Story: First World War

Page 4. Preparing for the European campaign

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The New Zealand Division

In preparation for joining the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the New Zealand Division was formed, with citizen-soldier Andrew Russell as commander. Two additional infantry brigades were provided by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade and the 2nd Infantry Brigade, formed from accumulated reinforcements in Egypt. The Māori contingent was incorporated in the division’s Pioneer Battalion (which in 1917 became an all-Māori unit – the (Maori) Pioneer Battalion). These changes raised the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) strength to about 25,000.

Non-divisional units

Some NZEF units, such as a mounted rifles regiment and the cyclist company, were not part of the New Zealand Division. They included the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, which was the first New Zealand unit to arrive on the Western Front (in France and Belgium) in early 1916. Many New Zealanders also served in British and Australian units, including the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor of the Royal Air Force). About 700 New Zealanders served as airmen during the war.

Conscription

The deployment of a division demanded an increased flow of reinforcements. With volunteering slowing, and some sectors of the public demanding equality of sacrifice, the government introduced conscription during 1916, with the first ballots in October. As a result 32,000 conscripts served overseas with the NZEF (alongside 72,000 volunteers) – together representing 42% of New Zealand men of military age (21–49). Of the dominions in the British Empire, New Zealand made the largest per capita contribution of its manpower.

‘Home’

At that time it was common for New Zealanders of British descent to think of the UK as ‘home’. New Zealand soldiers on leave liked seeing their relatives in Britain. They visited historic sites such as the tower of London and Westminster Abbey, and also enjoyed the hospitality of British women. But they did not like British food or the weather and many yearned for their real home across the globe.

A British base

As the division crossed the Mediterranean to France in April 1916, arrangements for its support were being made in the UK. The NZEF’s main base would be at Sling camp on Salisbury Plain, with subsidiary bases later established elsewhere. Hospital facilities were provided, most notably at Walton-on-Thames, Hornchurch and Brocklehurst. ‘Blighty,’ as the troops described Britain, became not only a place of preparation and organisation but also a place of rest and recreation for New Zealanders on leave from the Western Front.

The Battle of Jutland

While the troops settled in the Western Front, a battle occurred with the greatest potential consequences for New Zealand as it could have destroyed British sea power, on which New Zealand depended for its security and trade. It took place not on land but off the coast of Jutland, the clash between the British and German battle fleets on 31 May 1916. The British commander John Jellicoe (later governor-general of New Zealand) was rightly cautious, given the potential consequences. The outcome was tactically a draw, with both sides suffering losses, but strategically it favoured the Allies. The German fleet remained hemmed in at Kiel and the blockade of Germany was maintained.

New Zealand’s battle cruiser

In 1909, as a gesture of patriotism and loyalty, New Zealand offered a battleship to the British fleet. As a result, the battle cruiser HMS New Zealand joined the British battle fleet in 1912. Crewed mostly by British seamen, it was present at the Battle of Jutland and was slightly damaged, but there were no casualties. The ship’s good fortune in war was attributed to the captain wearing a tiki (pendant) and a piupiu (flax kilt), which had been presented to the ship by a Rotorua chief in 1913 with instructions to wear them in battle.

A naval contribution

About 500 New Zealanders served in Royal Navy warships during the war, including men trained before the war and those sent from New Zealand during it. They helped ensure the Allied command of the seas that allowed the continued mutually beneficial movement of men and produce from New Zealand to Britain.

Enemy attempts to interfere with this flow, using submarines and armed merchant raiders, failed, though New Zealand cargo ships were lost, even close to home. Mines laid by the German raider Wolf sank two ships within New Zealand waters, killing 26 New Zealanders in the process, and the Wolf captured other ships elsewhere.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'First World War - Preparing for the European campaign', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/first-world-war/page-4 (accessed 25 June 2017)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 20 Jun 2012