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New Zealand Soldiers Changed the Course of World War One

New Zealand Soldiers Changed the Course of World War One

April 25, 2013

The heroic way in which a division of New Zealand soldiers rebuffed the final German assault on allied troops in March 1918 helped change the course of World War One.

This information is contained in the first definitive history of New Zealand and the First World War being coordinated by Glyn Harper, Professor of War Studies at Massey University.

The Centenary History Programme, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, is led by Massey University in conjunction with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the New Zealand Defence Force and the Royal New Zealand RSA.

While the focus for most New Zealanders is Gallipoli, the bulk of New Zealand forces served on the Western Front and in the Sinai/Palestine campaign.

These campaigns, which contributed to a significant loss of life – nearly 60,000 soldiers were wounded and 18,500 died in the First World War – have never officially been told.

“Despite almost one hundred years since joining this most terrible of wars, no defining, detailed and complete history of New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War has been written,” Professor Glyn Harper says.

“With the publication of 13 authoritative volumes over the next five years, we have an opportunity to make amends for this silence and close serious gaps in the New Zealand historiography which are most unlikely to be published otherwise.”

Unlike Australia which published a 12 volume official history between 1921 and 1943, New Zealand produced no readable history of its involvement in the Great War and the majority of soldiers who returned “locked their experiences away and didn’t want to talk about it,” Glyn Harper says.

Among more recent research is the courageous New Zealand resistance during late March and early April 1918 which won the war for the allies and became this country’s finest hour.

Glyn Harper, who had earlier written about the Second Battle of the Somme in his book, Spring Offensive, recounts how Germany launched a huge and successful attack to break open the British and French lines and win the war before the Americans entered the conflict.

“In attempting to split the alliance between Britain and France and isolate both armies, they pushed the British back 40 miles. The New Zealand division of 10,000 men who were recuperating following Passchendaele, were rushed down from Flanders to the stem the retreat,” he says.

“The New Zealanders plugged a five mile gap in France between Hebuterne and Hamel and held the offensive. This was a dire moment, the closest the allies came to losing the war. If the NZ soldiers hadn’t secured the position and then, with the assistance of Australian and British troops, pushed the enemy back, the Germans would have won the war.”    

“Capturing the complete history of New Zealand’s involvement in this war for generations of New Zealanders is critical to our future understanding of ourselves as a nation,” Glyn Harper says.

“We need to officially record this great history for our children and our children’s children. New Zealanders today need to understand the significance of what their forbears did to protect and shape their nation. We have a duty to document the full truth and humanity of this most terrible of wars.” 

Glyn Harper started the project 18 months ago. The first volume, New Zealand and the First World War, by Ministry of Culture and Heritage historian, Damien Fenton, will be completed by the end of this year with the other 12 volumes becoming progressively available over the next five years.

Glyn Harper is writing Johnny New Zealand - the NZ Soldier at War 1914-1918, as his contribution to the Centenary History Programme. 

Together with other military historians, Glyn has agreed to travel on commemorative tours to Gallipoli and the Western Front to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Organised by House of Travel in association with the New Zealand RSA, the official tours will visit Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula in April, 2015 and then, from 2016-’18, return to the Western Battlefield including Ypres, Somme and Passchendaele.

The pilgrimage is the initiative of Steve Parsons, Managing Director of Stephen Parsons House of Travel in Palmerston North and underpins the locations and events that highlight the gallantry of our servicemen and women and feature in the official history that Professor Harper and others are writing.




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