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First World War

by Ian McGibbon

In the Great War, as the First World War was known at the time, 5% of New Zealand’s military-age men died. At the end of four long years of fighting, mainly in Turkey, France and Belgium, the country emerged with an increased sense of national identity.


Known at the time as the Great War and later as the ‘war to end all wars’, the First World War is perhaps the most traumatic event in New Zealand’s history. It involved a national effort unprecedented at that time, and it proved more costly, in terms of lives lost, than any other war New Zealand has fought. Of the 104,000 men and women who left New Zealand’s shores to take part in the war, nearly one in five did not return – a huge price for a country that at the time had just under a million inhabitants. The war had a far-reaching impact on New Zealand’s society and culture, but it also enhanced New Zealand’s sense of identity within the British Empire.

Who fought?

The fundamental reason for the war was the rise of Prussian-dominated Germany in the late 19th century. This destabilised the balance of power in Europe. By the early 1900s an uneasy alliance system had emerged in which Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (the Triple Alliance) confronted France, Russia and the United Kingdom (the Entente powers, or the Allies).

War between the alliances was precipitated by the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. Because of this Austria-Hungary made demands on Serbia, which were rejected, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. Plans to mobilise armies forced the hands of allies on both sides. Russia and France were soon at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers), and, when German forces invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.

During the course of the war the two sides gained other participants: the Central Powers were joined by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in late October 1914 and Bulgaria in 1915; the Allies by Japan in August 1914, Italy (which had stood aside from the Triple Alliance) in 1915, Romania in 1916 and the US in 1917.

Who called the shots?

In declaring war on Germany on behalf of the UK and British Empire, the king acted only on the advice of his British ministers. There was nothing remiss in the fact that the governments of neither New Zealand nor any other part of the empire were consulted before being committed. The process reflected the nature of imperial relations and New Zealand’s international status at the time. However, as a self-governing dominion within the empire, New Zealand did have a choice as to whether to actively participate in the war by sending troops overseas.

New Zealand enters the war

As part of the British Empire, New Zealand found itself at war on 4 August 1914, when King George V declared war on Germany. New Zealand was willing to participate for reasons of sentiment, economic interest and security.

Public opinion

Most New Zealanders favoured supporting the British Empire; many were enthusiastic. ‘War fever’ was present in New Zealand, as in Europe. It derived from jingoistic nationalism, a belief in the glory of war and expectation that the war would be short. Kinship ties, and the belief that New Zealanders were ‘British’, were also powerful motivating forces.

National interests

Although sentiment shaped New Zealand’s approach, there was a solid foundation of national interest. In 1914 New Zealand was very dependent on Britain. New Zealand had prospered through its exports of agricultural produce, though this reliance on the British market rendered it vulnerable to any interruption of the flow of goods. Both the market and the sea routes to its market were vital New Zealand interests.


New Zealanders were also conscious of their situation at the periphery of the empire, alone in a vast ocean in which a new, alien power – Japan – was emerging to the north (though at the time it was allied to the British Empire). New Zealanders regarded British sea power as the key to their security – and were conscious that by 1914 the supremacy it had enjoyed in the mid-19th century had long since disappeared. New challenges to the British Royal Navy, not least Germany’s naval build-up, had emerged.

New Zealanders were acutely aware of the dangers of defeat. Apart from the economic or physical threats, New Zealand, as one of the empire’s territories, could become a bargaining chip on a peace settlement table. Much of the existing British Empire had been acquired from defeated enemies. New Zealand’s overriding strategy was to prevent such a situation.

Political support

Prime Minister William Massey pledged New Zealand’s support for the empire immediately. Given the national mood, to fail to do so would have meant political suicide. In the election several months later political parties (Reform, Liberal) that supported participation in the war took 90% of the seats. In August 1915 these two parties came together to form a national coalition government, with Massey as prime minister and Liberal leader Joseph Ward as minister of finance.

Initial response

Occupation of Samoa

New Zealand’s first wartime task was to carry out a British request to seize the radio station in German Samoa, as part of an effort to neutralise German territories in the Pacific (Japan did the same to German territories north of the equator, and Australia to New Guinea). A 1,374-strong expeditionary force occupied German Samoa on 29 August 1914. Samoa remained under New Zealand military administration until 1920.

Massey’s myths

At the 1917 imperial conference William Massey claimed New Zealand was the first to capture German territory. In fact Togoland in west Africa had already been captured by British and French forces. At the conference the next year he said, ‘So far as risk is concerned, I would sooner have six months on the Western Front than that fortnight in shipping carrying troops from New Zealand to Samoa.’1 He was referring to the danger of attack from the German squadron in the Pacific. But in fact the squadron posed no threat to the ships in transit because it was always well to the north.

Economic support

The New Zealand government also turned its attention to how the country might assist the broad imperial effort. Maintaining the flow of produce on which Britain depended was important. This home-front effort, which also assisted the New Zealand economy, was a major element in New Zealand’s contribution to the overall war effort. Under bulk purchase agreements Britain agreed to take most of New Zealand’s exports at fixed prices, a highly favourable outcome for New Zealand’s farmers.

A military force

New Zealand aimed to contribute to the military effort as well, as it had done in the South African War of 1899–1902. With a navy that comprised one decrepit cruiser, and no air force, New Zealand’s soldiers provided the only means of doing so. The Defence Act 1909, which established New Zealand’s Territorial Force, had prepared the way by introducing compulsory military training. New Zealand had sent mounted horsemen to South Africa, though on a small scale; and New Zealand raised a mounted brigade in 1914. But infantry, the cheapest and most practical form of contribution, dominated the military force that New Zealand began creating in August 1914.


Based on the Territorial Force, the 8,454-strong New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was quickly assembled under the command of Alexander Godley, a British general on loan to New Zealand. It left New Zealand on 16 October 1914, the largest body of men (and horses) to leave New Zealand at any one time. The 10 troopships headed across the Tasman to link up with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Together they set out across the Indian Ocean bound for France to join the British Expeditionary Force that had been deployed there.

Māori participation

Among the NZEF troops there were some Māori, but Māori were generally excluded from the NZEF – the war was initially assumed to be a ‘white-man’s war’. Not until it became apparent that Indian troops would take part did the New Zealand government change tack. A Māori contingent followed the main body, going to Malta as garrison (guard) troops, and then on to Gallipoli. In all, 2,227 Māori served in the NZEF during the war.


Sustaining the NZEF required a steady flow of reinforcements. Men who volunteered for service trained for 14 weeks at Trentham, near Wellington, or at smaller camps elsewhere, and later at a major camp created at Featherston, in Wairarapa. Over the next four years 42 drafts, each roughly 2,000-strong, left New Zealand – approximately one every month.

  1. Imperial War Conference, 15 July 1918, EAI, 153/7/1, Archives New Zealand. Back

Gallipoli and the war against Turkey

Egyptian interlude

While the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) crossed the Indian Ocean, the Ottoman Empire (a multi-nation empire in which Turks and Arabs were the largest groups) entered the war, dramatically changing the strategic situation and threatening the imperial lifeline: the Suez Canal. This, and the better climate Egypt offered over wintry England for further training, led to the temporary disembarkation of the New Zealand and Australian forces. The New Zealanders camped at Zeitoun, near Cairo. Some elements of the NZEF took part in the defence of the Suez Canal against a Turkish attack in January–February 1915.

Gallipoli campaign

As forces on the spot, the NZEF and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were drawn into Allied plans to knock out the Ottoman Empire. The empire was seen as a weak link in the enemy array; its fall would open up avenues of attack on the Central Powers. The plan was to capture the narrow Dardanelles strait, which would mean naval forces could enter the Sea of Marmara and directly attack Constantinople, the capital of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. However, over-confidence, poor planning and lack of resources dogged the Allied effort.

The landing

Following the failure of a naval attack on the Dardanelles, the Allies landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. While British (and later French) forces made the main landing at Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, General William Birdwood’s ANZAC troops (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, commonly known as Anzacs) landed 20 kilometres north. New Zealand troops, who were part of the New Zealand and Australian Division under Major General Alexander Godley, followed the Australians ashore on the first morning of the assault. The division took responsibility for the northern sector of the battlefield.


In the face of a vigorous Turkish response, no significant Allied advance proved possible. The fighting quickly degenerated into trench warfare, with the Anzacs holding a tenuous perimeter. The troops endured heat, flies, the stench of rotting corpses, lack of water, dysentery and other illnesses, and a sense of hopelessness.

Tragic hero

One of New Zealand’s heroes of the August offensive was Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, the 56-year-old commander of the Wellington Battalion. A Taranaki farmer and lawyer, Malone was a student of military history, who introduced the ‘lemon-squeezer’ hat into the New Zealand uniform. A strong disciplinarian, he was initially resented by his men. In the August offensive he led his battalion to the top of Chunuk Bair, but was killed, probably by friendly fire. The battalion erected a large memorial gate in his memory in Stratford, Taranaki.

August offensive

An attempt to break the stalemate in August failed, though not without a stirring New Zealand effort in briefly capturing part of the high ground at Chunuk Bair. In this assault men of the Māori Contingent, recently arrived from Malta, took part in the first attack by Māori soldiers outside New Zealand. With the failure of the August offensive, the stalemate returned.


Ultimately, the Allies cut their losses and by early January 1916 all troops had been evacuated from Gallipoli. In all, 2,779 New Zealanders died.

A continuing effort

Following the evacuation the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, which had fought at Gallipoli as infantry, joined Australian mounted units to form the ANZAC Mounted Division. This unit continued the fight against the Ottoman Empire, taking a prominent part in the Sinai–Palestine campaign of 1916–18. Some New Zealanders served in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, then a Turkish province). New Zealand’s cruiser, HMS Philomel, was also deployed in the region, patrolling in the Red Sea. But these operations against the Ottoman Empire became a sideshow in New Zealand’s war effort. In 1916 the emphasis shifted to Europe. The Sinai–Palestine campaign cost 543 New Zealand lives.

Preparing for the European campaign

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 Māori (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.


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.


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.

Western Front, 1916 to 1917

In 1916 the Western Front comprised a 700-kilometre line of trenches snaking through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea, a front that had hardly changed since it was formed in late 1914. Parallel lines of trenches were divided by a no-man’s land exposed to artillery and machine guns and strewn with barbed wire obstacles. Attempts in 1915 to break the stalemate, including the introduction of poison gas, had been unsuccessful.

Whose west?

Although the fighting line in France and Belgium was known by the Allies as the ‘Western Front’ it was actually to their east. The front was Germany’s Western Front – it also had an Eastern Front, the line of engagement with the Russians. The Eastern Front was much longer then the Western – about 1,600 kilometres – and ran all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

New Zealand troops in France faced a very different environment from that in Gallipoli. One of about 70 divisions in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone, the division was a small cog in a massive military machine. Although the troops were deployed in a relatively quiet sector, at Armentières in northern France, they quickly became aware of the true impact of industrialised warfare. They were shocked by the scale of the artillery, which far surpassed that employed at Gallipoli.

The Battle of the Somme

Service on the Western Front involved a steady flow of day-to-day casualties, from artillery bombardments, trench raids and accidents. But the real bloodletting occurred when either side sent troops ‘over the top’ to assault the opposing trench line. This was dreadfully apparent when the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme opened on 1 July 1916: on that day alone the BEF suffered 60,000 casualties.


The New Zealand Division took part in the third major phase of the battle, attacking as part of a new ‘big push’ near Longueval on 15 September 1916, an effort notable for the advent of tanks. The New Zealanders captured their objectives, though at heavy cost, and assisted in the capture of the village of Flers, but the offensive petered out. By the time the New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the line 23 days later, it had lost 2,000 men – a death rate far exceeding that experienced at Gallipoli.


Allied plans in 1917 aimed to keep the pressure on the enemy with a series of offensives. The first, in April, at Arras, captured the Vimy ridge. In this operation, New Zealand tunnellers provided valuable support, expanding tunnels systems under Arras and opening up shafts to facilitate the attack.


After wintering in the Armentières sector, the New Zealand Division moved to Flanders in present-day Belgium, in February 1917. On 7–9 June it took part in the capture of the Messines ridge, a successful but costly battle that demonstrated the ‘bite and hold’ tactic of using well-planned artillery support to seize portions of the enemy front-line rather than attempting a wider breakthrough (as at the Somme). The New Zealanders captured the village of Messines without difficulty, but later suffered heavily from German bombardment, with more than 700 dying during the operation.


Messines was the prelude to the major British offensive that began on 31 July 1917. The New Zealanders were not involved in the initial stages of the Third Battle of Ypres, but they were committed in late September, and took part in two major attacks on the Passchendaele ridge in October. The first, at Gravenstafel on 4 October, was a relative success, costing 340 New Zealand lives. The second, at Bellevue Spur in atrocious conditions on 12 October, was a complete failure. In the worst fiasco in New Zealand’s military history, 843 men were killed in a few hours, the highest one-day death toll suffered by New Zealand forces overseas. Mud and rain had affected the ability of the artillery to provide a sufficient barrage to cut barbed wire and suppress enemy resistance.

A depressing winter in the line at Polygon Wood followed. Another failed attack, at Polderhoek in December, did nothing for the troops’ morale.

Home front, 1917 to 1918

The troops’ depression was matched at home. The seemingly unbreakable stalemate, the shockingly long casualty lists, the numbing tension of waiting for news of loved ones and the inconveniences of wartime life all combined to produce a deep war-weariness and malaise among the population during 1917.

Labour shortages

The removal of so many working-age men had a severe impact on New Zealand’s economy. While farmers managed to sustain production by using family or cooperating with each other, industries and services that supported them struggled. Women increasingly made up shortfalls in the labour force, although this was regarded as a temporary measure.

Conscription woes

Implementing conscription brought controversy and heartache. Conscientious objectors (who objected to fighting in the war) struggled to obtain release from its clamp – some of the unsuccessful were dragged to the front – while the prospect of drafting married men with children caused widespread unease. Māori were generally excluded from the ballots that decided men’s fates, though in 1918 the government attempted to apply the scheme to Waikato Māori (with a conspicuous lack of success).

Industrial unrest

The effects of the war, especially the rising cost of living, had an unsettling effect. Industrial disputes, particularly on the wharves and in coal mines, characterised the final two years of the war.

Western Front, 1918

At the beginning of 1918 New Zealanders feared that their sacrifice might be in vain, as Germany appeared to be winning the war. With Russia’s withdrawal following the overthrow of the tsar in the Russian Revolution, Germany could concentrate on the Western Front, to which it transferred more than 30 divisions from the east. This massive accretion of strength hung like a pall over the Allied front line.

Back to the Somme

When the blow fell, on 21 March 1918, it created the biggest crisis of the war for the Allies. A huge gap was torn in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) front. In the New Zealand Division’s finest hour, New Zealand and other troops were thrown into the gap to try to halt the oncoming enemy. Fighting on the old Somme battlefield of 1916, they managed to blunt the offensive. German thrusts elsewhere were also halted. The New Zealanders spent a difficult summer on the now stabilised line.

New Zealand remembered

Le Quesnoy was captured by New Zealand soldiers on 4 November 1918, a week before the armistice, with the loss of some 80 men. They had climbed the ramparts in ancient fashion, using ladders rather than allowing the historic town and its civilian inhabitants to be bombed. The locals expressed their gratitude with a New Zealand garden, a Rue de Nouvelle Zélande and an Avenue des Néo-Zélandais. An Anzac Day service is held there every year.

The Allied offensive

The United States had entered the war in April 1917. With American forces appearing at the front, better Anglo-French coordination and improving morale as the Germans faltered, the Allied armies struck back from August 1918. A series of blows drove the increasingly demoralised enemy back. The New Zealand soldiers excelled in this open-country fighting. They helped breach the Hindenburg Line, the main German defence system. By November they had reached the walled town of Le Quesnoy, in northern France, which they captured in a daring assault.

End of the war

Abandoned by its allies – Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary all ceased hostilities – its population restive as the blockade undermined morale and its armies in disarray, Germany accepted defeat. An armistice on the Western Front came into effect at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. New Zealanders at the front quietly rejoiced; at home celebrations were marred by the ravages of the influenza pandemic.

Occupation duties

The New Zealand Division took part in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland, stationed in the vicinity of Cologne. But this proved a short-lived assignment, and by April the troops had been pulled back to Britain and the division disbanded. Repatriation began almost immediately, though the large numbers and the lack of shipping meant that men often had a prolonged wait before going home. Unrest simmered and there were several riots in the camps. The last group of soldiers did not reach New Zealand until March 1920.

Impact of the war

Of the First World War’s many consequences for New Zealand, the human cost was the most traumatic. Among the dominions of the British Empire, New Zealand had the highest percentage (5%) of its military-age men killed. The loss of 18,166 men and women severely affected the small community. Two-thirds (12,483) had fallen in the 30-month Western Front campaign, which remains New Zealand’s most costly. Of those who survived, many were maimed or suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder), imposing a longstanding burden on their families and communities.

Positive perception

Despite the fearful cost, New Zealanders rejoiced in their country’s part in the successful outcome. The British Empire had triumphed, and appeared to be stronger than ever. Its extent grew with the incorporation of enemy territories. New Zealand got some too: it satisfied a long-held aspiration when it received control of Western Samoa in the peace settlement, as a mandate of the new League of Nations. The threat that Germany posed in Europe – and the Pacific – had seemingly been removed by the outcome.

New Zealanders viewed their contribution – and sacrifice – as part of the price of empire. When the possibility of renewed war with Turkey arose in 1922, during the Chanak (Çanakkale) crisis, thousands flocked to the army again, eager for another go at ‘Johnny Turk’. Only later did sentiment turn against the futility and apparently useless sacrifice that trench warfare had involved.

International status

New Zealand’s status in the world was affected by the war. Dominion leaders had been called into conference with their British counterparts from 1916, reflecting dominion contributions to the British war effort. This created a sense of partnership within the empire. In 1919 New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles as a constituent part of the British Empire delegation. More significantly, it joined the League of Nations as a member in its own right – an important step on its path to independence.


New Zealand emerged from war in reasonable economic shape. Its economy had been protected, even enhanced, by the bulk-purchase arrangements with Britain. Despite labour shortages, farmers had been favoured by the certainty of sustained high prices. Infrastructure had been expanded to meet wartime needs.

Restricting temptation

The six o’clock closing time of pubs was an unlikely legacy of the war. It was introduced as a temporary measure to prevent soldiers who went off duty from Trentham camp at 5 p.m. from over-indulging in the evenings. It was said that the measure would also reduce temptation to a still worse form of vice – visiting women of ‘ill-repute’. In 1918 the measure was made permanent and was not finally abolished until 1967.

But not all sectors of the economy benefited from the war, and this resulted in industrial disharmony. The New Zealand Labour Party emerged on the left of New Zealand politics as a channel for such discontent.


Having suffered no more than an incursion into its territorial waters, New Zealand faced no reconstructive task in the aftermath of war. Its landscape was changed only by the numerous memorials to the fallen that were erected by towns throughout New Zealand, and the National War Memorial in Wellington. The literary landscape was enriched by a flow of memoirs by participants, as well as by inadequate official histories.

The cultural landscape was enriched by:

  • Anzac Day, which commemorated the landing at Gallipoli but which was a day of remembrance for all who had fallen
  • the Anzac legend, born on the slopes of Gallipoli and focused on the prowess of the citizen-soldiers of Australia and New Zealand
  • an increasingly influential veterans’ organisation, the Returned Soldiers’ Association (RSA).

National identity

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the war was on New Zealand’s sense of itself. A New Zealand identity had been emphasised during the war, but one within the imperial family. New Zealanders compared themselves with British and others and did not find themselves wanting. Most New Zealanders took pride in the fact that they had done their bit – even overdone it – in the war. In their minds, they had stood the greatest test to confront them so far.

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How to cite this page: Ian McGibbon, 'First World War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 20 June 2012