Story: Military and sport

Page 2. South African and First World wars

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Sport was a feature of all New Zealand deployments overseas in the 20th century, though was most prominent during the world wars. On troopships, boxing and tug-of-war contests helped pass the time. Sport became an important part of service life for troops in theatres of war, encouraging unit solidarity, keeping men occupied and providing social outlets.

South African War

Men of the contingents New Zealand sent to South Africa from 1899 to 1902 occasionally held sports days in camp. In addition to more traditional sports, the troopers held other competitions such as wrestling on mules. New Zealanders played cricket and rugby among themselves, with other units or in local competitions. One such match, in Pretoria, may have been the first between New Zealand and South African rugby teams. On 12 September 1900 the Transvaal Constabulary team, which included 11 New Zealanders, defeated the local Pretoria Football Club 8–nil.

First World War

With much larger numbers of New Zealanders serving overseas between 1914 and 1919, service sport came into its own. In Egypt in 1915, the troops indulged in sports despite an initial lack of encouragement from New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) commander Alexander Godley, who regarded sport as a distraction. Athletics, rugby, cricket, horse racing and boxing were to the fore.

While men had no opportunities for sports at Gallipoli, they found a very different situation on the Western Front in 1916. In France and at bases in the UK, sports activity was encouraged by the authorities. In 1917 Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Plugge was appointed divisional sports coordinator. Although rugby was pre-eminent, New Zealanders also took part in a variety of other sports, including horse sports, boxing and athletics. Cricket on makeshift pitches was popular in summer months, both impromptu hit-abouts and inter-unit contests. Competitions in shooting, bayonet exercises and bomb (grenade) throwing were also held.

A number of outstanding New Zealand athletes were casualties of war. Champion tennis player Anthony Wilding was killed in May 1915 while serving with a British unit in France. Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 All Blacks and a veteran of the South African War, died at Passchendaele in October 1917.

Springtime races

The mounted rifle brigades serving in Palestine took part in the Desert Column’s First Spring Meeting on 21 March 1917. Also called the Rafah Races, these were held on the site of a recent battle. A race course with jumps and a totalisator enclosure for betting were set up, trophies were brought from Cairo and a race programme was distributed. Races included the Anzac Champion Steeplechase, the Sinai Grand National and a mule race called the Jerusalem Scurry. A Canterbury horse, Maori King, with a New Zealand medical officer as jockey, won the Promised Land Stakes.

All Blacks from the trenches

An ‘All Black’ team, selected from troops convalescing at Hornchurch hospital in England, played a series of matches in the UK in 1916. They lost only two of their 16 games.

The following year a divisional rugby team played matches in Britain and inter-service contests in France. The players served as military trainers between games. The New Zealand divisional team won the Somme Cup in 1917, in a contest with British and French service teams and a New Zealand hospitals team. The final, against the French army team, was played on 8 April at the Vincennes stadium, in front of a crowd of 60,000 spectators. New Zealand won 40–nil.

The Māori (Pioneer) Battalion also fielded a strong rugby team, defeating the crack Welsh Guards and Royal Naval Division teams.

Winning combination

The New Zealand army A and B teams, selected following the 1918 armistice, played a series of matches in the UK and France in 1919. The A team beat the ‘mother country’ (British army) team in the final at Twickenham, winning the King’s Cup. In all they played 38 games, winning 33, drawing 3, and losing only two games. The army team also played 12 matches in South Africa. Two players, Parekura Tureia, who was Māori, and Nathaniel Arthur ‘Ranji’ Wilson, a former All Black of West Indian extraction, were dropped from this tour on racial grounds.

1918–19 rowing

In 1918 the New Zealand forces based at Codford, England, formed several rowing teams. On 28 April 1919 the New Zealand eight beat the American and French teams, winning the final of the inter-allied regatta held on the Seine in France. New Zealand teams took part in the Henley peace regatta in July 1919, where Darcy Hadfield easily won the single sculls.

1919 Inter-Allied Games, Paris

The Inter-Allied Games, organised by the American Expeditionary Forces, were held in Paris in June and July 1919. Eighteen nations sent athletes from their troops in Europe. New Zealand’s 18 athletes won a number of medals. Middle-distance runner Daniel Mason won the gold for the 800 metres, with bronze medals for John Lindsay (200 metres), James Wilton (400 metres) and Harry Wilson (110-metre hurdles). Darcy Hadfield won gold for the single sculls and was part of the New Zealand eights team who came third in the final. Hadfield and Mason were given gold stopwatches by France’s military commander, Marshal Philippe Pétain, an acknowledgement that he considered them the two outstanding athletes of the games.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Military and sport - South African and First World wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 December 2023)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 5 Sep 2013