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World War I 

Most New Zealanders eagerly supported ‘mother country’ Britain in World War I, but not without a cost. Some 18,000 New Zealanders were killed – about two thirds on the Western Front and 2,700 at Gallipoli, Turkey. Explore these historic events, which, though horrifying, did not diminish New Zealand’s loyalty to Britain.

‘The papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part will know any different.’
Private Leonard Hart, Otago Infantry Battalion, Passchendaele, 1917

World War I began for New Zealand when King George V declared war on Germany and Austria–Hungary in 1914. A faithful British dominion, New Zealand responded when duty called. Most New Zealanders were eager to defend the ‘mother country’ and the Empire.

Failed Gallipoli campaign

As the conflict developed and Turkey entered the war, the horrendous cost started to hit home. Conditions on the front lines were hellish. The failed Gallipoli campaign in Turkey claimed about 2,700 New Zealand lives.


By 1916, 2 years into the war, the numbers of volunteers were no longer keeping pace with the losses. As a result, the government introduced conscription (compulsory military service). Conscription soon became known as ‘the lottery of death’.

Western Front

The slaughter at Gallipoli was less severe than that on the Western Front. This battle line between the German and Allied armies stretched across Belgium and France for about 750 kilometres. More than 12,000 New Zealanders died there – over 800 in a single day at Passchendaele, Belgium, on 12 October 1917.

End of the Great War

The war with Germany officially ended on 28 June 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

About 18,000 New Zealanders had been killed overall. More than 100,000 New Zealanders (a tenth of the population) had served overseas, including 2,227 Maori and 458 Pacific men in the Maori Pioneer Battalion. Maori had also served in other battalions.

The government offered rehabilitation programmes and cheap land to help returned servicemen. Maori groups that had fundraised for their men during the war continued to assist them when they returned.

1918 influenza pandemic

New Zealand was reeling from the effects of the influenza pandemic when the war’s survivors returned. The 1918 pandemic took around 8,000 New Zealand lives, to add to those lost in the war.

1920 Royal Tour

The Prince of Wales, son of King George V, toured New Zealand in 1920 to thank the country for its sacrifices in the war. Cheering throngs lined the streets wherever he went. He wrote in a letter home: ‘returned soldiers, shrieking people, and school children are all I shall remember of my visit’.

Through all its suffering, New Zealand had remained steadfastly loyal to Britain.

© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.