Photos [above and below]: The 3rd (Auckland) Mounted Rifles at camp on Avondale racecourse, May 1912. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections (AWNS-19120509-12-2 & AWNS-19120509-12-4) (Price Photo Co).
Avondale Racecourse was home to some unique groups who later became legendary. In WWI these were the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion and the NZ Tunnelling Corp of Engineers. In WWII there were Japanese POWs held there for a short time after the Featherston uprising and that is all additional to the US Navy Mobile Hospital 6 which was built nearby at the site of Avondale College.
So, how did all this come about?
The racecourse dates back to 1890 and was originally a raupo swamp. The 1909 Defence Act led to the Volunteer Territorial Army being formed.
In May 1912, at the end of the farming season, the first annual training camp for 383 men of the Auckland Mounted Rifles was held at the racecourse.
Men and horses arrived at Avondale from around Auckland, Matakana, Waiuku and Clevedon on special trains. It was a case of ‘join the Territorials and bring your own horse’!
A complete kitchen staff cooked all the meals for the men for, as the Star put it, “As most people are aware, mounted men do not cook, having quite enough to do to look after their horses.”
The picket lines of horses ran through the tents so the men were sleeping in close proximity their mounts. A Herald reporter who stayed overnight reported, “In the horse lines, just outside the tent, all was quiet, save for the “champ, champ” of horses at their feed”.
Some of those at the camp would have a few years later been at Gallipoli. Ironically, the Mounted Rifles left their horses in Egypt when they went to Gallipoli.
The Maori (Pioneer) Battalion
Just two days after the First World War was declared on 4th August 1914, Maori members of Parliament “declared their desire of a Maori force going to war.” This was eventually agreed by the British Government but then the NZ Government started to have reservations. This led to the primary role in WWI of the Maori Battalion being skilled labour, which frustrated the men wo wanted to fight.
Almost 500 men were at the Avondale racecourse for four months in 1914-15. They called the camp Waiatarua. They came from all over New Zealand, even from the Chatham Islands. The Waikato Maoris abstained however, due to ongoing grievances with the Crown.
A variety of amusements were made available at the camp to reduce boredom after hours. The Patriotic League looked into getting a piano for the camp, as there were “a big percentage of musicians”. It was reported that among the contingent was a composer who intended to sit for the second portion of his Bachelor of Music degree.
There had been early fears of typhoid at the camp so they were all inoculated against it. However, anyone already with typhoid would not have been protected. With primitive sanitation conditions, things were not ideal. Then a case of typhoid occurred in the area and the press announced that typhoid had broken out in the camp. This could have led to the Battalion’s farewell from Auckland being muted. The next time Avondale racecourse would be used as a training camp, the Army took great pains to dig extensive drainage lines which for decades would have the local residents certain that tunnels had been dug under the racecourse.
The Pioneer Battalion served as a garrison on Malta before going to Gallipoli on 3 July 1915. By August the contingent was reduced from 677 officers and men to only 60. This later rose to 132 after the return of sick and wounded. By April 1916 the battalion was in France digging trenches, being the original troops to earn the name “diggers” from the British. Yet another thing subsequently pinched from us by the Aussies!
One of the more bizarre methods of warfare in desperate battles of WWI was tunnelling under enemy lines to try to blow them up. Initiated by the Germans, both sides quickly became involved in underground warfare, sometimes encountering the enemy there.
Responding to calls from the British, NZ raised its own Tunnelling Corp from miners (excluding the war critical coal miners).
Avondale racecourse was chosen to be the training camp. JC Neill in his 1922 book on the NZ Tunnelling Company, suggested that the choice was “the grossest of blunders” choosing an area “within easy reach of New Zealand’s largest and gayest city.” The effect was described as shaking up Auckland as it had never been shaken before.
The men were skilled miners and tradesmen, so the training was military – saluting, dress, military law, health and sanitation.
The NZ Tunnelling Corp of Engineers left Avondale on 18 December 1915. In JC Neill’s opinion, “the only enthusiasm the citizens [of Auckland] showed to the company was when they bade it farewell”.
In France they made their mark first at the Labyrinth north of Arras. They were credited with the discover of old underground quarries from the seventeenth century.
Based on the Trilogy of Essays, They Trained Beside the River, 2009, by Lisa J Truttman. With thanks to Lisa for her help and guidance.