Hurrah for the New Zealand Division!

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.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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.

Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot - a photo I took in 2004.
Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot – a photo I took in 2004.

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.’

Wright_Western Front_200 pxThey reached Armentières under steely skies.

To learn more, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, available now on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “Hurrah for the New Zealand Division!

  1. Last week I happened to spot a chap in our local bakery wearing a Vietnam Vet cap. My first impression was that he looked too old to be dinkum. But then I realized I’m 62 now, and I didn’t sign up until after Australia ended it’s involvement when I was 21. It came as a bit of a shock which is pretty bizarre seeing I use a mirror every day.

    I had a chat with him and his comment was the only good thing about it was the flight home. When I was younger I thought we would eventually have no veterans marching on ANZAC Day. How foolish of me. We can’t seem to stay out of wars despite the Diggers telling us that it doesn’t solve anything.

    By the way, I like your attention to detail. May I reblog this post?

    1. There is a phrase often used on our war memorials – ‘From the uttermost ends of the Earth’. It was one of the consequences of the way the British Empire had grown to engulf the globe in the nineteenth century. New Zealand – a tiny Dominion in the South Pacific at the time, viewed itself as more British than Britain.

  2. My grandfather was in the NZ division and fought on the Western Front. I have a letter he wrote from the Front describing his part in a sortie into No-Man’s land and how proud he was to have been chosen for the mission.

    1. Your grandfather’s story sounds fascinating. That experience – like all ground action usually dubbed a ‘stunt’ in trench parlance – was one of the main ways the Kiwis contributed even during quiet times (raiding as opposed to a ‘push’). The risks were colossal even in ‘quiet’ times, but the men did it anyway. It was heroism by any measure.

      1. He did it several times. He used that word “stunt” too – interesting to know it was trench parlance. On one occasion a group of them had to stand in water up to their chests for six hours on their way back as flares lit the area up. They decided eventually to make a run for it because it was almost dawn. As he dove over the parapet back into the trenches, he was shot in the buttocks, so he had no bum for the rest of his life. He ended up back in England after that one. Once he recovered he trained others in raiding techniques.

        In the real world, he was a complete a-hole, but I think that’s probably what made him a good soldier.

        1. A ‘Blighty’ wound, they called those -got them back to ‘Blighty’, as it were. I think there would be no question that his wartime experiences had profound effect on him afterwards – subtly (or not subtly, as the case may be). The experience changed people, sometimes dramatically.

  3. Reblogged this on 1petermcc's Blog and commented:
    More quality out of NZ. A teaser for a new book from Matthew, and you can get a feel for the detail right from the start.

    Ooh. I just did a pun.

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