Troops' sea journey saw the destruction of a lethal German ship and the end of a life in sad circumstances.

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Conditions on board the troopship SS Arawa were stifling. Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, the soldier who led the New Zealand assault on Chunuk Bair, reported it was 32C "in the shade" as the converted Shaw Savill ship pushed towards the equator.

For the 59 officers, 1259 soldiers and more than 200 horses on board it was an eventful trip.

The troops, most from the Wellington Infantry Battalion and Mounted Rifles Regiment, had sailed from the capital with the NZ Expeditionary Force in the main convoy of 13 grey-painted transports and two armoured cruisers on October 16, 1914.

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After a lumpy crossing of the Tasman the fleet anchored in Hobart's fine harbour on the 21st and left the next afternoon for Albany in West Australia. The days warmed as the convoy, joined by 26 Australian troopships, headed into the Indian Ocean and towards the war.

Liuetenant Ernest Webb.
Liuetenant Ernest Webb.

It was in the great ocean that New Zealanders had their first brush with the enemy, and played a part in the destruction of the German raider SMS Emden.

Known as the Kaiser's pirate ship, the Imperial German Navy light cruiser under the command of Karl von Muller had caused havoc with Allied shipping.

In September alone, Muller's daring attacks had destroyed 15 Allied merchant vessels and wrecked oil tanks on the Madras waterfront with an onslaught from the Emden's four-inch guns.

The enterprising German even earned favourable headlines with his chivalrous tactic of ordering crew off target ships before scuttling them. Desperate to stop Muller's destructive voyage, the British Admiralty assembled a battle fleet of 60 cruisers and warships to hunt down the swashbuckling captain.

The breakthrough came around 6am on November 9. In the Arawa's wireless room, Private William Falconer, a telegraphist from Eltham, heard a faint distress signal from the Cocos Island, 100km away.

Muller had put ashore a landing party on the strategic British territory to knock out its radio mast.

Before the radio post was captured, an Eastern Telegraph Company signaller sent out an SOS, mentioning that a "strange man of war" was in the harbour. The alert Falconer picked up the call and woke a wireless operator, who got an alarm to convoy escort HMAS Sydney.

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The Australian light cruiser diverted to engage the Emden and put more than 100 shells in the 100m-long warship. A desperate Muller ran his badly holed vessel on to a sandbar as the Sydney kept up a fierce barrage.

Two days later, the pleasure Malone reported on Arawa - "smart and good work" - turned to sadness. Observing British naval tradition crossing the equator, the men had a "King Neptune" ceremony, where soldiers were covered in soap suds and dunked in a pool.

The mood was infectious. Corporal George Bollinger noted in his diary that "the show got out of control and all ranks from Colonel downwards were dunked".

Lieutenant Ernest Webb, a doctor on the transport ship, went one better, climbing up some horse boxes beside the canvas pool and instead of jumping, diving into the water.

The Wairarapa Daily Times said Webb "hit the deck beneath the canvas bath with terrific force, and dislocated his neck".

In the book No Better Death, the diaries and letters of Colonel Malone, the commander recorded Webb was "paralysed from the shoulders down. A really good able fellow. I like him and we often took a walk together. We are all very sad."

The convoy stopped and two doctors from the troopship Maunganui were rowed over but could not help the 32-year-old Dunedin doctor.

On November 15, Arawa reached Colombo and the NZ Medical Corps officer was admitted to hospital. He had surgery but never recovered consciousness. Webb was buried with full military honours in Colombo's General Cemetery. A Punjabi band led the cortege and the Royal Garrison Artillery fired three volleys over his grave.

100 Kiwi stories runs every Monday and Thursday.

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