Training for the Front
When war was declared in 1914, the rush to enlist overwhelmed New Zealand’s army training facilities. Massey University historian Glyn Harper says soldiers often signed-up with of a sense of duty, or thinking war was a great adventure, or simply to go with their mates. By January 1916, NZ’s largest training camp was opened in Featherston, north of Wellington. The 250 buildings took 1000 men six months and 30 tonnes of nails to build. After four months basic training, soldiers like the O’Gorman boys left camp for their long march back to the capital, across the Rimutaka mountain range. 100,444 men and women served overseas in WWI, nearly 10% of New Zealand’s total population in 1914.
The diary entries of a local priest, Achiel Van Walleghem, record that New Zealand troops earned themselves a reputation for hard partying when off-duty. Men behind the lines had money to burn and steam to let off steam in Van Walleghem’s village Reninghelst. The nearby town of Poperinge became known as ‘Little Paris’ for its lively nightlife. The priest often billeted officers, learning of troop movements. He witnessed the arrival of the first tanks and noted the increasing importance of the artillery. He visited the camps of the Chinese Labour Corps and on June 7, 1917 awoke early to see the enormous mines of the Battle of Messines exploding. His observation of young Kiwi troops is typically sharp.
For the Allies, the Battle of Messines was one of 1917’s most successful summer operations. Carefully prepared over two years, the troops were highly trained for the well-planned attack. Tunneling under the German-occupied ridge was always dangerous and both sides used underground listening devices to each others’ tunnels and mines. At 3.10am on the June 7th, 19 huge British explosions ripped apart the ridge, with shocking plumes of fire an eyewitness describes as “the most diabolical splendour”. Allied spirits were high when troops easily captured the town by 7.00am, and proudly collected German equipment as war trophies. The rapid summer advance at Messines later bogged down in winter mud, at the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele in October.