A service of gratitude at the Mazargues War Cemetery in Marseilles to commemorate the centenary of the NZEF's landing in France on 11 April 1916.
On 11 April 2016, a service of gratitude will be held in Marseilles to commemorate the arrival of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in France a century ago. The service will take place at Mazargues War Cemetery from 3.00 pm. An order of service can be downloaded here (PDF, 4 MB)
In the first weeks of April 1916 the New Zealand Division – newly reorganised with reinforcements from New Zealand combined with the veterans of Gallipoli – left Egypt bound for France and the Western Front. Their journey took them by ship from Alexandria across the Mediterranean Sea to Marseilles where they boarded trains which took them north to a new theatre of war.
The first ship to arrive in Marseilles was the Minnewaska, which pulled into port on 11 April. In the following two weeks 13 other ships made the journey across the Mediterranean. Save for the British warships shadowing their route to defend against enemy submarines, each New Zealand troopship made the journey alone.
Alexander Aitken was aboard the Franconia, one of the first ships to arrive. He later recalled the pleasure aroused by the first sight of France with its markedly different scenery to that of Egypt: ‘No land was sighted, not even a remote cape of Sicily, before we entered the Gulf of Lyon; and so all the more paradisal, to eyes that had forgotten the colour of grass, was the green of certain low hills rising behind Toulon.’ Others too remarked on the green landscape after the months spent training in the Egyptian sand. In a letter home William Prince of the Auckland Battalion remarked that France, ‘with its green fields & hedges & orchards is a treat after the eternal sands of Egypt, it’s a beautiful country.’
The first New Zealand soldiers were met with an excited welcome by the locals of Marseilles when they disembarked onto French soil. Cecil Malthus described the scene:
We disembarked in the middle of the morning, had just a glimpse of the Petit Port, with its picturesque fishing boats and colourful fish market, and marched some blocks up the famous Cannebière before turning off to the siding where our train was waiting. We got an amazing welcome. I dare say the people had some queer ideas as to where we had come from, but anyway it was from the ends of the earth and we had come to save la France. So they milled around in the wildest excitement and made our progress difficult. Our Captain Gray was heartily kissed by a fat businessman, to the joy of the troops, and a number of the said troops broke ranks to do some kissing and hugging on their own behalf. Decidedly we found Marseilles a gay and friendly place.
For others, however, the arrival in Marseilles was not so joyous, marking the end of their war service. Both Sergeant Joseph Crabbe and Private Thomas Kelly had fallen ill by the time they arrived in France. Admitted to No. 2 Australian General Hospital in Marseilles, both soon died – Crabbe on 17 April from peritonitis and appendicitis and Kelly on 28 April from pneumonia and colitis. Both are buried at Mazargues War Cemetery in Marseilles.
As their comrades travelled to the battlefields of northern France, few of them could have imagined the ordeal that lay in store. For the next two-and-a-half years the Division would fight on the Western Front, the most decisive theatre of the war, and one that would ultimately cost the lives of more than 13,000 New Zealanders.
 Alexander Aitken, Gallipoli to the Somme: recollections of a New Zealand infantryman, Oxford University Press, London, 1963, p.55.
 William Alfred Prince, letter to Dearest Mother & All, 6 May 1916, William Alfred Prince MS2011/3, AWMM (as quoted in Glyn Harper, Johnny Enzed: the New Zealand soldier in the First World War 1914–1918, Exisle, Auckland, 2015, p.271).
 Cecil Malthus, Armentières and the Somme, Reed Books, Auckland, 2002, p.24.
 ‘CRABBE, Joseph Benedict - WW1 25/168 – Army’, AABK 18805 W5530 110/0029454, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; ‘KELLY, Thomas - [a.k.a. GRENNELL, Richard P] - WW1 10/3315 – Army’, AABK 18805 W5541 89/0063374, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.