Story: First World War
Page 2 – Initial response
Occupation of Samoa
New Zealand’s first wartime task was to carry out a British request to seize the radio station in German Samoa, as part of an effort to neutralise German territories in the Pacific (Japan did the same to German territories north of the equator, and Australia to New Guinea). A 1,374-strong expeditionary force occupied German Samoa on 29 August 1914. Samoa remained under New Zealand military administration until 1920.
At the 1917 imperial conference William Massey claimed New Zealand was the first to capture German territory. In fact Togoland in west Africa had already been captured by British and French forces. At the conference the next year he said, ‘So far as risk is concerned, I would sooner have six months on the Western Front than that fortnight in shipping carrying troops from New Zealand to Samoa.’1 He was referring to the danger of attack from the German squadron in the Pacific. But in fact the squadron posed no threat to the ships in transit because it was always well to the north.
The New Zealand government also turned its attention to how the country might assist the broad imperial effort. Maintaining the flow of produce on which Britain depended was important. This home-front effort, which also assisted the New Zealand economy, was a major element in New Zealand’s contribution to the overall war effort. Under bulk purchase agreements Britain agreed to take most of New Zealand’s exports at fixed prices, a highly favourable outcome for New Zealand’s farmers.
A military force
New Zealand aimed to contribute to the military effort as well, as it had done in the South African War of 1899–1902. With a navy that comprised one decrepit cruiser, and no air force, New Zealand’s soldiers provided the only means of doing so. The Defence Act 1909, which established New Zealand’s Territorial Force, had prepared the way by introducing compulsory military training. New Zealand had sent mounted horsemen to South Africa, though on a small scale; and New Zealand raised a mounted brigade in 1914. But infantry, the cheapest and most practical form of contribution, dominated the military force that New Zealand began creating in August 1914.
Based on the Territorial Force, the 8,454-strong New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was quickly assembled under the command of Alexander Godley, a British general on loan to New Zealand. It left New Zealand on 16 October 1914, the largest body of men (and horses) to leave New Zealand at any one time. The 10 troopships headed across the Tasman to link up with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Together they set out across the Indian Ocean bound for France to join the British Expeditionary Force that had been deployed there.
Among the NZEF troops there were some Māori, but Māori were generally excluded from the NZEF – the war was initially assumed to be a ‘white-man’s war’. Not until it became apparent that Indian troops would take part did the New Zealand government change tack. A Māori contingent followed the main body, going to Malta as garrison (guard) troops, and then on to Gallipoli. In all, 2,227 Māori served in the NZEF during the war.
Sustaining the NZEF required a steady flow of reinforcements. Men who volunteered for service trained for 14 weeks at Trentham, near Wellington, or at smaller camps elsewhere, and later at a major camp created at Featherston, in Wairarapa. Over the next four years 42 drafts, each roughly 2,000-strong, left New Zealand – approximately one every month.