Silent Sentinels / By Dr Aaron Fox

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These pages are dedicated to the story of New Zealand's First World War trophy guns – some 200 German, Turkish and Austrian artillery pieces, 80 trench mortars and 2,000 machine guns, captured by New Zealanders in battle on Gallipoli, in France and Belgium, and in Sinai-Palestine between 1914 and 1918.

These war trophies were amongst the few tangible relics of the First World War ever to be brought back to New Zealand for the education of the general public on the New Zealand soldiers’ experience of war.. While the trophy guns and maxim guns were never displayed in the national war museum called for by New Zealand servicemen, it was appropriate, given that their silence had been bought at a high price in human lives, they were instead distributed throughout the country to become the first temporary war memorials while more permanent memorials were being built in stone.

Available here on this website is Dr Aaron Fox's illustrated honours history thesis on the story of New Zealand's First World War trophy collection:Silent Sentinels: The War Trophies of the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force in War and Peace, University of Otago, 1987. For those wanting a briefer history of New Zealand trophy guns, the following entry was prepared for Ian McGibbon (ed.) The Oxford Companion to New Zealand, Auckland, 2000 .

  

War Trophies

The classical European concept of the trophy, the civic display of enemy weaponry as a memorial to victory, was imported into colonial New Zealand by European settlers.[1] By the late nineteenth century, obsolete cannon ornamented civic sites throughout the country, including two genuine Russian trophy cannons captured at Sebastopol during the Crimean War, and despatched by the British Government to Auckland for display.[2] New Zealand’s first war trophies were Boer artillery, maxim guns and rifles captured during the Second South African War (1899-1902) and shipped to New Zealand for display with the permission of the Imperial authorities.[3]

The First World War occasioned the greatest-ever war trophy activity within the British Empire. New Zealand’s first official trophies of war were German Colonial Service flags captured in Apia, German Samoa on 29 August 1914.[4] The trophy tally thereafter reflected the relative mobility of Allied campaigns, with the few trophies captured during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, or on the Western Front in 1916 or early 1917, often being the only demonstrable successes of otherwise disastrous military operations.

During the German and Allied Offensives of 1918, the New Zealand Division captured some 145 guns, 1,419 machine guns and 2 tanks.[5] The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, also captured significant numbers of Turkish, German and Austrian weaponry.[6] These totals were supplemented by a proportion of German weapons surrendered under the November 1918 Armistice, and allocated to New Zealand by the Imperial War Trophies Committee which met in London.[7]

By 1919, approximately 200 field guns, 80 trench mortars, 2,000 machine guns and 5,000 rifles had been transported to New Zealand.[8] Returned Servicemen hoped that the collection would form the basis of a National War Museum in Wellington, the proceeds from which would be used to the benefit of disabled servicemen.[9] The museum was never constructed, and the trophy guns were instead distributed throughout the country to local authorities, museums and schools for public display.[10] Trophy weapons became objects of municipal pride as local authorities competed for the biggest and best trophies. Larger guns, unsuited to long-term public display, nevertheless became temporary Great War memorials, prior to the construction of permanent monuments. Many of these weapons would later be buried or scrapped during anti-war protests in the 1930s, or the ‘invasion scare’ of 1942.[11]

Trophy maxim guns, unsuitable as patriotic exhibits in schools and museums, were often abandoned. In 1932, amidst rioting by the unemployed, the New Zealand Police considered that unwanted maxim guns presented a threat to public safety and accordingly collected and destroyed them. A decade later, several German trophy maxims were converted to fire .303 ammunition to help repel the expected Japanese invasion.[12]

During the Second World War, practical not patriotic considerations determined the transportation of captured enemy weapons to New Zealand for home defence and technical evaluation and training purposes.[13] Likewise in post-1945 conflicts, New Zealand troops had not repatriated trophy guns for public display.

In more recent times, Great War trophy artillery and maxim guns have passed into private ownership, while those few weapons which remain on public display are finally being restored, conserved and valued as unique relics of ‘The War To End All Wars’.

References:

1. Entry ‘Trophy’ in W. Little, H. W. Fowler, J. Coulson, C. T. Onions and G. W. S. Friedrichsen, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, London, 1963, p. 2369; A. P. Fox, Silent Sentinels, the War Trophies of the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force in War and Peace, B.A. (Hons) Long Essay, Department of History, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1987, pp. 1-2; M. Clayton, To The Victor Belongs The Spoils. A History of the Australian War Trophy Collection 1914-1993, Masters Thesis, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 4-10.
2. Fox, Silent Sentinels, pp. 2-3; Clayton, To The Victor, pp. 11-12.
3. Fox, ibid; Clayton ibid, p. 15; J. G. H. Moore, With The Fourth New Zealand Rough Riders, Dunedin, 1906, p. 150; Ted Andrews, Kiwi Trooper. The Story of Queen Alexandra’s Own, Wanganui, 1967, p. 72; D. L. Goldsmith, The Devil’s Paintbrush. Sir Hiram Maxim’s Gun, Cobourg, 1989, p. 115.
4. Fox, ibid, pp. 7-9.
5. Fox, ibid, p. 42, quoting H. Stewart, The New Zealand Division 1916-1919. A Popular History Based On Official Records, Auckland, 1921, pp. 618-619. Note that General Harper mentioned three German A7V Tanks, although New Zealand was allocated only two A7Vs , ‘Hagen’ and ‘Schnuck’. See Fox, ibid, pp. 49-50; J. H. Luxford, With The Machine Gunners in France and Palestine. The Official History of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps in the Great World War 1914-1918, Auckland, 1923, p. 138; D. Fletcher, ‘A7V First of the Panzers’, in Wheels and Tracks, Number 25, October 1988, pp. 36-37.
6. Fox, ibid, pp. 27-30; 50-52.
7. Fox, ibid, pp. 43, 46-47.
8. Ibid, pp. 47-48. Note that the totals of New Zealand trophies shipped from the United Kingdom were: 1,231 machine guns, 165 field funs, 81 trench mortars, 5,000 rifles, 3,070 steel helmets, plus anti-tank rifles and numerous sundry items. The totals of trophies shipped from Egypt are less certain, hence the approximate totals given in the text.
9. Ibid, pp. 8-9, 25-26, 31-32, 44-46, 60-62, 65-66.
10. Ibid, Chapter Four: ‘Distribution’, pp. 60-80; see also Clayton, ibid, pp. 61-92; M. McKernan, Here Is There Spirit. A History of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990, St Lucia, 1991, pp. 70-73.
11. Fox, ibid, pp. 81-9.2
12. Ibid, pp. ii, 85-87; Goldsmith, ibid, pp. 286-287; R. A. Howlett, History of the Fiji Military Forces 1939-1945, London, 1948, p. 16.
13. Fox, ibid, p. 92; R. Dunlop, R. Macpherson and R. Ewing, New Zealand Military Aircraft 1913-1977, Wellington, 1977, pp. 34-35 provides details on the German Bf 109 E-4 1963-5 and Japanese A6M3 Zero-sen 22 3844 2-182 brought back to New Zealand; H. Bioletti, The Yanks are Coming. The American Invasion of New Zealand 1942-1944, Auckland, 1989 includes a photograph on p. 4 of Italian howitzers at Aotea Quay, Wellington, in June 1942, which had been brought back to New Zealand from Libya for home defence purposes.