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Military and sport

by Ian McGibbon

Sport has long been popular in the armed forces, with troops taking part in organised competitions as well as impromptu games to pass the time. New Zealanders’ prowess in both rugby and war has contributed to the idea of the tough, rugged Kiwi male.

Military and sport overview

Sport has a long and varied tradition in the armed forces, ranging from impromptu games to pass the time through to organised competitions. As a means of improving skills, character or physical fitness, as a morale booster to foster camaraderie, and as an identity builder, sport has been an important element of service life. Rugby has been prominent among the sports played by the military. The national perception of New Zealand’s achievements in both rugby and war were important in creating the long-held stereotype of the Kiwi male as a tough, uncomplaining, self-disciplined team player.

Sport was played both within New Zealand and overseas. In the modern regular forces, sport was used as a means of developing a competitive edge. Before the mid-1950s sport among troops overseas was largely played by civilian soldiers, who brought interests from their civilian lives into the forces.

Cricket under fire

Arthur Morrow of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers wrote this account of a skirmish in the early stages of the Waikato war at Wairoa (Clevedon), south of Auckland, in September 1863: ‘On the morning of the 15th, when some of the men were playing cricket across the river … two shots were fired at them in quick succession from the hedge adjoining the bush, about 150 yards from the stockade. The cricketers ... ran to the redoubt and the stockade, from which the fire was quickly returned. The only casualty reported on our side was a slight arm-wound … to Ensign Johnson by a spent [musket] ball.’1

Before 1914

In the 19th century, sports that required little in the way of facilities took precedence, especially boxing, athletics and tug-of-war. Rifle shooting provided competition in an essential military skill. Sometimes local military teams held shooting competitions with visiting warships’ crews. From 1861 servicemen were to the fore in contesting the national championship. This competition, for a trophy known since 1908 as the Ballinger Belt, is the longest-running sporting championship in New Zealand.

In garrison towns there was more opportunity for team games. During the New Zealand wars British regiments in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere in the North Island played cricket matches among themselves and with colonial military and civilian teams. The regiments stationed around New Plymouth regularly put up teams against the Taranaki Cricket Club, whose members included local militia and volunteers. Later the Armed Constabulary played cricket and rugby at various places in the North Island. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries units of the volunteer force sometimes formed teams to participate in local competitions. They also occasionally held military tournaments, largely involving military-derived sports.

A grand day

A ‘grand military tournament and assault at arms’, for ‘all Bona Fide Members of the New Zealand Defence Force’, was held at Palmerston North on the King’s Birthday holiday in 1907.2 Events included a tug-of-war, bayonet fighting, wrestling on horseback, drill, signalling and first-aid competitions. Riders also took part in a cockade fight or balaclava melée, where two teams attempted to knock plumes off their opponents’ helmets; heads and posts, where they sliced off ‘heads’ on wooden posts; tent pegging, where riders speared small wooden pegs embedded in the ground; and the Lloyd-Lindsay competition, in which teams of horsemen jumped hurdles, then dismounted and fired at targets.

World wars

The outbreak of war in 1914 raised vigorous debate over the role of sport. Sport was encouraged among army recruits as a way of keeping fit, building character, encouraging teamwork and passing time in camp. This was a continuation of pre-war ideas that sport kept young men in good physical condition to defend the empire. Some people argued, however, that civilian sport should be curtailed during wartime and sportsmen eligible for service should join up. Some players refused to take part in sport against ‘shirkers’ whom they considered should be in the army. It was countered that many sportsmen had already enlisted and that sport helped prepare potential recruits. The introduction of conscription in 1916 largely defused arguments over sport and enlistment.

In both world wars international matches and most provincial championships, such as the Ranfurly and Plunket rugby and cricket shields, were cancelled. Club matches continued to be held and were well attended.

During the world wars, the large groups of men training for overseas service often put up teams for local sporting competitions. US servicemen based in New Zealand from 1942 to 1944 brought their sports with them. A crowd of 20,000 turned up to watch an exhibition baseball game between two American marine teams at Athletic Park, Wellington, in January 1943.

Sport in the regular forces

The change from citizen-based to regular armed forces in the 1950s introduced a new ethos to sport in the armed forces. Sport was seen as a useful adjunct to military training. It became well organised and extensive, with numerous inter-services contests (including police teams). Defence-force teams also competed in international defence-force competitions.

For several decades after the Second World War, rugby was the most prominent service sport, with touring international rugby teams playing fixtures against combined services teams. In the 2000s combined services teams continued to tour overseas. Five servicemen – Patrick Rhind, Stan (‘Tiny’) Hill, Henare (‘Buff’) Milner, George Skudder and Wayne (‘Buck’) Shelford – have become All Blacks. With the introduction of professionalism in 1996, players became unable to combine military service with top-level rugby.

Service sport has become much more diverse. In the 2000s the army, for example, designated 12 approved team sports in which regular competitions were organised and representative teams selected. Participants in a range of sports occasionally won national honours.

The increasing number of women in the armed forces has led to a high level of participation in service sport by women.

    • Quoted in James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1983. p. 455 (originally published 1925). Back
    • Feilding Star, 6 November 1907, p. 4. Back

South African and First World wars

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.

Second World War and after

The 2NZEF in Egypt

During the Second World War, sport was promoted in 2NZEF (the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, of which the 2nd NZ Division was the main component). Force commander Bernard Freyberg had been a champion swimmer and provincial rugby representative. He recognised the value of sports for physical and mental fitness, morale and cohesion. The 2nd NZ Division was largely stationed in Egypt from 1940 to 1942, with New Zealand base units encamped at Maadi right through to 1946. One of Freyberg’s earliest decisions was to have a swimming pool built at Maadi. Sports officers and committees were appointed, and swimming and athletics competitions were organised.

As in the previous war, rugby occupied the central place in 2NZEF sport. Freyberg presented a trophy, the Divisional Commander’s Cup (always known as the Freyberg Cup), for unit rugby supremacy within the 2nd NZ Division. It was keenly contested from 1940 to 1944 (though not in 1942 because of the division’s preoccupation with desert operations). ‘Internationals’ included hard-fought games with South African teams. Service rugby also returned to the UK, courtesy of members of the 2NZEF’s second echelon, which was diverted there in 1940; unit teams played in a local rugby competition in 1940–41 before heading off to Egypt.

Soldiers not keen on rugby had many opportunities in Egypt to play other sports. Use was made of the facilities of the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, for example, for a variety of sports, including hockey, tennis, golf, cricket, softball, rowing and even yachting. Both formal horse races and ‘donkey derbies’ were also held.

The Maadi Cup

New Zealanders based at Maadi Camp set up the Maadi Camp Rowing Club in 1940. The Cairo River Club allowed them to use its facilities. Champion Egyptian rower Youssef Bahgat donated one of his own trophies to the Maadi club, to be used in competitions. This cup was eventually brought back to New Zealand. Since 1947, as the Maadi Cup, it has been awarded to the winner of the secondary-school rowing eights competition.

Europe and the Pacific

For almost 8,000 New Zealand prisoners of war languishing in camps in Italy and Germany, sport was an important time-filler and morale booster. Rugby, football and cricket matches were played, with much ingenuity used to provide equipment. ‘Internationals’ were also staged.

In the South Pacific the 3rd Division was based in Nouméa, New Caledonia, from 1942 to 1944. Their commander, Harold Barrowclough, emulated Freyberg by providing the Barrowclough Cup for rugby competition between divisional units. Other sports were also encouraged, including athletics, swimming, football, hockey, cricket and racing. New Zealand troops stationed in Fiji from 1940 to 1942 played cricket and rugby.

At the end of the war in Europe, representative teams showed the flag in the UK. The New Zealand services cricket team played 22 matches there in the summer of 1945, and the 2NZEF rugby team toured the following winter.

Freyberg’s All Blacks

The 2NZEF rugby team was also known as the ‘Kiwis’ and ‘Freyberg’s All Blacks’. The team was selected in mid-1945 after trials in both Austria, where the 2nd New Zealand Division had set up a rugby training camp, and the UK. Captained by pre-war All Black Charlie Saxton, the Kiwis were renowned for their attacking style. Of their 33 matches in Britain, Ireland, Germany and France in 1945–46, they lost only two. The Kiwis played five games in New Zealand on their return. Lieutenant Winston McCarthy, later New Zealand’s foremost rugby commentator, provided commentary on the games for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.

Asian wars

The smaller New Zealand forces deployed in Asian wars since 1945 have also played rugby at every opportunity. Inter-unit contests featured in Japan, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and East Timor – both within New Zealand forces and against units of Commonwealth partners. In both 1952 and 1953 a representative team from Kayforce (New Zealand troops in Korea) toured Japan, playing university sides and an all-Japan XV.

Other sports included cricket and athletics (in Korea) and shooting (Vietnam). In these two US-dominated wars New Zealanders sometimes turned their hand to American sports, such as baseball or ice hockey (in Korea). Ice hockey was played with a conspicuous lack of skill, much to the enjoyment of spectators.

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How to cite this page: Ian McGibbon, 'Military and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 November 2023)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 5 Sep 2013