WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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The New Zealand Expeditionary Force sets forth

Matthew Tonks - Web Adviser in the WW100 Programme Office

When the Main Body and 1st Reinforcements of the NZEF departed from Wellington on 16 October 1914 they became the single largest group of New Zealanders ever to leave these shores.

Troops of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles boarding HMNZ Transport No.4 Tahiti

On 6 August, shortly after the First World War broke out, Britain accepted New Zealand’s offer of an expeditionary force of approximately 8000 men. When countrywide recruiting for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s (NZEF) ‘Main Body’ began on 8 August 1914, the response was overwhelming. Thousands of men eager to embark on the biggest adventure of their lives rushed to volunteer.

The Main Body (plus the 1st Reinforcements) was the largest single group of New Zealanders ever to leave these shores. About 8,500 men – and nearly 4,000 horses – sailed from Wellington on 16 October 1914. They were transported in 10 troopships, which the government had requisitioned from commercial shipping lines. Before they were loaded with men, horses, ammunition, equipment and supplies the ships were hurriedly repainted a uniform Admiralty grey – one ship was completely repainted in less than four days.

The numbers of men that left Wellington that day was significantly boosted by the addition of two Auckland troopships. These had been expected instead to meet the rest of the fleet in the Tasman Sea, but sailed with the Main Body from Wellington to avoid the threat posed by a squadron of German warships at large in the Pacific Ocean. The British and Japanese navies provided a naval escort to protect the troops on their voyage from Wellington to Albany, Australia, where they joined the ships carrying the Australian Imperial Force en route to Egypt.

The fleet of troopships which transported the Main Body of the NZEF and their escort in Wellington Harbour, 15 October 1914. Image courtesy of Matt Pomeroy.

Throughout August, in preparation for the departure of the Main Body, columns of volunteers marched through their home towns en route to the four regional mobilisation camps. Each of New Zealand’s four military districts had one camp where NZEF units were being formed and equipped. Auckland recruits were sent to Alexandra Park, those from the Wellington region made the trip to Awapuni Racecourse in Palmerston North, Canterbury’s volunteers went first to Addington Park then Sockburn Park in Christchurch, and those from Otago military district camped at Tahuna Park in Dunedin.

Before the troops departed for camps there were a series of farewells. There were personal farewells – where families said goodbye to their loved ones – as well as civic farewells in towns throughout the country. People lined the streets, waved flags and cheered on the troops as they set off. Family and friends gathered on railway station platforms for a last, anxious, farewell.

A mother says goodbye to her son, a sergeant in the NZEF Main Body. Image courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum. You can find a colourised version on our Facebook page.

Scene in Masterton on 10 August 1914, as the first Wairarapa volunteers left for training prior to going to war. Image courtesy of Wairarapa Archive.

Wairarapa locals farewell the Masterton Ambulance Corps from the Masterton railway station, August 1914. Image courtesy of Wairarapa Archives.

Otago Infantry Battalion march through Dunedin’s Octagon in September 1914. Image from the Otago Witness.

Each of the four military districts was responsible for raising a quarter of the Main Body force, and recruiting officers were initially spoilt for choice. New Zealand was well prepared to mobilise troops at the beginning of the war thanks to the creation of the Territorial Force in 1911, which used compulsory part-time training to create a 30,000-strong army. Almost half of the Main Body force were active Territorials. Only men aged between 20 and 40 were eligible to enlist in the Main Body, although underage and overage soldiers managed to slip through. Recruits had to be at least 162.5 cm tall, weigh 76 kg or less, and be physically fit. Medical rejection rates for 1914 averaged 25 percent.

On 23 September 1914, the NZEF battalions and regiments closed down their camps and boarded the transport ships waiting for them in Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. The plan was that the South Island troops would leave from Wellington with the Wellington troopships, and the Auckland transports from Auckland. The whole convoy was to rendezvous in the Tasman Sea before proceeding to Albany, Western Australia, to join up with the Australian Imperial Force.

Members of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles join those from the Canterbury Infantry Regiment on board H.M.N.Z. Transport No.4, Tahiti, and H.M.N.Z. Transport No.11, Athenic, at Lyttelton on 23 September 1914. Courtesy of Archives New Zealand (Archives Ref: AEGA 18982, PC4/1569)

HMS Philomel and HMNZ Transport No.12 Waimana berthed at Auckland in September 1914, shortly before making the trip to join the rest of the Main Body fleet. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 1-W1582A.

The following day (24 September) the Canterbury and Otago ships made their way to Wellington and the Auckland ships set off towards North Cape. That evening, as the Auckland ships HMNZ Transport No.8 Star of India and HMNZ Transport No.12 Waimana steamed northwards with 2143 men and 891 horses on board, they were sent an urgent message ordering them to return to the Waitemata Harbour. Prime Minister William Massey was worried about the threat posed by the powerful warships of the German East Asia Squadron, which remained at large in the Pacific Ocean. Until a proper escort of Allied naval vessels could be provided, Massey would not allow the Main Body to leave New Zealand waters.

Captain Colvin Algie, of the Auckland Infantry Battalion, kept a diary while on board the Waimana. On 24 September he wrote:

There was much speculation as to our route from North Head but we were soon aware of one fact when we passed Tiri [Tiritiri Matangi Island] – we were not, as rumoured, going to Wellington. The colonel informed us at lunch that we were in more or less great danger for a few days until we pick up our full convoy…. About 9 pm we received a message to turn back with all speed to Auckland and many were the conjectures as to the reason when we heard the news.

His entry for the following day describes the confusion of the men when they realised they were heading back to Auckland:

This morning early we were inside Tiri again and with Rangitoto in sight. Most of the men were unaware of our having turned and could hardly believe their eyes when they recognised the landmarks. So far we have not learned the real reason but have now formed a good idea why we turned.

After Auckland’s false start, the other regions’ ships emptied their troops into camps around Wellington. The departure was delayed for three weeks until a ‘more powerful naval escort’ arrived in the form of the armoured cruiser HMS Minotaur and the Japanese battlecruiser IJN Ibuki. The Auckland ships were redirected to Wellington, where they arrived on 14 October.

At last, with a proper escort available, the Main Body was ready to depart for Albany. Men representing all regions of New Zealand embarked on their respective ships, which gathered in Wellington Harbour.

A typical embarkation scene in Wellington shortly before the departure of the Main Body. Courtesy of Archives New Zealand (Archives Ref: AAME 8106, 11/17/3, R20939655)

The Main Body left Wellington in one great fleet early in the morning of 16 October 1914. Along the city’s hilltops, lines of hardy Wellingtonians stood and watched as the convoy formed up at the harbour entrance.

Colonel George Malone, on board HMNZ Transport No.10 Arawa, wrote of the departure:

No noise, anchor got up quietly and each ship seemed to slip away and take up its place in line… A most impressive sight, grim but harmonious. All was grey bar men.

This event marks the only time in New Zealand’s history to date that so many men have gathered together and departed our shores with a singular purpose. Many of them would never see New Zealand again.

Date added: 10 October 2014 | Last updated: 29 October 2014