Main Body of NZEF sails to war

16 October 1914

A mother farewells her son, October 1914 (Auckland War Memorial Museum, MS 20003/72)

Thousands of Wellingtonians rose before dawn and crowded vantage points around the harbour to watch as 10 grey-painted troopships, escorted by four warships, sailed to war.

These ships carried the Main Body of, and the First Reinforcements for, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – around 8500 men, as well as nearly 4000 horses.

This was the second major departure of New Zealand troops for the First World War, following the 1400-strong Samoa advance force which had left two months earlier, also from Wellington.

The October departure was the culmination of a series of farewells. After war broke out in early August 1914, men from around the country volunteered in large numbers. Those accepted were sent to mobilisation camps in each of the four military districts: at Alexandra Park in Auckland, Awapuni racecourse in Palmerston North, Addington Park (later Sockburn) in Christchurch and Tahuna Park in Dunedin. As they left home for the camps, their families, workmates and communities farewelled them at railway stations and wharves, community halls, theatres and hotels.

In September, the four contingents were farewelled at civic events in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Up to 30,000 people attended Wellington’s farewell at Newtown Park on 24 September, when schools and many businesses closed for the day.

Ships carrying the Canterbury and Otago troops entered Wellington Harbour that afternoon, expecting to depart with the local contingent and rendezvous with the Auckland transports in the Tasman Sea.

Then, suddenly, the plan changed. The authorities were worried about the weakness of the escort – the obsolete light cruisers HMS Philomel and HMS Psyche – given that the whereabouts of the warships of Germany’s East Asia Squadron was unknown. Pending the arrival of more powerful warships, the Aucklanders were recalled to port, while the Canterbury and Otago contingents (and their horses) disembarked in Wellington. Training resumed. In the evenings the men were entertained with concerts and other activities organised by local communities. On 10 October the Auckland contingent sailed for Wellington, where it arrived four days later.

Thanks to the arrival of the armoured cruiser HMS Minotaur and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s battlecruiser Ibuki, the convoy was finally ready to depart. On 14-15 October the troops and horses reboarded their ships, which anchored out in the harbour; early on the morning of the 16th, the convoy set sail.

Frank Morton described the scene:

The morning of departure broke clear, but very grey. The turmoil and excitement of previous days – the hurrying about of big masses of men and horses, the exhilaration of stirring patriotic events, the sweet sadness of lingering farewells – all this was over, and there remained only the setting-forth. [1]

Forty-eight days later – after stopovers in Hobart; Albany in Western Australia, where they joined a convoy of 28 Australian troopships; and Colombo – the New Zealanders landed in Egypt. When they had set sail they had assumed they were bound for Europe to fight the Germans. Now, their initial role would be to help protect the Suez Canal against attack by the forces of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which had entered the war while the convoy was on the high seas.

Over the next four years a further 90,000 New Zealanders would depart for war. Those who sailed on 16 October 1914 remain the largest single group ever to leave these shores at one time.

[1] New Zealand Free Lance, 28 November 1914

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Michael Kitchin

Posted: 15 Jan 2015

My Grandfather Ernest Carr joined the Nelson Territorials on leaving school,he was very proud to have sailed with the Main Body to the Suez Canal then surviving Galipoli and France where he was wounded. He came home to marry his sweetheart rejoining the Army in 1925 where he served at Trentham Military Camp until retiring as RSM of EME in 1955. He was always active in Main Body Reunions and particularly with his wartime friend Shorty Marris of Christchurch. Well I remember the stories of these great Canterbury Machine Gun Corp Sergeants/soldiers with their tattooed CMGC insignia proudly displayed on the left fore arm. They never spoke much about in line stuff but there were always laughs about coming out of the line and getting the men into safety where there was a wine cellar. Tales of loosing rank always brought on great laughter and getting their rank back when back in the line happened.