New Zealand in 1914

New Zealand in 1914

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New Zealand was governed as an autonomous dominion of the British Empire. A national assembly was elected by universal suffrage but women were not allowed to become representatives. William Ferguson Massey, the leader of the Conservative Reform Party, was appointed prime minister in July 1912.

In 1914 New Zealand had a population of just over 1.1 million. Most of the population were the result of British emigration but there were also about 50,000 Maoris.

From the age of 12 all males in New Zealand received military training. In 1911 New Zealand formed a 25,000, part-time national militia. Most of the men who volunteered to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in August 1914 came from this Territorial Army.

History of New Zealand

The history of New Zealand (Aotearoa) dates back approximately 700 years to when it was discovered and settled by Polynesians, who developed a distinct Māori culture. Like other Pacific cultures, Māori society was centred on kinship links, unlike them, it was adapted to a cool, temperate environment rather than a warm, tropical one.

The first European explorer known to sight New Zealand was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman on 13 December 1642. [1] In 1643 he charted the west coast of the North Island, his expedition then sailed back to Batavia without setting foot on New Zealand soil. British explorer James Cook, who reached New Zealand in October 1769 on the first of his three voyages, was the first European to circumnavigate and map New Zealand. [2] From the late 18th century, the country was regularly visited by explorers and other sailors, missionaries, traders and adventurers.

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the United Kingdom and various Māori chiefs, bringing New Zealand into the British Empire and giving Māori the same rights as British subjects. Disputes over the differing translations of the Treaty and settler desire to acquire land from Māori led to the New Zealand Wars from 1843. There was extensive British settlement throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the early part of the next century. The effects of European infectious diseases, [3] the New Zealand Wars and the imposition of a European economic and legal system led to most of New Zealand's land passing from Māori to Pākehā (European) ownership, and Māori became impoverished.

The colony gained responsible government in the 1850s. From the 1890s the New Zealand Parliament enacted a number of progressive initiatives, including women's suffrage and old age pensions. After becoming a self-governing Dominion with the British Empire in 1907, the country remained an enthusiastic member of the empire, and over 100,000 New Zealanders fought in World War I as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. After the war, New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919), joined the League of Nations, and pursued an independent foreign policy, while its defence was still controlled by Britain. When World War II broke out in 1939, New Zealand contributed to the defence of Britain and the Pacific War the country contributed some 120,000 troops. From the 1930s the economy was highly regulated and an extensive welfare state was developed. From the 1950s Māori began moving to the cities in large numbers, and Māori culture underwent a renaissance. This led to the development of a Māori protest movement which in turn led to greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi in the late 20th century.

The country's economy suffered in the aftermath of the 1973 global energy crisis, the loss of New Zealand's biggest export market upon Britain's entry to the European Economic Community, and rampant inflation. In 1984, the Fourth Labour Government was elected amid a constitutional and economic crisis. The interventionist policies of the Third National Government were replaced by "Rogernomics", a commitment to a free market economy. Foreign policy after 1984 became more independent especially in pushing for a nuclear-free zone. Subsequent governments have generally maintained these policies, although tempering the free market ethos somewhat.

The War in the air

With no military flying corps in New Zealand, the many hundreds of adventurous Kiwis keen to be part of the war in the air had to make their own arrangements. By war’s end some 800 had served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or Royal Air Force (RAF), and a further 60 with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). About 200 of them either made their own way to Britain during wartime to join or were already working or studying there at the time. Approximately 300 others entered the air services by transferring from other British units or the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), two thirds being via the latter. In New Zealand two private enterprise flying schools were established that, with the agreement of the Army, trained over 250 pilots to Royal Aero Club aviator’s certificate standard by the time of the Armistice, 225 of whom went on to Britain.

Eighty percent or more served as aircrew, though, among others, a large portion of the trainee pilots from the New Zealand flying schools arrived on the scene too late to complete ground and/or flying training. About 10 % of the aircrew were observers, a few of whom later retrained as pilots. There was also a small number of New Zealanders serving as kite balloon observers, equipment, technical, administration or medical officers. Most of those who flew were officers (or cadets learning to fly and thereby become officers).

While aircrew were numbered in the thousands, backing them up on the ground were tens of thousands who by far made up the larger part of the air services. They were primarily from the ranks and operated in roles as diverse as clerk, driver, carpenter, fitter, rigger, mechanic and hydrogen worker. In the case of New Zealanders, however, for a variety of reasons, the proportionality of their contribution was the reverse, in that the bulk of their number were aircrew (or working towards that role) with only a 100 or so to be found in the ranks.

Only about 250 of the air and ground crew actually saw service with operational squadrons. For pilots, in particular, the route to get there was not always an easy one. It took time to train a man to fly (though not enough was given to this in the first half of the war). He might be killed or injured in a crash, washed out part way through this training or, having graduated and awarded his ‘wings’, be taken off flying temporary or even permanently as a result of fatigue or medical condition brought about by the rigours of hours of flying in the high altitude cold air in an open cockpit, while being buffeted about by slipstream and turbulence and assailed by continuous and unsuppressed engine noise. Once operational, there was then the additional stress of combat and the ever-present threat of death (especially the fear of it by fire in the air, there being no parachute available as a means of escape).

Flying schools

Following the outbreak of war, would-be pilots in New Zealand wrote to the Defence Department asking how they could qualify to join the Royal Flying Corps. Aviators Vivian and Leo Walsh also received enquiries and persuaded the government to approach the British authorities. They agreed to the granting of a Royal Aero Club aviator’s certificate (or ‘ticket’) by cable for each pilot upon graduation, provided official military observers had witnessed the qualifying flights.

Pioneering aviators Vivian and Austin Leonard (‘Leo’) Walsh opened their New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama on Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour in October 1915. Each student paid £100 (equivalent to around $13,700 today) for a ground course and flying lessons the British government refunded successful trainees £75. Pilots learned to fly in small flying boats operating from the beach. Initially, those who earned their ‘ticket’ and embarked for Britain received a temporary commission as a second lieutenant in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. From October graduates were embarked as cadets, with the promise of a commission later in England. In July 1916, Vivian Walsh became the first New Zealander to obtain an aviator’s certificate in New Zealand. By the Armistice, he and his fellow instructors had trained 83 pilots, 75 of whom embarked for Britain and of whom about a third got to serve with an operational unit.

In the South Island, aviation visionary Henry Wigram established the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Sockburn (now Wigram) aerodrome near Christchurch, in 1916. Training commenced on Caudron biplanes in August 1917 and 170 pilots had graduated by the Armistice. All but 20 sailed for Britain (as cadets temporarily attached to the NZEF), but only a handful got to fly operationally.

New Zealand airmen

New Zealand pilots enjoyed success disproportionate to their numbers. At least 12 commanded their own squadrons, including Keith Caldwell, Roderick Carr, Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, Cuthbert Maclean and Keith Park, all of whom were to serve with distinction during the Second World War.

‘Grid’ Caldwell, the second pilot to pass through the New Zealand Flying School, was one of the most widely respected fighter, or ‘scout’, pilots, on the Western Front. Under his astute leadership, No. 74 (‘Tiger’) Squadron became one of the RAF’s premier fighting units, being credited with more than 200 victories in 1918. Another Kohimarama trainee, Ronald Bannerman, enjoyed rapid and spectacular success, being credited with the destruction of 15 aircraft and a balloon in the space of three months from 4 August 1918. The intensity of air operations during this time of the Allied counter offensive against the Germans may be gauged by the 20 out of control claims recorded in his log book in addition to those credited as destroyed. Harold Beamish, Clive Collett and Malcolm ‘Mad Mac’ McGregor were other outstanding New Zealand fighter pilots.

When A Flight dived on some Huns below them, we went down to assist. As we started down I looked back, and saw the enemy machines to the east beginning to come down on top of us. When we arrived in the scrap there seemed to be Fokkers everywhere as, counting the 12 that followed us down, there must have been about 30 of them. Some neighbouring S.E.'s [British fighters] also joined in, and we had a great old scrap for about 15 minutes. How we avoided collisions I do not know. You could get your sights on a Hun for a second and then have to pull out to avoid being rammed by another S.E. converging on the same target. I fired at several, but could only be sure of one chap. He was only about 30 yards in front, firing at one of our machines, and by some lucky chance I managed to get about 40 rounds right into his cockpit. He went down vertically, completely out of control, and was seen to crash by one of our pilots.

Malcolm McGregor in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon and Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin book of New Zealanders at war, Penguin, North Shore, 2009, p. 235

Kiwi aces

Some fifteen New Zealand airmen are considered by some to have achieved 'ace' status during the First World War by destroying or driving down out of control at least five enemy aircraft, including the bringing down by fire of observation balloons. The most successful New Zealander was Ronald Bannerman closely followed by Keith (‘Grid’) Caldwell. The others were Keith Park, Arthur Coningham, Euan Dickson, Herbert Gillis, Clive Collett, Malcolm McGregor, Frederick Gordon, Herbert Drewitt, Thomas Culling, Forster Maynard, Carrick Paul and Alan J. L. Scott.

New Zealand airmen excelled in a range of roles and served in most theatres of the war. Wellington lawyer Alfred de Bathe Brandon hunted Zeppelin airships in the skies above England. On the night of 31 March 1916, his BE.2c biplane attacked Zeppelin L15 over London. The massive airship later fell into the English Channel, all but one of its 18 crew surviving to be taken prisoner. Credited with the victory, Brandon achieved fleeting fame until investigations concluded that anti-aircraft fire had inflicted the crucial damage. Awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his war service, Brandon remained convinced until his death in 1974 that he had shot down L15. Another New Zealander engaged in anti-Zeppelin work was Samuel Dawson of Masterton. In July 1918, he took part in the first ever air attack launched from an aircraft carrier, taking off from the converted cruiser HMS Furious in the North Sea to raid a German airship base at Tondern in Denmark.

Thames engineer Euan Dickson was one of the most successful bomber pilots of the war, taking part in 175 daylight raids (believed to be a record) over Belgium and Germany. Nelson pilot Reginald Kingsford flew long-range night bombing missions with Independent Force, a precursor to RAF Bomber Command. Hugh Reilly, from Hawke’s Bay, commanded No. 30 Squadron in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). As an officer in the Indian Army he learned to fly in 1912 and in 1913-1914 played an important role in the formation a Central Flying School in India. He became the first New Zealander to see action in the air, flying reconnaissance missions in France in September 1914, before being posted to Egypt, then to Mesopotamia in April 1915. He took command of the RFC Flight at Basra (which later became No. 30 Squadron) operatiing in support of operations against Ottoman-held Baghdad. Also serving in this unit was William Burn, the first New Zealand airman to die on active service. Returning to base on 30 July 1915, Burn’s aircraft suffered engine failure and had to make an emergency landing in a remote area. Attacked by Arab tribesmen, observer Burn and his Australian pilot were killed following a running battle.


New Zealand’s air war casualties were relatively high by the Armistice at least 65 had lost their lives while flying. Nearly half of them perished in accidents – a result of poor training, ignorance, and the pressure to replace losses with inadequately qualified pilots. Another 10 pilots died before demobilisation, including Samuel Dawson, who was lost off the coast of Finland in September 1919 while engaged on an operational flight from HMS Vindictive during the northern Russia campaign. Somewhat more fortunate were the two dozen forced to land or crash in occupied or neutral territory and taken prisoner or interned.

Those who survived the war experienced mixed fortunes. A select few gained permanent commissions in the pared-down RAF, some going on to play significant roles in the Second World War. The majority returned to New Zealand and hung up their flying helmets. A handful kept flying, giving ‘joyrides’ or attempting to establish more viable commercial ventures. A small number became flying instructors with aero clubs as they were formed from the late 1920s, or joined the territorial or permanent arm of the fledgling New Zealand air force, which utilised their experience and knowledge during the Second World War.

First World War - overview

New Zealand’s response to the outbreak of war was not only a matter of supporting Mother England self-interest was also at work. New Zealand was dependent on the British market for the sale of the wool, frozen meat and dairy products that dominated its economy. Anything that threatened this market threatened New Zealand's livelihood. New Zealand relied on Britain’s naval power to protect its physical integrity and its trade on the long haul to the British market.

HMS New Zealand

In 1909, Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward reacted to the perceived German threat by announcing that New Zealand would fund the construction of a battlecruiser for the Royal Navy. Construction of HMS New Zealand cost £1.7 million ($275 million in 2014).

On the outbreak of war in 1914 HMS New Zealand joined the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet in the Baltic Sea. It saw action against the German fleet in all three of the major North Sea battles. During the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 Captain Green wore the piu piu (a waist mat or cape with long swinging strands of flax) and tiki (a neck pendant) presented during the 1913 tour, as he had in the earlier battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank. HMS New Zealand escaped significant damage and casualties and established a reputation as a lucky ship, which some attributed to the piu piu and tiki.

In 1919, Admiral Jellicoe took a Royal Navy fleet on another tour of the dominions to report on their defences, and he chose HMS New Zealand as his flagship. In New Zealand, crowds once more flocked to visit the ship. More than a third of the country’s population of 1.2 million people went aboard during the 11 weeks it was here. Jellicoe returned to New Zealand as Governor-General in 1920.

HMS New Zealand was decommissioned in 1922 and broken up in 1923.

Turning boys into soldiers

Ultimately, New Zealand's greatest contribution to the war effort was the supply of 120,000 service personnel, of whom nearly 100,000 served overseas. The foundations of this massive mobilisation had been laid in the years leading up to war through organisations such as the Boy Scouts and through the introduction of compulsory military training in 1909.

Boy Scouts

Preparing boys for war is not something we associate with the modern scouting movement. Robert Baden-Powell, a lieutenant-general in the British Army, held the first scouting encampment at Brownsea Island in England in 1907. His principles of scouting, published in Scouting for Boys (1908), were based on his earlier military books. Scouting aimed to teach boys ‘peaceful citizenship’ – moral values, patriotism, discipline and outdoor skills – through games and activities and to produce patriots capable of defending the British Empire.

In 1908, David Cossgrove and his wife Selina received Baden-Powell’s permission to organise the Boy Scout movement in New Zealand. Cossgrove, who had met Baden-Powell while serving in the South African War, was convinced of the value of such a movement for young New Zealanders. He wrote to the leading newspapers in the country explaining the nature of scouting. By the end of 1908, there were 36 Scout troops in New Zealand.

Compulsory military training

Growing international tension meant that there was little opposition to the passing of a new Defence Act in December 1909. This replaced the Volunteer Force with a Territorial Force. It also introduced compulsory military training. All boys aged between 12 and 14 had to undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets (this requirement was dropped in 1912). Teachers surpervised this training. Voluntary cadet groups had existed prior to the passage of the Defence Act.

New Zealand in the Naval War 1914-1918

Now that the last and most formidable of our enemies has acknowledged that triumph of the Allied Fleet and troops on behalf of right and justice I wish to express my praise and thankfulness to the officers, men and women of the Royal Navy and Marine and their comrades of the Fleet Auxiliaries and Mercantile Marine, who for more than four years have kept open the seas, protected our shores and given us safety. Ever since that fateful 4th August 1914 I have remained steadfast in my confidence that the Royal Navy would once more prove the sure shield of the British Empire in the hour of trial. Never in its history has the Royal Navy with God’s help done greater things for us nor better sustained its old glories and chivalry of the seas. With full and grateful hearts the peoples of the British Empire salute the White, the Red and the Blue Ensigns and those who have given their lives for the flag. I am proud to have served in the Navy and I am prouder still to be its head on this memorable day.

George R.I.

HMS Philomel

When war broke out in 1914 New Zealand was still very much attempting to determine the most appropriate forces necessary for the defence of the country. This was even more evident in respect of naval defence. The New Zealand Naval Forces had been established under the Naval Defence Act of 1913 and would be supported by the New Zealand Division of the China Station, comprising HM ships Psyche, Pyramus, and Torch, based at Auckland. HMS Philomel was commissioned for service under the New Zealand Government on 15 July 1914, under the command of Captain Percival Henry Hall-Thompson RN, who was also Naval Adviser to the New Zealand Government.

HMS Philomel was a third-class cruiser of the ‘Pearl’ class which had been laid down at Devonport Dockyard, England, on 9 May 1889. Of 2,575 tons, 265 feet in length, armed with eight 4.7 inch guns, eight 3 pounder guns and four 14 inch torpedo tubes, Philomel had a speed of 17 knots. The ship was commissioned on 10 November 1891 and spent the majority of the next 21 years around Africa.

At the commencement of hostilities, Philomel was placed under the operational control of the Senior Officer of the ‘New Zealand Division’. The first offensive action taken by New Zealand at the outbreak of the war was, at the invitation of the Imperial Government, to occupy German Samoa. A composite force was raised from the Dominion and sailed from New Zealand escorted by the cruisers of the New Zealand Division including Philomel. After this, the next major employment for the ship was as an escort for the troopships conveying the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt. At Albany, Philomel left the troopships and spent the next two years serving with the Royal Navy in the Middle East. She initially served in the eastern Mediterranean, where a landing party from the ship encountered Turkish Forces and sustained New Zealand’s first naval casualties. In the main, however, Philomel spent the war in the Persian Gulf. For a short time during 1916. Generally operations in the area comprised keeping the peace and maintaining a British presence. Captain Hall-Thompson was Senior Naval Officer in the area for much of 1916.

By the end of 1916, it was apparent that Philomel was in need of a major refit. There was considerable discussion as to the value of spending a large sum of money on such an old ship. Philomel returned to New Zealand to pay off to become a depot ship, under a care and maintenance party. The ship’s armament was removed and fitted on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships.

New Zealand Volunteers

With only a single cruiser comprising the New Zealand Naval Forces, the majority of New Zealanders who wished to serve at sea during the war were compelled to join the Royal Navy. Simply having a desire to join the navy was not enough if you were a New Zealander during WWI. With the Army in charge of the Defence Department, men of military age could not leave the country for naval service unless they had prior approval from the Headquarters New Zealand Military Forces. This effectively precluded recruiting men for service in the Royal Navy in New Zealand.

One significant group in this latter category were the nearly 200 men who volunteered for service in the small vessels of the Motor Boat Patrol. Although technically Royal Naval personnel, those who joined for the period of hostilities were not forgotten by the New Zealand Government, which topped up the pay of married men to the level being received by equivalent ranks of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. These men, and at least two women, were from varied backgrounds. They were involved in virtually every aspect of the war at sea between 1914 and 1918, and indeed, some even served in the Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks in Russia during 1919. They were at sea with the Grand Fleet, in the Air with the Royal Naval Air Service, beneath the waves in submarines and as Chaplains and Wrens.

The Motor Boat Reserve was one of the responses to the very real threat to the survival of Britain posed by German submarines. In mid 1916 a small Royal Navy team arrived in New Zealand to recruit officers and motor mechanics for the Reserve, having previously recruited personnel in Canada. This recruiting tour received unique exemption from the normal prohibition of men being allowed to leave the country to enter naval service.

A number of the New Zealanders serving in the Motor Boat Reserve distinguished themselves in action. In particular there were a number involved in the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend in April and May 1918, about a third of whom were decorated for gallantry. In the main, however the work of the patrol was monotonously uneventful, albeit essential.

A few examples represent the variety of service experienced by New Zealanders and their contribution to the war effort. Alexander David Boyle, from Christchurch, was a regular Royal Navy officer who spent the war in the battle cruiser HMS New Zealand. Lieutenant Commander William Sanders RNR, from Takapuna, won the Victoria Cross serving in Q Ships and lost his life in this third encounter with a submarine. Sub Lieutenant Frederick Manning joined the Royal Naval Air Service and became an Observer. Miss Enid Bell from a prominent Wellington family became one of the first women to join the newly established Women’s Royal Emergency Naval Service in 1917.

Enemy on our doorstep

While the main thrust of the war was in Europe, it is often forgotten that hostilities were brought to New Zealand’s door step in 1917. In June of that year SMS Wolf laid mines in the shipping lane to the immediate north of the country and in the approaches to Cook Strait. Disposing of this menace, which claimed two ships, was another vital part of the war at sea. With no minesweepers in New Zealand, two trawlers, Nora Niven and Simplon, were chartered and converted for minesweeping using equipment manufactured locally. Working as a pair with naval personnel providing guidance, these vessels accounted for all of the mines swept in the two fields laid by Wolf. Later a third trawler, Hananui II, was fitted with special deep water sweeping gear and worked on the northern field. Some mines were washed ashore. Several broke free from their moorings and simply disappeared into the Pacific.

New Zealand’s contribution

Less visible contributions to the war at sea were also made by New Zealand. A major effort was in the provision of coal for naval ships. Westport coal was ideal for such purposes, unlike, for example Australian coal which burned at too high a temperature, causing damage to the interior of ships’ boilers. New Zealand’s coal output was largely exported for naval use resulting in a lack of supply on the domestic market and coal having to be imported from Australia.

A Naval Intelligence Centre was established in Wellington reporting direct to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board in Melbourne, but also providing information to Esquimalt and the Cape of Good Hope as necessary.

The New Zealand marine radio stations were integrated into the Royal Navy’s world wide network, with operators being trained in naval procedures and keeping a listening watch for enemy signal traffic. With the occupation of German Samoa the radio station at Apia joined this network and co-operation was also received from the French station at Papeete.

Although by no means a New Zealand Naval unit, HMS New Zealand was a ship of special importance to the people of this country. It had been gifted to the Royal Navy in 1910 and with a few New Zealanders on board, served with distinction in the Grand Fleet throughout the war. New Zealanders showed a special interest in ‘our gift’ battle ship and its activities were well reported.

Some factors behind the outbreak of war


The Prussian-led unification of Germany in the latter half of the 19th century was partially achieved through a war with France (1870–71). The emergence of a large German state in the middle of Europe altered the continent’s geopolitical dynamics and left France desperate for revenge.

Further east in the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire faced problems with conflicting national groups that threatened Austrian control. In particular, Serbia wanted to unite all Slavs in the region under its control, an ambition in which the Russian Empire supported it. Germany backed Austria’s opposition to Serbian demands.


Great Britain, Germany and France were rivals in the economic exploitation of Africa. Several incidents involving Germany in Africa aroused the suspicions of Britain and France, who resolved their differences in the region in an attempt to protect what they had. They were concerned that Germany was challenging the established colonial order.

In the Middle East, the crumbling Ottoman (Turkish) Empire added to tensions between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Serbia.

The European alliances

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Germany tried to isolate France. In 1872, the Germans formed an alliance with Russia and Austria-Hungary that proved hard to maintain because of the rivalries over the Balkans. By 1891, France had secured its own alliance with Russia.

Britain did its best to keep out of Europe and concentrate on its vast empire. Some of the actions and policies of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, challenged this stance. Wilhelm angered Britain in 1896 when he formally congratulated the South African Boers for defeating a British-backed raid into Transvaal. His investment in Germany’s navy was seen as a direct challenge to Britannia’s claim to rule the waves.

Britain responded by strengthening its diplomatic links with France and its ally Russia. In 1907, these powers established an informal coalition, the Triple Entente.

Planning for war

The standing armies of France and Germany doubled in size between 1870 and 1914. Great Britain had a policy of maintaining a navy two and a half times as large as any rival. Germany’s naval expansion sparked a naval arms race.

Europe narrowly avoided war in 1908. Austria-Hungary annexed the former Ottoman province of Bosnia, thwarting Serbia in the process. In response, Serbia began to mobilise its army (with the support of Russia). When Germany threatened war in defence of its Austrian ally, Russia and Serbia backed down.

These tensions prompted many nations to make detailed plans for military mobilisation. For Germany, any plan had to consider the possibility of a war on two fronts, so its scheme involved crushing one rival quickly. Once begun, mobilisation would be difficult if not impossible to reverse. This was illustrated by Germany’s von Schlieffen Plan, developed in 1905. Based on the need to defeat France before Russia had time to react, German forces would invade France through Belgium to avoid the French border defences. Belgium posed no serious military threat to this plan, although Britain had formally guaranteed its neutrality since 1839. Germany felt that ultimately Britain would not risk war to save Belgium.

Death in Sarajevo

In May 1914, the Serbian government became aware of a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand. There was evidence that high-ranking Serbian military figures were involved, and Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the chief of intelligence in the Serbian army, almost certainly helped arm those selected to kill the archduke.

The Serbian ambassador in Vienna gave vague warnings about a possible assassination attempt. The archduke insisted on going ahead with a planned visit in June. He and his wife had a narrow escape from one attempt on their lives in Sarajevo on the morning of 28 June, and they continued with their official business that afternoon. But their motorcade took a wrong turn and stopped within metres of one of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip. Unlike his colleagues that morning, Princip did not fail.

Germany gave Austria a blank cheque to take any action it deemed appropriate. Austria-Hungary issued Serbia with a harsh ultimatum that effectively revoked the latter’s national sovereignty. Although Serbia consented to almost every point in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary exploited disagreements on a number of minor points to declare war on 28 July 1914.

Like falling dominoes

Next day Russia ordered a partial mobilisation against Austria-Hungary. Germany responded by threatening Russia with war if it did not stop this process. France reacted to the prospect of a Russo-German war by mobilising its own forces. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and on France two days later. When the von Schlieffen Plan was activated, the invasion of Belgium prompted Britain to declare war on Germany on 4 August. The First World War had begun.

On the other side of the world, Wellington received word of Britain's declaration of war on 5 August. The governor, Lord Liverpool, announced the news from the steps of Parliament to a crowd of more than 12,000 people. New Zealanders regarded themselves as British and Britain as home, so there was little hesitation in supporting the Mother Country in its moment of crisis.

New Zealanders’ emotional response to the outbreak of war reflected the Dominion’s close ties with Great Britain. Germany’s invasion of Belgium, another small country, struck a chord with many. The militaristic atmosphere of the time contributed to the enthusiasm with which most New Zealanders entered the war.

1993: The introduction of the MMP voting system

A binding referendum in 1993 led New Zealand to change its voting system from the traditional first past the post (FPP) approach to the more inclusive mixed-member proportional (MMP) method. This is touted as being the most dramatic change in New Zealand’s electoral history after the women’s suffrage movement – allowing more political parties to emerge, thus enabling parliament to become more representative of the society at large.

Meanwhile, in the South Island settlements things were going very well. Settlers set up sheep farms on the extensive grasslands and Canterbury became the country’s wealthiest province. Gold was discovered in Otago in 1861 and then on the West Coast, helping to make Dunedin New Zealand’s largest town.

In the 1870s, the government helped thousands of British people start a new life in New Zealand. Railways were built and towns sprang up or expanded.

In 1882, the first shipment of frozen meat from New Zealand made it successfully to England, proving that exporting chilled meat, butter and cheese was possible. New Zealand became a key supplier to Britain.

With an economy based on agriculture, much of the forest that originally covered New Zealand was cleared for farmland.

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Military Records

Auckland Cenotaph Database
Search for biographical and service details for over 115,000 New Zealand service men and women from the 19th century till today and especially from World War One and World War Two.
New Zealand Military Pensions
New Zealand Military Pensions for the years 1900 and 1902 sorted alphabetically by surname. Extracted from the Statutes of New Zealand.
New Zealand WWI Personnel Files
A database of all known New Zealanders that served in World War One. Over 140,000 individual records have been digitised comprising around 4 million individual images.
New Zealand WW1 Soldiers
These are the four volumes of the embarkation rolls of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 produced by the Government Printer, Wellington. They cover both male and female service personnel.

Newspaper Archives

Papers Past
Papers Past is a digital archive of historic New Zealand newspapers and periodicals. The archive covers the years 1839 to 1945 and includes 70 publications from all regions of New Zealand.

School Records

New Zealand University Records
New Zealand university graduates listed alphabetically for the years 1870-1961.

Societies and Groups

New Zealand Society of Genealogists
To provide educational opportunities and research resources for the development of knowledge, skills and practice in family history, genealogy and whakapapa for members and the wider community.

Wills and Probate

New Zealand Probate Records 1843-1998
Images and index for probate records from Archives New Zealand. The records were created by various courts throughout New Zealand. Although the index will contain entries up through 1998 when all images have been captured, the images for probates issued during the past 50 years are unavailable for viewing. The original records are located in the Archives New Zealand offices situated in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.


New Zealand has a rich and fascinating history, reflecting our unique mix of Māori and European culture.

Today New Zealand is home to more than 5 million people. Learn more about how our cultural diversity came about in this young country.

Māori were the first to arrive in New Zealand, journeying in canoes from Hawaiki about 1,000 years ago. A Dutchman, Abel Tasman, was the first European to sight the country but it was the British who made New Zealand part of their empire.

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, an agreement between the British Crown and Maori. It established British law in New Zealand and is considered New Zealand’s founding document and an important part of the country's history. The building where the treaty was signed has been preserved and, today, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are a popular attraction.

You'll find amazing Māori historic sites and taonga (treasures) - as well as beautiful colonial-era buildings - dotted throughout the country. A walk around any New Zealand city today shows what a culturally diverse and fascinating country we have become.

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