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By Mr M. Beale

Gallipoli has always overshadowed New Zealand’s contribution to the Western Front during World War 1 (WW1). Through my involvement in New Zealand’s WW1 centennial commemorations in Europe, I have come to appreciate the significance of the role New Zealand Forces played in the three years, 1916—1918, on the Western Front. The New Zealand Division (NZ Division) rightly earned a reputation as one of the finest operating in France and Belgium. Its exploits provide our nation and today’s New Zealand Army (NZ Army) a proud and enduring, if less known, legacy.

The importance that New Zealand places on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, as a critical event in the process of New Zealand’s emerging nationhood, is one that I support. Those who served in the tangle of gullies and ridges that characterised an otherwise anonymous escarpment on Gallipoli peninsula forged the Anzac legend through their deeds, courage, tenacity, bravery and, far too frequently, their sacrifice. As a young nation with a population of barely one million people, one hundred thousand New Zealanders served in uniform from 1914 to 1918.  At Gallipoli, more than 2700 New Zealanders lost their lives and a further 4700 others were casualties.  On the Western Front, New Zealand suffered more than 59,400 casualties of whom 18,166 died.

The casualty rates and duration of the campaign in Europe alone demand greater recognition. The profound effect the three-year crucible of the Western Front had on shaping our emerging national identity must also be acknowledged. On the Western Front through their deeds our forces earned the respect of our allies and foe alike. In doing so they affirmed New Zealand’s place as a nation in its own right on the world stage. The experience of the Western Front was also significant in developing the NZ Army into the professional organisation it is today.

I will provide a summary of the NZ Division’s Western Front story. I will then explore four lessons our contemporary Army can draw on today. There is plenty that Kiwis and military professionals can learn from our military forebears, even a century on. Are we up to the challenge?


The Western Front

In the wake of Gallipoli, New Zealand forces were reorganised in Egypt into the NZ Division and ‘force troops’ that served in Europe and a mounted Brigade that remained in Palestine[1]. The New Zealand Division arrived in France in April 1916 and first entered the trenches near the town of Armentieres in northern France, near the Belgian border. The Division moved south and earned its spurs at the battle of the Somme in September—October 1916. At Messines in June 1917 the NZ Division showed how well it had developed in professional terms, both in preparing for and executing the successful attack. Messines showed just how good the New Zealand soldiers and commanders were in applying the harsh lessons taken from the Somme.

However, within months, the Division was forced into a period of introspection after its disastrous turn during the battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917. This battle remains New Zealand’s worst-ever military disaster, and revealed that professional development at divisional level needed to be matched at Corps and Army if tactical effectiveness was to be consistently attained on the battlefield.

Throughout 1918 the Division proved its resilience and reasserted itself as a fearsome fighting organisation in both defence and attack. This was first apparent as the New Zealanders helped blunt the German Spring Offensive of March—April 1918, and then in the Hundred Days advance eastward through to the Armistice on November 11, 1918. It was thanks to the foresight of its commander — Napier-born Major-General Sir Andrew Russell — that the Division was trained, prepared and able to adapt so very quickly to the fluid and increasingly mobile warfare it was confronted with in 1918.


Lessons from the Legacy

So, beyond the myriad of memorials and cemeteries dotted across France, Belgium, England and New Zealand, what is the legacy of the NZ Division to its present-day counterpart, the NZ Army?

The legacy is both considerable and inspiring, and cannot be given justice in a single article. I will, therefore, focus briefly on four areas where we can look to the NZ Division to draw relevant inspiration and lessons. Three of the areas are based on the article entitled ‘Aspiring to be world class,’ which was penned by Lt Col Brett Wellington and published in the NZ Army Journal’s first edition.  The final area is where I believe the NZ Army has an opportunity to exploit its current situation. The four areas are:

  • aspiring to be world class,
  • the training mechanism and methodology the Division established,
  • the ability and the necessity to adapt, and
  • investing in junior leadership.

Being ‘world-class’ is perhaps the most important legacy the NZ Division has left the modern NZ Army. The idea for the NZ Division to be world class was the mantra of Maj Gen Russell. He described it as the ‘pursuit of excellence’. To achieve this he needed every man in the Division to understand and do everything in their power to achieve Russell’s objective. To ensure his men strove for and achieved a high standard of professionalism he set clear objectives and held every officer, non-commissioned officer (NCO) and soldier accountable. The NZ Division was in pursuit of what would be recognised today as a war-fighting culture.

This was not limited to the manner and frequency of their training; the pursuit of excellence was pervasive. The focus was on doing the basics well and building from the bottom up, while at the same time Russell pushed his subordinate commanders to drive proficiency from the top down. It presented itself in the way the soldiers of the Division thought of themselves, the way they acted and the very image they held of themselves. It took time, but increasingly, the NZ Division walked with their heads held high, not with arrogance, but with the confident stride of someone sure of their own professional competence.

The training mechanism and method used by Russell complemented and reinforced his ‘pursuit of excellence’ for the NZ Division. The NZ Division’s training regime and pursuit of excellence forms the basis of what we today recognise as the Army training system. The NZ Division established training bases in England through which reinforcements and those invalided from the battlefield were trained in the latest methods of warfare before joining their units on the Western Front. Training was also conducted closer to the front in France and Belgium. The NZ Division exploited every opportunity to up skill.  Any down time behind the lines were used to hone skills and knowledge. In preparation for major actions extensive rehearsals were conducted on ground resembling that on which the operations would be conducted.  Both collective and individual training was conducted. Individual training focused on leadership, marksmanship or specialist skills and knowledge. Collective training evolved into what we would recognise as combined arms training with infantry, engineers, artillery, armour and even the Royal Flying Corps frequently involved. Junior officers and NCOs were a vital component of training their subordinates. We can take pride and confidence that the foundations of our system grew from the NZ Division’s hard-earned experience and remain applicable to the modern context to which we apply it.

The necessity to adapt and learn new skills and concepts was driven by the changes in warfare, either German tactics or technological advancements. The NZ Division’s ability to adapt came from a combination of factors. Firstly Russell constantly reviewed all aspects of his Division’s performance. He and his subordinates also looked to their peer group — whether Australian, Canadian or British — to identify lessons to both extend and refine their skills. It was a mutually beneficial process. The results of this analysis then fed into the short and long-term learning cycles of the NZ Division. The short-term cycle enabled new tactical procedures to quickly be embraced, taught and implemented. The longer-term cycle enabled operational concepts to be developed at Division, Corps and even Army wide. Finally having a sound training system through which new methods could be taught and, having the process owned by the officers and NCOs who were driven in the ‘pursuit of excellence’, ensured the NZ Division was able to evolve and excel.

The NZ Army, like our closest allies, is transitioning, or having to ‘adapt’, from a period of high tempo of operations, ‘the fight’, to a contingency footing, which means being ready for ‘a fight’. We can be sure that whatever the next conflict is we face the operational environment will be increasingly complex. Being on a contingency footing means we need to be trained and equipped to respond to a range of potential operations across the spectrum of conflict in a variety of potential theatres of operations. This demands we train for a broader range of scenarios and their associated challenges. Complexity and diversity necessitates a reduced depth to which we can train in each scenario compared to the mission specific training that dominated our training for the past decade. Mission specific training will close the skill gaps, adding the depth, once specific parameters of the next mission are identified. Faced with this transition the NZ Army would do well to turn its gaze back a generation or two especially to the period of late 1917 and early 1918 when, through Russell’s foresight, the NZ Division undertook training that would enable it to transition to mobile warfare in 1918 while still fighting in the trenches.

With the advantage of a tried and tested training system, a maturing lessons learned mechanism, and a culture of aspiring to be world class, the NZ Army has the necessary attributes to adapt successfully. We are able to add to this a decade’s worth of experience across Afghanistan, Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and other theatres. However, we must carefully review our operational experiences from the specific theatres to ensure relevant lessons are identified and, where appropriate, embedded as a standard component of our contingency training regime. Any components introduced into our training must be adapted to ensure utility across the potential spectrum of operations and theatres.  Retaining an understanding of the ‘why and how’ that led to the lessons being adopted is critical to ensure their enduring relevance. We need to ensure we do the critical thinking about what we have learned from a particular theatre and its applicability to different circumstances, as SSgt Rennie explained in his article ‘Reasons why we do what we do’ in edition 1 of the Army Journal.

The individuals who will implement the transition to a contingency footing will be our junior officers and NCOs as was the case with the NZ Division. During the last decade while gaining extensive operational experience, we suffered a degradation of our experience in planning and conducting training for contingency operations. This is most acute in the very people who will be critical in implementing our transition namely our junior officers and NCOs. They have for the past decade been focused on ‘the fight’ and have had limited opportunities to plan and conduct training for contingency operations.

We do, however, have an opportunity to exploit this situation. We can utilise the wealth of operational experience garnered. We can invest in redevelopment of expertise in contingency training and enhance it with the accrued experience of the last decade. Battlefield attrition forced the NZ Division to invest in its junior leadership to ensure the pool of talent didn’t run dry. The NZ Army must also invest in its junior officers and NCOs to exploit their operational experience and develop their skills and knowledge in training for contingencies.


Today’s NZ Army can still learn much from those who served under the iconic Lemon Squeezer a century ago. As I have shown, the soldiers of the NZ Division, their NCOs and their officers were professional soldiers in every sense of the words. Professional development — whether on the field of battle or in the classroom — was part of their ethos; it meant the NZ Division fitted into and also excelled as part of the much larger British Army. Retaining relevance to our allies is something that we also must do as a small professional Army.

Our training system is world class and based on hard-won experience, but we must not take our eyes off the ball. We need to exploit the strength of our training system to ensure we can quickly shift from high-tempo operations to a contingency footing.  We need to focus on the getting the simple things right to build from the bottom up and concurrently train our staff and senior commanders to drive for excellence from the top down. This transition must focus on exploiting the vast experience gained and the redevelopment of our ability to plan and deliver training to prepare our units for the breadth of contingencies we may face. Investing in our junior officers and NCOs is crucial if we are to achieve our professional potential.  The one thing I am confident of is that today’s members of the NZ Army are up for the challenge; in the same way the soldiers of the highly regarded NZ Division rose to the challenge of the Western Front.

I would like to thank Andrew Macdonald, whose work and advice on the NZ Division I have drawn on heavily for this article.

For those interested in learning more about the NZ Division on the Western Front here a few suggested books to get you started:

  • On My Way To The Somme: New Zealanders and the bloody offensive of 1916, Andrew Macdonald, 2005
  • Passchendaele: the anatomy of a tragedy, Andrew Macdonald, 2013
  • In the Face of the Enemy: The Complete History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand, Glyn Harper, 2007
  • From The Uttermost Ends of the Earth – The New Zealand Division on the Western Front 1916-18, John H. Gray, 2010











[1] Other New Zealanders also served at sea and in the air.