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100 years ago: NZ troops on way to war


A hundred Years Ago: 16 October 1914

A hundred years ago this month New Zealand troops were finally on their way to war.

The Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) and the First Reinforcements sailed from New Zealand on October 16, 1914. No one knew at the time they were heading to Egypt and eventually to Gallipoli.

In the early dawn 10 transport ships with four naval escorts sailed through the Wellington Heads in single file. Not only was this sailing ‘a fine sight’ as so many soldiers commented, it was a significant historical event.

The sailing of so many ships with such a large body of people and horses aboard remains unprecedented. In all 8,574 men and 3,818 horses were on board, the largest single body of men ever to leave New Zealand.

Not all the men were in a fit state to travel. Many had made the most of their short period of leave before sailing. In Wellington a large number were drunk and disorderly and 17 men had taken the opportunity to desert.

Frank Cooper from Addington described the sailing of the Main Body on October 16, 1914 as ‘a sight one would never see in all their lives’. He noted the sea was ‘as calm as Lake Victoria and horses, men and all very happy’. Such tranquility and euphoria would not last long.

The 10 troopships were cramped and uncomfortable. Not only were the 8,574 men and 3818 horses squeezed into them, but the vessels were crammed full with stores and equipment including 6,000 artillery shells and 10 million rounds of .303 ammunition. It didn’t make for a pleasant journey.

Roy Dalrymple of the Wellington Mounted Rifles described the accommodation aboard the Tahiti as ‘absurd’. His squadron was allocated some bunks in the ‘hold’ where:

There is hardly room to pass in the passages and not enough crossways. There is also no room for dressing and shaving etc and the bottom bunk is practically in darkness as there are very few electric lights and no place to put any kit or swag. … What these bunks will be like in the tropics remains to be seen.

Jack Skinner on board the Hawkes Bay wrote that there was no room anywhere ‘even for a cat’.

The Main Body of the NZEF had, in fact, been ready to sail some weeks earlier but the lack of an adequate naval escort prevented this. The commanding officer of the Wellington Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone recorded, somewhat impatiently, in his diary:

The day. We sailed at about 6 am this morning. Everything almost was effective. … We were cheery and pleased to be moving at last.

Too young to join up in 1914, William McKeon watched with envy as the soldiers left for their great adventure. He recalled the mood:

Thousands of bronze khaki-clad troops marched through Wellington on their way to embarkation, through cheering crowds lining the way, many calling out “See you home soon!” There appeared to be a popular conception that this was going to be a picnic, and that much of the fighting would be over before our troops reached any theatre of war.

The perceptive McKeon noted that among the watchers were people who did not cheer. These were ‘anxious-eyed fathers and mothers … with apprehension in their hearts’.

Some of the departing soldiers were also apprehensive. As one reflected in his diary as the Main Body sailed: ‘How hard it is to realise that we are at last about to leave the shores of “God’s Own Country”.’  For far too many who were leaving, including the soldier of the Wellington Battalion who wrote that moving line in his diary, they would never see the shores of ‘God’s Own Country’ again.

But all this was ahead of them. In October 1914, the New Zealanders of the Main Body were happy to finally be on their way to the war.

Author, Professor Glyn Harper, is Professor of War Studies at Massey University and Massey Project Manager for the Centenary History of New Zealand and the First World War.

In association with the RNZRSA, Stephen Parsons House of Travel is organising a 100th commemorative tour to Istanbul, the Gallipoli peninsula including Anzac Cove and other places of interest in Turkey including a guided tour of the ancient city of Troy in April 2015. Tour party members included in the NZ Cultural and Heritage ballot will experience the centenary of the Anzac Day dawn service on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Stephen can be contacted on 06-356-7051 or 0800 509 444 or at




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