Story: King, George Augustus

Page 1 - Biography

King, George Augustus

1885–1917

Sheepfarmer, military leader

This biography was written by W. David McIntyre and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

George Augustus King was born at Christchurch, New Zealand, on 3 March 1885, the son of George King, a merchant, and his wife, Elizabeth Clifton Wilson. Gus King was educated at Warwick House School and Christ's College, where he played in the First XV. Shepherding at Waitohi Peaks, North Canterbury, and surveying in Hawke's Bay preceded work on his father's sheep run at Gleniti, Nelson. On 25 October 1910 at Nelson, King married Annie Letitia Coster.

Keen on the army from an early age, King had served in the school cadets and later joined the Volunteer Force, becoming adjutant of the 1st Regiment North Canterbury Mounted Rifle Volunteers. In 1910 he applied to join the New Zealand Permanent Forces and received a commission as lieutenant on 14 January 1911. Two months later he was appointed to the New Zealand Staff Corps and posted to Hamilton as adjutant of the 4th (Waikato) Mounted Rifles.

In the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, which sailed in October 1914, King was staff captain to Colonel Andrew Russell, commander of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. During the Gallipoli landings the brigade remained in Egypt, but in May 1915 was sent to Anzac Cove as infantry. In the push to capture the peninsula during August, Russell's Mounted Rifles Brigade successfully secured the foothills. King recorded 'a great go for the past week', but was pained at the failure to consolidate the Wellington Battalion's capture of Chunuk Bair on 8 August. On the 16th, as a temporary major, King took over the remnant of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment. In the last major thrust of the campaign he was second in command of the unsuccessful attack on Hill 60 on 27 August. During the attack he was wounded, and he was sent to Egypt to recuperate.

King was appointed a DSO for his service at Gallipoli. As one of the best officers to survive the campaign he was given one of the toughest jobs when Major General Russell formed the New Zealand Division, namely command of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. This unit provided the skilled labour for making trenches, roads and tramways. It began as a combination of the original Maori Contingent, Maori reinforcements and the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment, and also included Rarotongans, Niueans and other Pacific islanders.

King moulded these disparate elements into a well-disciplined battalion, which went to France in April 1916. To break the monotony of trench digging they were permitted to send night-raiding parties across no man's land in the vicinity of Armentières in July 1916, but these were not successful. However, in the battle of the Somme in August and September the battalion distinguished itself at the front. The communications trench known as Turk Lane, which King dubbed 'our masterpiece', was 'just about the largest trench in France'. The Pioneers earned a reputation as the 'Digging Battalion' and soon their sobriquet, 'Diggers', was adopted for the New Zealand Division and, eventually, all the Anzacs.

Early in 1917 the battalion was moved to Belgium and in June took part in the battle of Messines (Mesen), building forward trenches and a tramline to bring up ammunition and evacuate wounded. A brief attachment to the French First Army with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade led to King's receipt of the Croix de guerre. After a short period of leave in England, on 30 August 1917 he took over as officer commanding the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment.

On 12 October 1917, during the battle for Passchendaele (Passendale) King was killed when a shell from the supporting barrage exploded on the battalion headquarters. His body was recovered by the Maori Pioneers, who buried him at Ypres (Ieper). King was survived by his wife, Annie, and two children. He was awarded a bar to the DSO posthumously in January 1918.

Gus King was one of the best of the first generation of the New Zealand Staff Corps. He was five feet nine inches in height, with blue eyes, brown hair and a clipped moustache. He loved sport and was a fine horseman. Pre-war confidential reports noted a 'good eye for country, a genial disposition, full of common sense', and that he had 'the knack of handling backblocks men'; when billeted with French civilians he preferred to sleep on the floor. His letters from Gallipoli and the western front show that he relished the activity of battle, yet he longed for the war to end and to get home. Though exasperated at times by his 'menagerie' of a battalion, King fully justified Russell's choice by creating one of the most admired Pioneer units among the empire's armies. Had he lived, he would very likely have been given command of a brigade. King was an effective commander, lost at age 32, before he had reached his prime.