When the First World War broke out in August 1914, New Zealand was a loyal dominion within the British Empire. Our economic and political ties with Britain, which many New Zealanders still referred to as ‘Home’, were very strong. The vast majority of New Zealand’s one million European inhabitants were only a generation or two removed from the United Kingdom.
When war was declared, the news was greeted with great excitement by many New Zealanders, who believed the Allies were fighting a just and humane cause of ‘right versus might’. As they saw it, Germany had invaded ‘poor’ Belgium, and Britain was forced to defend the gallant people of the invaded land.
Most young men in New Zealand, who may not have known much about the causes of the war or the complicated European political situation, simply looked on the war as an opportunity for a great adventure. It was a chance to leave the farm, or the job in town, and see the world. One Gallipoli veteran described the excitement as like ‘going off to a great big footie game’.
Officially, only men aged between 20 and 40 were eligible to enlist, although underage and overage soldiers managed to slip through. Soldiers as young as 14 years fought at Gallipoli. To join up, recruits had to be at least 162.5 cm tall, weigh 76 kg or less, and be physically fit. About a quarter of the men who tried to volunteer during 1914 were rejected on medical grounds for reasons such as the poor state of their teeth or not meeting the above requirements. In the first few weeks of the war, the rejection rate was about half.
Read this audio story
Henry Johns's story
"In New Zealand, soldiering, you might say, started in the school cadets. From there we went on to the Volunteers.... And then three years Territorials after that. And we were so well trained by English regulars that we were fit to go into the trenches in the battlefield in six weeks."
Where did you enlist?
"In Gisborne. I finished my trade, and six months after, I was a carpenter then six months after I went to Gisborne, I joined up there. "
Before war broke out, New Zealand had a trained Territorial Force and many schools had military cadet training. Of the 8,400 men who were in the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, around 7,000 had previous military training. Most officers in the Main Body were Territorials. The rest were veterans of the South African War, officers in the Volunteer Force, and officers in the British and New Zealand army. Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, commander of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, was so convinced that war would break out that well before it did, he gave up alcohol and tobacco, kept physically fit and slept on a military stretcher at home, rather than a soft bed.
At the start of the war, most New Zealand soldiers were from rural New Zealand – the countryside and the small towns. Nearly three-quarters of the men in the Main Body were born in New Zealand, and over 90 per cent were single and Protestant. Over 80 per cent of them had previous military training. The New Zealanders were hardy and able to adapt to difficult circumstances. These abilities would become essential during the difficult Gallipoli campaign.
Poster, ’The Empire Needs Men!’, January 1915, United Kingdom, by Arthur Wardle, Straker Brothers Ltd, Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Gift of Department of Defence, 1919. Te Papa (GH016383)
Audio: Sgt. Harvey Johns, 1999.2956-1A, National Army Museum, NZ.