Our Boys in Camp – Hawke’s Bay goes to war (part 2)

By the spring [1]  of 1914, Hawke’s Bay’s first contingent of volunteers were settling in to soldiering life at Awapuni mobilisation camp in Palmerston North.

Awapuni was the largest of New Zealand’s four initial mobilisation camps and the muster point for the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, the Wellington Infantry Battalion, the New Zealand Field Artillery, Field and Signal Troops of the NZ Engineers, Company of Divisional Signallers and Mounted Field Ambulance.

The transformation of the site from picturesque country racecourse – with stock grazing on the oval, and spring flowers opening on carefully tended flower beds – to one of the busiest spots in New Zealand, took place over a matter of days in mid-August. Hundreds of Territorials and civilian volunteers from Palmerston North and Fielding joined fatigue parties to assist in construction of the camp – doing everything from lay water pipes to pitching tents, all in the abysmal weather typical of early spring. As soon as the camp was complete, thousands of men began to stream in from across the Wellington military district.

It’s easy enough to understand the fervour of these first volunteers – eager for adventure in defence of the British Empire, buoyed by childhood stories of the South African War and the daily reports of great battles and Allied victories in the papers. After youthful years spent at war games in the Territorials, their chance had come.

As Ormond Burton wrote in The Silent Division, “There was enthusiasm and a haze of rather splendid feeling. A great adventure was opening up. All the humdrum of life suddenly fell away and men were like young gods in a new world of romance.” [2]

Captain Jickell’s ‘Dreadnought’

On arrival at Palmerston North train station, after the journey down the line from Hawke’s Bay, the new recruits were met by a vast steam motor-lorry, owned and driven by Captain Jickell. Men and bags were piled on Jickell’s ‘Dreadnought’ to the upmost limit, “swarming upon it like flies” [3] (up to 63 men and 23 swags in one load) and transported down to camp, navigating a constant stream of traffic, on what had become one of New Zealand’s busiest thoroughfares.[4]

Tent on Tent

Mobilisation camp, Awapuni, August or September 1914. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 3162, gifted by Mrs Florence Le Lievre

Mobilisation camp, Awapuni, August or September 1914. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 3162, gifted by Mrs Florence Le Lievre

On arrival at camp new recruits would have been greeted by the impressive spectacle of orderly lines of tents, horse lines of patiently tethered horses, and a busy scene of vehicles, artillery, cookhouses, smoking fires, and khaki uniforms of every description.

The numbers of men at Awapuni grew over August and early September, until there were well over 2000 men in camp, and over 850 horses. Each bell tent housed eight men, as well as their kit, rifles and equipment.[5]

‘For the benefit of our feet’

Training commenced at once and largely consisted of physical exercises and route marching, musketry and drill. There was every expectation that the men would have to entrain for Wellington, and sail to Europe within days.

The daily route marches, of 12 – 15 miles, in full outfit, were as one trooper put it, “for the benefit of our feet”.’6] A popular route was to Ashurst and back. On one occasion the Wellington Regiment took a route march to Fielding, where they were entertained on arrival at the racecourse, with delicacies provided by the women of the town.[7]

Equipping the men for the front was another important activity at the camp. All the military equipment available in New Zealand at the outbreak of war was on issue to the Territorial Force, and while men left for camps as thoroughly equipped as possible by their local Regiment, shortages had to be made up. Public calls were made for all manner of items from saddlery to binoculars.

Despite the pace of activity, there were opportunities for leave and the public of Palmerston North undertook all manner of activities to entertain the troops. Ormond Burton wrote that “Khaki … seemed to have a very potent influence over the youth and beauty of the towns, and this was as it should be for all felt themselves to be heroes in advance, as it were, and therefore due for a little hero worship.”[8]

In camp, the YMCA marquee was well attended by soldiers, with supplies of games and reading materials (donated by the public), concerts and religious services. The YMCA also forwarded letters home for the men in training, over 4000 had been sent by the 4 September.[9]

‘Bundled off home’

Discipline in camp was strict. To encourage good behaviour men were told that on view of the large number of volunteers anyone who committed a breach of discipline would be excluded from the final selection.[10] Examples were made of any volunteers who ignored regulations, even for comparatively minor offences. Among those dismissed were two Napier volunteers (identities as yet undiscovered), absent without leave for two days, who were “bundled off home” on 8 September.[11]

At Awapuni underage men were also gradually discovered and returned home from camp. Young men under 20 were not eligible to sign up, and although care was taken, many slipped through the net. Anxious parents up and down the country lobbied the government to ensure the young men were sent home and to improve enlistment procedures, by requiring the production of birth certificates.

An imposing spectacle

There were a number of opportunities for members of the public to visit Awapuni, and on 23 August the gates were thrown open to the public to inspect the goings-on in camp, and for many to see their husbands, brothers and sons, one last time before their departure. Up to 8000 visitors attended on the open day, and would have included many people from Hawke’s Bay, who would have travelled down for the day.

On the 24 August, Major General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the NZEF, made an inspection of the camp. At 11 o’clock the various units, to a total strength of 81 officers and 2680 other ranks, drew up in front of the grandstand.

In Godley’s speech to the men he hoped they would “all remember that in their hands lay the honour of the New Zealand territorial regiments, from which the regiments of the NZEF were formed. I wish you bon voyage and God speed and remember that the whole of New Zealand will be watching you, this district in particular, and they will expect to see, as I have said before, something more than ordinary from the men who are here today.”[12]

The reporter for Napier’s Daily Telegraph, present on the day of inspection, reported that the Hawke’s Bay men he spoke to were in good spirits and excellent health and getting ‘good tucker’. He also loyally reported, that the 9th looked one of the best on parade and took back a report from one young contingenter who said “Our kits presented by the ladies of Napier are easily the best of the lot, and it was not until we had arrived her that we really valued so highly as we should.”[13]

‘Toe Footry and Frowsy Grooms’

9th (Wellington East Coast) Mounted Rifles squadron at Awapuni.  Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, M2004/6/3 [91283], Gifted by Dale Connelley The squadron was commanded by Major Selwyn Chambers (d. 7 August 1915); 2nd in command was Captain Charles Robert Spragg (and possibly pictured on lead horse), with Lieutenants Norman Donald Cameron (d. 30 May 1915), Percy Tivy Emerson (d. 30 May 1915), Arthur Frederick Batchelar, and 2nd Lieutenant Henry Beresford Maunsell (possibly the four men behind Spragg).  Chambers may have taken this photograph. The Gallipoli campaign would destroy the original NZMR Brigade.  Half of those who served at Gallipoli died, or were wounded. All would fall sick.

9th (Wellington East Coast) Mounted Rifles squadron at Awapuni. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, M2004/6/3 [91283], Gifted by Dale Connelley
The squadron was commanded by Major Selwyn Chambers (d. 7 August 1915); 2nd in command was Captain Charles Robert Spragg (and possibly pictured on lead horse), with Lieutenants Norman Donald Cameron (d. 30 May 1915), Percy Tivy Emerson (d. 30 May 1915), Arthur Frederick Batchelar, and 2nd Lieutenant Henry Beresford Maunsell (possibly the four men behind Spragg). Chambers may have taken this photograph.
The Gallipoli campaign would destroy the original NZMR Brigade. Half of those who served at Gallipoli died, or were wounded. All would fall sick.

For these men, thrown together from across the lower North Island at Awapuni, it was the first step in an increasing circle of identification, comradeship, and rivalry that would take them from their local unit and tie them to their regiment, to the NZEF, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and finally to the 8.7 million men [14] who would serve in the British Army.

Of the friendly rivalries which sprang up at Awapuni, one of the keenest was between the infantry and mounted men. One unnamed volunteer reported to his local paper that “the horsemen call the footmen the “toe footry” and smile pityingly as they pass them on the road, while the man with a pack on his back and a rifle on his shoulder calls his mounted friend the “frowsy groom”.[15]

Anxiety to go

Throughout the busy weeks of training at Awapuni, was a current of impatience and anxiety that the war might be over before the New Zealanders had a chance to fight. The fleet of troopships was almost ready but the government was close-lipped about a departure date for the force. Rumours abounded, equipment was packed and unpacked, finally, over the three days of 21st, 22nd and 23rd September the camp was emptied of men, as they left for Wellington by train, on the next stage of the journey.


Today, even at a 100 years distance, it isn’t easy to write about these first small steps in New Zealand’s path to war with composure. Knowing what was to come, that by the end of the following year, almost all of these young men of the first contingent would be casualties of the Gallipoli campaign, has lost none of its impact.

In my next post I’ll write about the preparation of New Zealand’s fleet of troopships, and activity in Wellington before the eventual departure of the convoy on 15 October 1914.

Eloise Wallace
Curator of Social History

1 An Awapuni spring joke, as reported in the Evening Post, 26 August 1914.
“One of the best that has gone the rounds – whether it was invented in Awapuni or not cannot of course, be said – has relation to the trees which surround the racecourse. The narrator will inform you gravely that it has been decided to shift the camp to some other spot because the present site is considered dangerous. You do not believe him of course and he replies with the reason “Why?” he replies “because the trees are shooting!” And then it occurs to you that it is springtime.”
2 The Silent Division
3 The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1914
4 Evening Post, 19 August 1914
5 The Press has recently digitised a number of 1914 lantern slides, some of which show the Wellington contingent at Awapuni, and can be viewed here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/photos/6659839/WWI-era-photos-unearthed-by-The-Press
6 Evening Post, 4 September 1914
7 The Wellington Regiment
8 The Silent Division
9 Evening Post, 4 September 1914
10 The Wellington Regiment
11 The Dominion, 8 September 1914
12 The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1914
13 The Evening Post, 25 August 1914
14 The number 8.7 million is the number given for all men who served between 1914 and 1918 in the British Army, including all Dominions. http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm
15 Taranaki Daily News, 1 September 1914


Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919 by AH Wilkie, 1924.
The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919 by OE Burton, 1935.
The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 – 1919 by Cunningham, Treadwell and Hanna, 1928.

All these publications can be accessed online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/


the sword and the pen

As I have lived on the West Coast of the North Island for the past 10 years, I was unfamiliar with the history of Hawke’s Bay when moving here in late-2011 to take up the position of Assistant Curator. Having always been interested in modern military history and the stories of regular citizens turned soldiers, I was keen to dive into the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust in search of any and all archives which would satisfy my curiosity. I had worked with the weapons collection at the Whanganui Regional Museum in the past and I was soon talking to a colleague with a similar interest, Cymon Wallace, who pointed me to a collection of letters written to and by Captain George Preece, a man who immediately piqued my interest.

Captain Preece wearing his New Zealand Cross and New Zealand Medal. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2534.

George Preece was born in Coromandel in 1845, the son of James Preece of the Church Missionary Society, and Marie Anne Williams, a school teacher. In 1847 the Preece family was sent to set up a mission station at Ahikereru, deep in Te Urewera. In this remote location the Preece children grew up speaking Māori. For George, this knowledge was to secure him an important role in the Colonial Forces as a military interpreter, while his knowledge of the area was to prove invaluable during the numerous campaigns against Te Kooti from 1869-72.

George joined the military in 1868 as an Ensign under Colonel George Whitmore. He was to prove critically important in the first assaults with Major Ropata against Mokeretu and Ngatapa Pā in Poverty Bay. As a result of his actions at Ngatapa, Preece was promoted to Captain in 1870 and received the New Zealand Cross in 1876.

Preece’s New Zealand Cross, one of only 23 originals ever awarded. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 56/57

This medal, one of only 23 ever awarded, held in the collections of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust along with his Colonial Auxiliary Medal, New Zealand Medal, accompanying original award documents and correspondence, forms one of the most complete collections of a New Zealand soldiers effects.

While George Preece appears at first glance to be an obedient and dutiful soldier, his personal and occupational letters reveal a personality that did not shy away from controversy. One letter, written during the pursuit of Te Kooti to Donald McLean, then Defence Minister and dated 27 March 1869, shows George’s almost virulent hatred of his superior, Colonel Whitmore, for writing against Mclean in the editorial section of Hawke’s Bay newspapers. McLean was a long-time friend of the Preece family, James having recommended him for the government position of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in 1842. Preece writes of Whitmore’s “highly coloured reports” of the rout of Te Kooti’s forces, even going as far as saying that “you can have no idea how many false reports Colonel Whitmore sets about you and the underhanded dirty way he does it.” However, this attack in the Press corroborates James Hawthorne’s published account of Whitmore in 1869, A Dark Chapter in New Zealand History, calling him names which are too provocative to print even 140 years later!

George’s outspoken voice carries on into his career as Resident Magistrate in Hawke’s Bay. In a letter from T W Lewis, Under-Secretary of the Native Department in Wellington and Preece’s superior, George is reprimanded for speaking out of turn to the press on a civil matter which had come under his jurisdiction.

Letter to Preece regarding government regulations on communications with the press, dated 17 May 1883. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust/Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 25452

Just three months before this incident he had been accused by Lewis of indiscretion in the handling of the will of Chief Karaitiana Takamoana, allowing an improperly skilled person to handle the case. He was informed that his action to send this ordinary citizen, a Mr Sheehan, to execute the will was ill-advised “in view of the notoriety which the Omaranui and Waipawa cases have acquired in the Napier district.” George appears to have read the attached government regulation, ‘Communications not to be made to the Public Press’, as Lewis’ later letters do not mention any further controversies, referring only to the mundane business of issuing firearms licenses to Hawke’s Bay Māori. There was, however, a spark left in the old soldier. After entering retirement, George moved to Palmerston North and, still full of courage and tenacity at the age of 70, attempted to re-enlist in the army upon the outbreak of the Great War.

The interpretation of personal documents almost 150 years old is an immense mental challenge. George’s letters jump from military matters, to politics, to family, and back again all within the space of as many paragraphs. Identifying the obscure historical figures he mentions and interpreting events without the help of other information sources creates a veritable minefield for misunderstanding and confusion. However, as an historian, methodically piecing a puzzle together through a thorough investigation of these primary resources and coming to new conclusions of a historically important figure is immensely satisfying. As I work amongst these personalities of the past, the objects they owned and the letters they wrote, I hope to cross paths with many more that prove to be just as colourful as George Preece.

Evan Greensides
August 2012