150 years of service

A World War 1 sniper and scout, who is New Zealand's most decorated soldier, is among the thousands of Otago and Southland people to have served in the military during the past 150 years.

Sergeant Richard Charles Travis was famous for his forays into no-man's-land between the New Zealand and German trenches, earning the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Belgian Croix de Guerre and the Military Medal while serving with the 2nd Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment.

On July 24, 1918, he destroyed an impassable wire block in front of enemy lines at Rossignol Wood in France, then captured two enemy machine-guns, shooting 11 Germans.

He was killed by shellfire the next day and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Another from the battalion to earn the same award was Dunedin-born farmer Sgt Donald Forrester Brown, for his gallant actions on the Somme on September 15, 1916.

In World War 2, Sgt Jack Hinton, who was born in Southland but served in the 20th Battalion (Canterbury Regiment), earned the VC for leading an assault in Greece in 1941.

Meanwhile, Southland farmer and politician Brigadier James Hargest commanded the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade in Crete and North Africa, later escaping from an Italian prisoner of war camp by tunnelling under castle walls.

Military historian Dr Aaron Fox says British Army soldiers were in New Zealand until the 1860s but then it was decided New Zealand should be responsible for its home defence.

As a result, an armed constabulary and later volunteer units were set up.

While the New Zealand Wars were taking place further north, there was no particular threat in the South and the need for law and order related more to the gold rush.

The Dunedin and Invercargill Militia Battalions were established on February 27, 1860.

Dunedin journalist John Cosgrove, who has spent the past year with the soldiers of the 4th Otago Southland Battalion documenting their service, says the first drill hall was in the yards of the old police barracks but parades soon moved to Bell Hill, where First Church now stands.

The first officially-recognised volunteer unit in the region was the Otago Rifle Volunteers, which was gazetted as a company in 1862 and commanded by the provincial superintendent, Major J. D. C. Richardson.

In 1898, the First Battalion Otago Rifle Volunteers was formed, and in the next few years numerous rifle companies followed, some well-organised, others short-lived, as a result of public meetings around Otago and Southland.

Volunteers were unpaid and expected to buy their own uniforms.

These ranged from full Highland dress to scarlet tunics and trousers, and white spiked helmets.

In the 1870s, Russia was threatening the "North-West Frontier" (modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan) and British interests in India.

Dr Fox says: "We thought if they were doing that, it was only a matter of time before they came to New Zealand.

And it was stirred up by an Auckland newspaper which, for an April Fool's joke, ran a story about a Russian warship coming in and bombarding Auckland."

Senior British officers touring the country in the 1880s and 1890s were critical of the state of New Zealand's volunteer units, he adds.

The Government moved to regularise equipment, improve training and make units more efficient, also building coastal defences such as the Taiaroa Head battery.

"Those reports stimulated defence reform in New Zealand, so that by 1911 we ended up with a New Zealand territorial force and the focus was not just on home defence but, by 1899, on contributing New Zealand troops to overseas operations."

When hostilities broke out in South Africa, the New Zealand Government dispatched almost 6500 mounted troops to help the British, making the Boer War New Zealand's first overseas military campaign.

"It was a great adventure and an imperial adventure as well.

There was a lot of hype about sorting out the errant Boers and supporting Mother England."

That experience stimulated New Zealand's military forces, he says.

It meant New Zealand became part of "imperial planning" and the lightly-armed, fast and manoeuverable mounted units which had worked so well in South Africa, became our premier troops.

The Otago Mounted Rifles remained as a horse regiment until 1942, then was an armoured regiment until the mid-1950s.

The territorial system introduced in 1911 required every male of a certain age to do military training and each region to have a certain number of troops already trained and ready to move at short notice, Dr Fox says.

In World War 1, the provinces produced the Otago Regiment, which consisted of the 4th Otago, 8th Southland, 10th North Otago and 14th South Otago companies.

"Otago and Southland made a significant contribution in the First World War, even more so considering the Otago Infantry Regiment served in Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

They were on the front line a great deal of the time and suffered terrible casualties as a result."

In fact, the regiment's 2540 casualties were more than those recorded by the Auckland, Wellington or Canterbury infantry regiments.

Among the worst battles were the "Daisy Patch" and the August 1915 offensive during the Gallipoli campaign, and Passchendaele, Belgium, in October 1917.

They were also involved in March 1918 in helping stop the German spring offensive.

In World War 2, Otago and Southland personnel served mainly with the 20th, 23rd and 26th battalions in the Middle East and with the 30th and 37th battalions in the Pacific.

From 1943, the 20th Battalion converted to tanks and fought through the Italian campaign, showing the versatility of our troops, Dr Fox says.

"Otago also contributed a lot of medical personnel, thanks to the medical school ..."

Otago troops were called up for home defence purposes, too, manning coastal fortifications, anti-aircraft batteries and radar installations.

After the war, the Otago and Southland Regiments were amalgamated to form the 1st Battalion, Otago and Southland Regiment, and later still it became the 4th Battalion (Otago and Southland), Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as 4 O South.

Otago and Southland soldiers served in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War and more recently personnel have been involved in UN operations in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr Fox says.

"Wherever there have been problems, there have been New Zealand troops and personnel from Otago and Southland ... The role of the military keeps changing, from defending New Zealand to combat operations to peacekeeping and humanitarian work. It's a very challenging business and our people have always risen to the challenge."

 

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