ANZAC Events: The NZ Mounted Rifles in the Gallipoli Centenary Commemoration

There are two ANZAC Day events this year involving horses in North Canterbury.  The first is an evening commemoration for the horses that left NZ for the First World War to be held in Rangiora on Saturday 14th February followed by a commemorative ride/walk on the Sunday(15th) at Birch Hill where a memorial to the horses was erected in 1937.

The second event is 100 Riders for 100 Years, at the Dawn Parade, Hawarden Memorial on ANZAC Day, 25th April 2015.

I’ve riddled this post with links to sources so if you want to get deeper into it or discover images for yourself, just follow the links.

Australia and New Zealand’s engagement in the First World War really kicked off with the Gallipoli Campaign and the landings there on 25th April 1915.  As this year marks the centenary, there are a number of events around the country, North Canterbury has two events in remembrance of the NZ Mounted Rifle Brigade.  The NZMRB was made up of four regiments Otago, Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland Mounted Rifles.  To be a Mounted Rifleman it was necessary to have your own horse, thus the men of the Mounted Rifles sailed out with the horse they rode when out on the farm or travelling the NZ countryside.  For many then, their horses were a good and reliable friend who was left behind in Egypt when they sailed for Gallipoli.

I’ve been working through “Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story” by NZ war historian Chris Pugsley, a book built around official records and drawing heavily on surviving diaries and letters to get the truth of conditions and vignettes of the actions that took place.  It would seem it was a debacle from the outset, poorly planned, under-resourced and full of bungles and missed opportunities, it’s sombre reading.  It’s often said that Gallipoli pales in comparison to the waste in the trenches of France and Belgium but if you look at the scale of the Gallipoli area the losses were huge.  For example the main area of NZ involvement (ANZAC Cove) was so small that even in reserve or on rest, troops were constantly exposed to rifle fire and shelling (reserve and rest were also euphimisms for labouring details).

It was a costly war for all forces involved and the conditions were horrific.  British, Canadian, French, Indian, Gurkha, Australian and NZ troops (including the Maori Pioneers) were all pitched in.

“By the time the campaign ended, more than 130,000 men had died: at least 87,000 Ottoman soldiers and 44,000 Allied soldiers, including more than 8700 Australians. Among the dead were 2779 New Zealanders, about a fifth of all those who had landed on the peninsula.” 1

The Ottoman Turks under the command of Mustafa Kemal held the high ground of  the Sari Bair and not only were able to fire down into the Allied trenches but enfiladed most positions and all viable routes of advance.  Casualties were huge, the Wellington Mounted Rifles landed “… 8 May with twenty-five officers and 453 other ranks … by 13 September the regiment’s strength was four officers and eighty other ranks (despite reinforcements). ….207 men, were killed during the seven months they fought in the static trench warfare of the Gallipoli Campaign…..258 wounded”  many more than once. 2

“On 8 August 421 men of the Auckland and Wellington mounted rifles regiments reinforced Lieutenant Colonel Malone’s Wellington Infantry Battalion on Chunuk Bair. The two regiments were decimated as they hung on to the crest for another 30 hours in the face of fierce Turkish counter-attacks. On 9 August, they were replaced by two British battalions. Only 95 mounted riflemen walked off the hill” 3

“With ANZAC units severely depleted after Sari Bair, Birdwood cobbled together a composite force of New Zealand, Australian, British and Gurkha troops for the Hill 60 attack. New Zealand’s contribution to this force came from the Canterbury and Otago Mounted Rifles regiments, which could barely muster 400 men between them.

The 21 August attack was another costly failure. Allied planners underestimated the strength of Ottoman defences and the attack quickly broke down. The New Zealanders managed to capture part of the Ottoman trenches on the southern side of the hill, while British troops had similar success on the north-western side. Nobody else got as far, and the attack cost over 2000 casualties, including 200 New Zealanders. The attack at Suvla also failed.

On 27 August, the surviving New Zealand mounted riflemen took part in another attempt to clear Hill 60. After two days of bitter fighting, the hill remained firmly under Ottoman control. Once again, casualties were appalling. In three disastrous weeks, the New Zealand infantry and mounted brigades had effectively been destroyed as fighting forces.” 4

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by John McDermott as sung here by The Pogues captures the mood and futility fairly well for me.

In December the Gallipoli Peninsula was successfully evacuated, the Mounted Rifles returned to Egypt and were reunited with their horses.  For the next 2 years most would take part in the Sinai Campaign, with the Otago’s joining the infantry on the Western Front.  However at the end of hostilities the horses were not to be repatriated.

“Hardly an oral or written account fails to mention the grim task of the New Zealand troopers, who felt compelled to shoot their horses rather than let them be sold to locals. While in the nineteenth century, the horsemen of the Middle East were held in high regard as the desert people who bred and trained the esteemed Arab and Barb horses, the harshness of war altered this perception. Nicol explains that the soldiers ‘chose this heart-breaking course rather than risk their gallant four-footed comrades falling into the hands of cruel owners and ending their days in slavery “Mincham, 2011, pg.131)”  5

So for us here in the shadow of Mt Thomas and Birch Hill, ANZAC comes early this year with this first event t0 remember the horses and the NZMRB, at the memorial erected on Birch Hill.

“In 1937 Lt Col EB Millton of Birch Hill Station (near Mt Thomas) commissioned a large stone monument for the Station’s cemetery with plaques – one dedicated to the 10 men who left the farm to serve in WW1 and the other plaque has the wording ‘In Memory of the horses of the 8th Regiment NZMR that died in the Great War 1914-1918’. The Birch Hill Cemetery was first established for the Millton family and those who were involved with the Station but is now public and run by the local council.  10,000 horses left NZ to serve in WW1 (the Great War) and only 4 returned – Bess, Beauty, Nigger and Dolly. The others were killed in the war, left to the Egyptians or joined the British Army.” 6

I don’t usually bother with ANZAC but this year I’ll make an exception, besides my grandfather was a Wellington Mounted Rifle, sent home from Gallipoli with a bullet in his spine and my father says “holes in his body and legs big enough to put a fist into”.  If you’re around Rangiora on the 14th or 15th of February heres two events with a difference.  And on April 25th for a Dawn Parade, it’ll be an early start but 100 riders on ANZAC Day at Hawarden in the Hurunui should be a bit different too.

  • Mincham, C. (2011) The Horse in New Zealand: Attitude and Heart. Auckland, NZ: Bateman Ltd.
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3 Responses to ANZAC Events: The NZ Mounted Rifles in the Gallipoli Centenary Commemoration

  1. Pingback: War Horse Memorial Ride at Birch Hill | Between the ocean and the sea

  2. Pingback: Reminder: 100 years 100 horses, ANZAC Day services at Hawarden and Waikari | Between the ocean and the sea

  3. Pingback: From the Uttermost ends of the Earth | Between the ocean and the sea

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