Veterans of three wars

17:00, Aug 01 2014
HIGHLY REGARDED: Lieutenant Colonel Ivon Standish, pictured during World War II – the third great conflict he served in.
HIGHLY REGARDED: Lieutenant Colonel Ivon Standish, pictured during World War II – the third great conflict he served in.

In the bowels of Archives New Zealand lie the files of more than 100 New Zealanders who were involved in the three major international conflicts of the early 20th century.

The Boer War, World War I and World War II spanned a period of 40 years.

By the time these men died, the majority of their lives had been spent in service to their country.

New Zealand Defence Force historian John Crawford has written on New Zealand's engagement in these conflicts, and says it is likely the soldiers would have seen the tail end of the war in South Africa as young men, fought in WWI during the prime of their lives, and then been called out of retirement in WWII to take on senior administrative roles.

One such man was Lieutenant Colonel Ivon Standish.

Having served in the second Boer War, Standish went on to be a highly regarded artillery officer in WWI, receiving a Distinguished Service Order for extinguishing a fire in the ammunition pit under a maelstrom of bullets.

He was called out of retirement during WWII to serve as adjutant-general, a chief administrative position.

Crawford says men like Standish would not have seen much action, if any, in South Africa as many would have arrived after the war was over.

But their arrival at the front during WWI was a rude awakening.

"South African war veterans talking about Gallipoli said how they'd seen more shells and more bullets in one day than they had in a year in South Africa."

Many would have seen friends killed in WWI, Crawford says.

MUCH LOVED: Brigadier General Sir Herbert Hart, pictured in 1919, on his way to becoming a hero to many during a lengthy military career.
MUCH LOVED: Brigadier General Sir Herbert Hart, pictured in 1919, on his way to becoming a hero to many during a lengthy military career.

By the advent of WWII, men like Standish who had been recalled to army headquarters would have sat there and thought, "Well here we go again."

Busy helping organise the dispatch of reinforcements to the New Zealand division of the Middle East, Standish would have known a lot of the young men were not going to come home.

"These veterans would be very aware of the reality of war," Crawford says.

Brigadier General Sir Herbert Hart of Carterton, a lawyer and keen cyclist, is another example.

Having edited his diaries, Crawford is intimately familiar with Hart's career, which saw him wounded multiple times and lose beloved family and friends.

His career began when he lied about his age to travel with the 9th contingent to South Africa in April 1902.

Thirteen years later, he was severely wounded in Gallipoli, shot in the thigh by a bullet that had passed through an Australian soldier's head.


It struck a leather purse containing Hart's own bullets, creating an injury "10 times as big as a single bullet wound" on his leg.

Evacuated by ship to Cairo, Hart described "wounded men lying in every nook and cranny", some of whom "suffered intensely and groaned or screamed in agony the whole way across".

When Hart returned to the war months later, his unit was attacked with mustard gas, which left him blind for four days.

On his return to New Zealand, a huge crowd turned out to greet him in Carterton. They carried him on their shoulders down the street, which he called the proudest moment of his life.

WWII saw Hart return to the Middle East as the deputy commissioner of the War Graves Commission.

He was by then well acquainted with death, though one resounded with him like no other: that of his nephew, who was killed in Egypt.

Pain, both physical and emotional, made frequent intrusions into Hart's life, but never crushed his spirit.

Described as "the most loved man" in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Crawford understands why.

"He comes across as the sort of man you'd like to have as a friend, a really good guy. He apparently was a charming man, very brave, sharp as a tack. He also had charisma.

"I spoke to one of his daughters not long before she died, and she said it was interesting that, even when her father was quite an elderly man, when he walked into a room at a social function, something made people turn around and look."

Standish and Hart were but two of the more than 100 New Zealanders whose lives were indelibly marked by three conflicts that shaped New Zealand's military history.

"One thing you'd have to say about these fellows is that they'd have seen more than their fair share of death and destruction," Crawford says.

"It must have been very hard for them."


The Boer War (1899-1902)

In the early 19th century, the Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa maintained their enormous farms through slave labour, a practice that was abolished in 1834 after the British Empire took control of the region.

The Boers became frustrated with the rules imposed by the British, particularly the forced transition from their Afrikaans language to English. They fled to establish their own territories in southern Africa.

The British invaded the Boers' new territory in 1880 and were unsuccessful.

War broke out again between 1899-1902 and saw New Zealand's first ever contribution to an international conflict. By the end of the war, 6500 troops and 8000 horses had set foot on African soil. Seventy-one men died in action, and another 159 died due to accidents or disease.

The New Zealand contingents, all volunteers, were held in high regard despite their minimal training.

New Zealand's enthusiastic support for the British Empire's efforts set a precedent for future wars, where New Zealand would be called upon to serve the Empire on battlefields across the world.

World War I (1914 - 1918)

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sparked a conflict that culminated in the biggest international war the modern world had ever seen.

More than 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas - more than 10 per cent of the population.

New Zealand leapt to the defence of its former colonial master to help protect its interests. It was also necessary for New Zealand protect its growing economy: heavily reliant on exports to Britain, it would have suffered tremendously if shipping routes were under another country's control.

Compulsory military training had been introduced in New Zealand in 1909, just five years before the war.

Soldiers emerging from this training formed the basis for the expeditionary force that fought in the major theatres of the war.

Tens of thousands volunteered to fight in the conflict but nearly 70 per cent of eligible men had not registered to enlist by 1916.

This saw the introduction of conscription, which pulled another 30,000 soldiers into the New Zealand contingent.

New Zealand suffered heavy losses during the war, particularly in the battles of Gallipoli and Passchendaele.

By the war's end, 17,000 men had been killed and 40,000 injured. The list of casualties was among the highest per capita losses of all countries involved.

World War II (1939-1945)

When war broke out in 1939, New Zealand again entered the fray to help protect the British Empire's interests.

Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage declared war on Nazi Germany just hours after Britain. New Zealand was involved in the war for longer than any other Allied country.

Nearly 150,000 New Zealanders served overseas in WWII, more than in the preceding war. However, the effort did not attract the same level of public fervour.

New Zealanders fought primarily on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa. Nearly 12,000 men were killed - a higher proportion of the population than any other Commonwealth country.