It is a century today – 1 March 1916 – since the New Zealand Division was formally established in Egypt – the force that became New Zealand’s major contribution to the Western Front and which suffered the bulk of New Zealand’s First World War casualties.
First steps towards it came in late January 1916 when Mediterranean Expeditionary Force commander General Sir Archibald Murray decided to create five Australian, one New Zealand and one mixed Anzac division. Anzac Corps commander Lieutenant-General William Birdwood liked the idea, but as he warned New Zealand Defence Minister James Allen on 4 February, a ‘great deal of improvisation’ would be needed to ‘get our formations right’. He had to raise 16 Australian and 4 New Zealand battalions ‘I feel the greatest apprehension,’ he wrote, ‘involving you in the responsibility of keeping up drafts for this increased force…’
That was a tricky issue. New Zealand planners had planned around 25 percent per month losses for infantry, less for other arms, all on the basis of a two-brigade force. This implied providing some 3000 men every two months. Now they were expected to provide a three-brigade division plus other forces for a Middle Eastern campaign. British planners expected the war to last another three years, and New Zealand, a nation of a little over a million souls — of whom around 160,000 were of military age in 1915 — could not afford profligacy. ‘To put units into the field which waste away for want of Reinforcements is entirely opposed to the principles laid down by the Imperial Government,’ Colonel C.M. Gibbon of the New Zealand General Staff penned in 1915. ‘We must prepare for a long war, and it is essential that we should count the cost, and make sure that our resources of men are organised in such a manner as to last to the finish’. Allen agreed to supply what was needed, though he felt ‘very large demands are being made on us’. In the event reinforcements could not be obtained for the third brigade until August, nudging government towards Allen’s long-standing plans for conscription as a planning tool.
On 1 March the New Zealand units of the former ANZAC Division were designated the New Zealand Division, coming under command of Major-General Andrew Russell, a New Zealander from Hastings who had a long professional military background and who had distinguished himself commanding the Rifle Brigade on Gallipoli. ‘The division will I am sure do well under Russell,’ Birdwood advised Allen, ‘and I think you have every reason to be exceedingly proud of them.’ The division was organised to the 1915 New Army plan, though it initially lacked a cycle company and machine gun battery among other minor units. The original force became 1 Brigade; 2 Brigade was added; and Russell’s Rifle Brigade became 3 (Rifle) Brigade — though still often referred to by its old name.
To this were added a headquarters unit, divisional artillery, a squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles, and a Pioneer Battalion. This last was a fighting labour force. They were principally drawn from the thousand-odd Maori who had been despatched to Gallipoli, with the addition of nearly 150 Niueans, 50-odd Rarotongans, and elements of the Otago Mounted Rifles. This was extraordinary. Maori had given British regiments a run for their money 60 years earlier in the Waikato and Taranaki wars. The Maori Contingent discharged themselves brilliantly on Gallipoli. But such realities counted for little in the face of the mind-set of 1916. Non-Europeans were lumped together and, as in civilian life, given menial tasks.
The division was quickly caught up in a strategic reshuffle. The Russian entry into the war against Turkey relieved pressure on Egypt just as fighting on the Western Front seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. The British reorganised their forces, and the New Zealanders embarked in early April for Marseilles, leaving the Mounted Brigade in Palestine with the Anzac division. From Marseilles the New Zealanders took to the railway for a 58-hour journey to Picardy. The French flocked to welcome the Kiwis as they rolled past. ‘We have been getting a great hearing,’ Clarence Hankins wrote in his diary ‘at Lyon I managed to get a bottle of wine.’
To learn more, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, available now on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016