Military history of New Zealand in World War I
When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of the First World War, the New Zealand government followed without hesitation, despite its geographic isolation and small population. It was believed at the time that any declaration of war by the United Kingdom automatically included New Zealand.
The total number of New Zealand troops and nurses to serve overseas in 1914–1918, excluding those in British and other Dominion forces, was 100,444, from a population of just over a million. Forty-two percent of men of military age served in the NZEF. 16,697 New Zealanders were killed and 41,317 were wounded during the war – a 58 percent casualty rate.1 Approximately a further thousand men died within five years of the war's end, as a result of injuries sustained, and 507 died while training in New Zealand between 1914 and 1918. New Zealand had one of the highest casualty and death rate per capita of any country involved in the war (Serbia suffered even higher per capita losses)citation needed.
The First World War saw Māori soldiers serve for the first time in a major conflict with the New Zealand Army (although a number had fought in the Second Boer War when New Zealand recruiters chose to ignore British military policy of the time of disallowing 'native' soldiers). A contingent took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, and later served with distinction on the Western Front as part of the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion. 2688 Māori and 346 Pacific islanders -including 150 Niueans2- served with New Zealand forces in total.
New Zealand's first act of the war, in August 1914, was to send an expeditionary force to seize and occupy German Samoa. On 6 August 1914, the British government indicated that it would be "a great and urgent Imperial service" if New Zealand forces seized Samoa, so a mixed force of 1,413 men plus six nursing sisters sailed on the 15th and, after stopping in Fiji to collect some guides and interpreters as well as additional escort ships, landed at Apia on the 29th. Although Germany refused to officially surrender the islands, no resistance was offered and the occupation took place without any fighting. However the first German territory to be occupied in the name of King George V was not German Samoa but Togoland in West Africa four days earlier. Interestingly, this action was supported and covered by the Japanese Navy.
As early as October 1914 the New Zealand Expeditionary Force sailed from Wellington. Diverted from their original destination in Europe, the New Zealanders were landed in Egypt, where they helped repulse a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915.
The New Zealand volunteer soldiers remained encamped in Egypt, alongside their Australian comrades, undergoing training prior to being sent to France.
On 25 April 1915, as part of the New Zealand and Australian Division, the New Zealanders landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and fought in the Gallipoli Campaign under the command of British General Alexander Godley. The combined British Empire and French operation was mounted in order to eventually capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Because of a navigational error, the Anzacs came ashore about a mile north of the intended landing point in their initial landing. Instead of facing the expected beach and gentle slope they found themselves at the bottom of steep cliffs, offering the few Turkish defenders an ideal defensive position. Establishing a foothold, the Anzacs found an advance to be impossible. On 30 April 1915, when the first news of the landing reached New Zealand a half-day holiday was declared and impromptu services were held – the origin of the commemorative public holiday, ANZAC Day, recognised by New Zealand and Australia and held each year on 25 April.
Despite the blunder at Anzac Cove, the New Zealand soldiers fought valiantly throughout the campaign but it was a failed venture overall. The estimated casualties on both sides were 392,000 of whom 131,000 were killed, with New Zealand casualties of 2,721 dead and 4,852 wounded. The Allied forces eventually evacuated in December 1915 and early January 1916. The significance of the Gallipoli Campaign was strongly felt in New Zealand (and Australia) where it was the first great conflict experienced by the fledgling nation. Before Gallipoli the citizens of New Zealand were confident of the superiority of the British Empire and were proud and eager to offer their service. The campaign in Gallipoli shook that confidence.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade (less two battalions) had meanwhile reached Egypt in November 1915 and was sent into the Egyptian desert to help defeat a Senussi invasion from Libya. The 1st Battalion fought two brisk but inexpensive actions south-west of Matruh as part of a mixed force (including British, Australians, and Indians), one on Christmas Day, the other on 23 January 1916. Both were successful and broke the back of the invasion. In mid-February the 1st Battalion rejoined the rest of the brigade at Moascar in the Suez Canal area.
In Egypt, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was reorganised into the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and the New Zealand Division (infantry). Reinforcements from New Zealand replaced the Australian component of the Division, which embarked for France in April 1916. The New Zealand Mounted Brigade, 147 officers and 2,897 other ranks, remained in Egypt as part of the Anzac Mounted Division. In April 1916, it was deployed to the Sinai Peninsula where it took part in the ultimately successful Sinai and Palestine Campaign against the Turks. New Zealanders fought in most of the battles leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Ottoman Army, and were praised for their fighting alongside their Australian and British comrades. In 1919, Field Marshal Sir Edmund Allenby, said this of the New Zealand soldiers in the Sinai campaign;
- "Nothing daunted these intrepid fighters: to them nothing was impossible."
A total of 17,723 New Zealanders served in this campaign and New Zealand casualties were 640 killed in action and 1,146 wounded.
While in England – either freshly arrived from New Zealand or having already served at Gallipoli and awaiting transfer to the western front New Zealand troops were stationed at Sling Camp, an annexe of Bulford Camp in Wiltshire. The troops who were still stationed at the camp at the end of the War created the giant chalk kiwi known as the Bulford Kiwi whilst waiting to be repatriated.
In France, the New Zealand Division settled in on the stalemated Western Front and their first major trial was during the Battle of the Somme. It took part in the Fourth Army's attack on 15 September, under the command of the British XV Corps. By the time they were relieved on 4 October, the New Zealanders had advanced three kilometres and captured eight kilometres of enemy front line. 7,048 had become casualties, of whom 1,560 were killed.
In June 1917, the New Zealand Division further distinguished itself in the storming of Messines Ridge and the capture of the village of Messines. On 7 June, after the detonation of nearly 500 tons of explosives in huge mines on both sides of the New Zealand sector, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades scrambled over the top, in and out of shell holes, and up the battered slopes. Carrying the German front line and supports, they were soon into the ruined village. The 1st Brigade passed through, helped on the left by a solitary tank, to the final objective. With prisoners and booty including many guns it was a striking success at no great cost; but the German artillery revived and by the time the Division was relieved on 9 and 10 June it had lost 3,700 men, evenly distributed between the three brigades.
The New Zealand Division's next major engagement was at Passchendaele in October 1917. The Division had been training since the end of August to overcome the numerous concrete pillboxes in this sector. The first objective was the Gravenstafel Spur, attacked before dawn on 4 October, as part of a major advance. The 1st and 4th Brigades forestalled a heavy German counter-attack, and the supporting artillery barrage inflicted frightful slaughter on the waiting Germans. Crossing this scene of carnage, the 1st and 4th Brigades gained their objectives after a hard fight, inflicting exceptionally heavy loss on the enemy and capturing much equipment. For such a resounding success the 1,700 New Zealand casualties, though a sad loss, did not in current terms seem excessive. But heavy rain turned the countryside into a bog and tragedy lay ahead.
A British attack on the ninth on Bellevue Spur and part of the main Passchendaele ridge gained a little ground at prohibitive cost. Heavy swathes of barbed wire still girdled the hillside, however, and belated and meagre heavy artillery made no impression on them, nor on the many pillboxes beyond. New Zealand gunners slaved to breaking point to get only a few guns and howitzers forward, but stable platforms and accurate fire were unattainable.
The Division returned to the attack on 12 October, with the 2nd and 3rd Brigades. There was little to encourage the men as they waited overnight in a morass under steady rain. Shelled in their assembly area, some were shelled again by their own guns when the thin barrage opened at 5.25 a.m., and then they led off into a deluge of small-arms fire, speckled with geyser-like eruptions as shells exploded in the mud. Worst of all was the wire, covered with deadly fire, its few gaps deliberate deathtraps. Some men tried to crawl under it, some threw themselves at it, two got right through and were killed in the act of hurling grenades at the loopholes of the nearest pillbox. The left gained 500 yards of slippery slope, the centre 200 heartbreaking yards, the right nothing until the 80-odd occupants of two blockhouses and a trench used up all their ammunition. Then they were captured, blockhouses and all, by two brave and skilful men, sole survivors of two Otago platoons.
For these small gains, the New Zealanders suffered 640 dead and 2,100 wounded. For the first time the Division had failed in a major operation. After this failure, the Division continued to hold a sector of the line. The steady drain of men while units only held the line was less spectacular, though it made up half the losses of the Division. Here, before withdrawing from the front, 400 more men were lost in the 4th Brigade alone.
The Division now had four brigades, making it one of the largest on the Western Front, and was stationed in the Polygon Wood area. An attack by the 2nd Brigade on 3 December 1917 gained useful ground but failed to capture Polderhoek Chateau. When the Division was relieved, on 24 February 1918, three "quiet" months had cost 3,000 men, more than 1,873 of them killed.
As the Germans launched their great Spring Offensive of 1918, the New Zealand Division was rushed to stem a breakthrough in the First Battle of the Somme, which threatened Amiens. The gap was between the British IV and V Corps in the Ancre Valley. After confused fighting, the New Zealanders eventually gained the upper hand and soon were counter-attacking advantageous land, stabilising the British line. Later in the year, they excelled in the open country fighting that was brought about by the Allied counter-offensive.
In their last action of the war, the Division captured the ancient fortress (Vauban-designed) town of Le Quesnoy in a daring assault on 4 November 1918. The day proved to be the Division's most successful of their whole time on the Western Front as they pushed east and advanced ten kilometres, capturing 2,000 German soldiers and 60 field guns. The town occupied a strategic position in north-eastern France and had been held by the Germans since 1914. Although with no specific orders indicating that the town need to be captured with any haste, the New Zealand soldiers were determined to and just before midday the first New Zealand troops reached the outer walls and scaled them with ladders. Propping the ladders against the precariously narrow inner walls, sections of one New Zealand battalion ascended the walls and engaged in hand to hand fighting with fleeing German defenders. The few thousand strong German garrison surrendered soon after New Zealand soldiers entered the town itself.
The infantry were relieved on the eastern side of the forest at midnight on 5–6 November and the war ended five days later. The Division left the Third Army on 28 November, and marched through Belgium, to entrain at the German frontier for Cologne and take up billets in neighbouring towns as part of the army of occupation. Demobilisation soon started and at Mülheim near Cologne the Division was finally disbanded on 25 March 1919.
The cost of maintaining the Division for two and a half years on the Western Front was appalling. Altogether some 13,250 New Zealanders died of wounds or sickness as a direct result of this campaign, including 50 as prisoners of war and more than 700 at home. Another 35,000 were wounded, and 414 prisoners of war were ultimately repatriated. The total casualties therefrom approached 50,000, well over half the number of those who served in France or Belgium.
New Zealand also contributed to the war at sea. The New Zealand Naval Forces was a Division of the Royal Navy. Immediately after the start of the war, the cruiser HMS Philomel, loaned to New Zealand as a training ship, was augmented with 70 New Zealand reservists and sailed with two Royal Navy cruisers to escort the New Zealand troops sent to occupy German Samoa. Later in 1914 these three ships also escorted the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt.
From January 1915, Philomel patrolled the Gulf of Alexandretta in the Eastern Mediterranean, supporting several landings and sustaining three fatal casualties, one being the first New Zealander killed in action in the war. She also took part in the defence of the Suez Canal, operations in the Gulf of Aden and patrols in the Persian Gulf. Although refitting from time to time at Malta or Bombay kept her seaworthy, age eventually forced her out of the war and in March 1917 she returned to Wellington for a major overhaul. In June 1917, a German raider laid minefields in New Zealand waters, causing the loss of a merchant ship off Farewell Spit and another off Three Kings Islands. Two fishing trawlers, the Nora Niven and Simplon, were fitted as minesweepers and took up sweeping duties in these areas.
New Zealand was not subject to any significant direct military threat during the war. Although Germany had plans for naval raids on Australia and New Zealand, the threat from her Asiatic Squadron did not eventuate, as that force moved across the Pacific before being destroyed at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. One surface raider, SMS Wolf (auxiliary cruiser), entered New Zealand waters and laid two small minefields and sank two ships. Another brief flurry of activity occurred when Felix von Luckner, imprisoned on Motuihe Island after being captured in the Society Islands, escaped and commandered a small vessel before being recaptured in the Kermadec Islands.
New Zealand also contributed a wireless troop to the Mesopotamian Campaign. The Wireless Troop was formed in New Zealand and arrived at Basra in April 1916. In Mesopotamia the New Zealand troop was amalgamated with the 1st Australian Wireless Signal Squadron, forming "C" Wireless Troop of the Anzac Squadron. The troop was much affected by disease, but once in operation was attached to the Cavalry Division in the assault on Baghdad. The Wireless Troop was among the first batch of troops to enter the city on 11 March 1917. The Wireless Troop joined further operations in Mesopotamia and was then moved to Persia. In June 1917, the troop was redirected to France, where it was absorbed into the New Zealand Divisional Signal Company.
- New Zealand Expeditionary Force
- Bere Ferrers rail accident in which ten NZEF soldiers died in 1917.
- SS Marquette troopship sunk 1915 with 32 New Zealanders including 10 nurses lost
- List of New Zealand soldiers executed during World War I
- Bulford Kiwi a memento to New Zealand soldiers who were stationed in Wiltshire.
- Māori Battalion
- Three e-books on WW1 in NZetc
- e-book Featherston Training Camp in Digger History
- e-book New Zealand at the Front (1917) in Digger History
- Letters and Papers of Cecil Malthus (digitised)
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles