI. The trust has ensured that every one of the 18,277 New Zealanders who died during the war will be remembered from October 20 to November 20 with a named cross at Auckland Domain.