3rd Battle Archives

Regimental Cairn

Auckland’s regiment remembers

Written by       Photographed by Adam Fricker and Blake and Jule Herbert

On Anzac Day 2005, a new memorial—a simple cairn—was unveiled in Auckland Domain. It commemorates a hundred years of selfless service and sacrifice by soldiers of the Auckland Regiment and its successors.

A casual observer might be perplexed by its detachment from the cenotaph that stands directly in front of Auckland War Memorial Museum. Yet its positioning below the oak grove on the lower slopes of the historic knoll Pukekaroa is deliberate. From the moment the idea of a memorial cairn was floated in 1997, past and present members of the Auckland Regiment wanted it to be sited in the lower domain, as this area has strong associations for the regiment that date from the South African War (1899–1902).

A year after the Auckland Battalion was formed in 1898, troops assembled here before their departure for the Transvaal. Sixteen years later, the area provided a camping ground for many Auckland and Northland soldiers before they embarked for Egypt and thence for Gallipoli, where they were the first New Zealanders to wade ashore. For the next 40 years the domain’s playing fields provided an arena for military parades and pageants staged by Auckland’s regiment, with thousands turning out here to celebrate the royal birthdays. Of prime importance, this is the ground where Auckland’s regiment received its first colours from the Countess of Ranfurly in 1899, with replacement colours presented here in 1929 and 1973.

Like many other New Zealand cities and districts at the time, 19th-century Auckland had a number of volunteer rifle companies. One of the first was the Auckland Volunteer Rifles, formed in 1858, among whose ranks artist and surveyor, Major Charles Heaphy of the No. 3 (Parnell) Company became, in 1867, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Major General Mataparae unveils the cairn on April 25, 2005
Major General Mataparae unveils the cairn on April 25, 2005

In 1898 the Victoria Rifles, College Rifles, New Zealand Native Rifles, Gordon Rifles, Avondale Rifles and Newton Rifles amalgamated to form the 1st Battalion, Auckland Rifle Volunteers.

All battalions need their colours, and a group of Auckland women were quick to suggest that the new battalion have its own. The honorary colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Dignan, offered to provide both regimental and queen’s colours. However, with women’s suffrage barely five years old, the soldiers’ mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts asked if they might not also contribute. The colonel, who was also Auckland’s elected mayor, prudently agreed, and, when the Ladies’ Colours Committee proved so adept at fund-raising as to supply the £58/18/– needed for both, he courteously stood aside.

When the colours arrived, the ladies’ committee asked if it might not be appropriate for them to be presented by the wife of the Governor General, the Earl of Ranfurly. The countess agreed with alacrity, asking that the battalion be named after her. The formal presentation was arranged for May 24, 1899, to coincide with Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday.

The involvement of the countess engendered huge public interest, and the domain’s cricket ground offered the area best suited to such a ceremony, with the actual presentation to take place at the base of Pukekaroa. Thousands assembled on the surrounding slopes, dressed in their best.

The infantry marched to the domain via lower Symonds Street and Grafton Road. The battalion’s A Battery arrived, complete with field pieces, via upper Symonds Street and Grafton Road. On the cricket ground the troops formed an open square around the saluting point.

At 11 a.m. the dignitaries arrived. These included the governor, resplendent in full horse-guards uniform, his countess, secretary and ADC, Anglican Primate of New Zealand Bishop Cowie, and the commander of the New Zealand forces, along with assorted VIPs. Three drums were piled in the centre of the square and the cased colours paraded forward, unfurled and laid over the drums, to be blessed by the bishop.

The colours of the 1st Battalion Auckland Rifle Volunteers, The Countess of Ranfurly’s Own, are presented by Lady Constance Elizabeth Ranfurly on 24 May 1899 at lower Auckland Domain.

Mrs Banks, chairwoman of the Ladies’ Colours Committee, then asked Lady Ranfurly to make the formal presentation on behalf of the committee, and the battalion became known as 1st Battalion, Auckland Rifle Volunteers, The Countess of Ranfurly’s Own. Ever since, the battalion has maintained its association with the countess. A change of name took place on August 7, 1899, the full appellation becoming 1st Battalion, Auckland Infantry Volunteers, Countess of Ranfurly’s Own”.

The formation of the battalion coincided with troubled times. In 1898, Auckland troops were offered to help shore-up the British position in Samoa, but far greater issues were brewing in South Africa. The growing tensions eventually led to an outbreak of hostilities, with colonial troops volunteering in 1899 to go there to support the British Empire.

“The war in South Africa has aroused an Imperialistic spirit, which, if not altogether a new sensation to the colonial, is at least only beginning to express itself, our volunteers for the seat of war are the men of the hour,” proclaimed the Weekly News of February 11, 1900.

Fifty members of the 1st Battalion served as mounted infantry in the ten contingents, commonly known as the Rough Riders or Bushmen, that left New Zealand during the course of the war. These volunteers had to provide their own horses and equipment and be good marksmen and riders. The Aucklanders assembled and camped in the lower domain on October 7, prior to their embarkation for the Transvaal. War fever ran high, and a mock battle was staged in the domain on February 26, 1900, to raise funds in support of the Rough Riders. A crowd of 15,000 turned up to watch.

The bad hats—the Boers—wore blue and white. They consisted of the Devonport Torpedo Corps, the Auckland Engineers, the Auckland Navals, the Ponsonby Navals, the Coastguards and the Permanent Militia. They occupied two fortified positions under the command of Captain Coyle and Captain McKenzie, and had at their disposal one field gun and two Maxim machine guns.

The good guys, in khaki, were under the command of Major White. His troops were the Rough Riders, the Auckland Mounted Rifles, the Infantry Battalion, the Onehunga Rifles and A Battery with its 12-pounders. At the end of a long but entertaining afternoon the Boers were ousted at bayonet point.

But it wasn’t long before the first real New Zealand blood was being shed in South Africa. All the New Zealand fighters were brigaded with other forces, without any regional or even national distinction; nonetheless, the Auckland volunteers won the 1st Battalion its first battle honours: “South Africa 1900” and “South Africa, 1901–1902”, awarded by the War Office on February 12, 1907.

The Domain served the battalion as the location for Easter camps (above) and fifty men were sent as Rough Riders to the Boer War (bottom).
The Domain served the battalion as the location for Easter camps (above) and fifty men were sent as Rough Riders to the Boer War (bottom).

Changes to the battalion occurred with the passing of the Defence Act in 1911. Come the outbreak of the First World War, a composite battalion, the 1st Battalion Auckland Regiment, was raised in the Auckland military district from the 1st Battalion 3rd Auckland (Countess of Ranfurly’s Own) Regiment and the 1st Battalion 15th North Auckland Regiment, formed by the merger of various Northland volunteer rifle companies.

Like their predecessors, the soldiers assembled in the domain. Their destination was unknown, although widely believed to be England, preparatory to deployment in France. In fact they were to sail to training camp in Egypt, and from there to a place few had ever heard of: Gallipoli. For many of them, the lower domain would be almost their last contact with New Zealand soil. As many as 19 officers and 410 NCOs and rankers from the regiment died in the Gallipoli campaign alone.

Later the Auckland Regiment fought in France, where three of its members won the Victoria Cross: Sergeant Samuel Forsythe VC, Sergeant Reginald Stanley Judson VC, DCM, MM, and Private James Crichton VC.

This was the last war for the Auckland Regiment as such. By the time the Second World War rolled around, a new command structure was in place. The regiments that remained in New Zealand were known as the 1st New Zealand Division. Each provided companies to numbered battalions, five from Auckland and three from Northland. These battalions contributed to the 2nd New Zealand Division, which served in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to the 3rd New Zealand Division, which served in the Pacific.

Six days before unveiling, masons work furiously to meet the Anzac Day deadline.

After the war, the Auckland and North Auckland Regiments were reactivated as part of the Territorial Force, and on April 1, 1964, all 10 regiments from across the country were amalgamated to form seven numbered battalions within a single Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. The Auckland and Northland Regiments merged to become the present 3rd Battalion (Countess of Ranfurly’s Own) Battalion Group. Today, 21 battle honours are emblazoned on the regimental colours presented in 1973:

South Africa 1900-1902, ANZAC, Krithia, Gallipoli 1915, Somme 1916–1918, Flers-Courcelette, Messines 1917, Passchendaele, Arras 1918, Bapaume, Canal du Nord, Mount Olympus, Crete, Sidi Rezegh 1941, El Alamein, Tebaga Gap, Takrouna, The Sangro, Cassino 1, The Senio, Solomons.

Despite the debt Auckland owes to the selfless service and sacrifice of its soldiers, getting a cairn built to honour their deeds proved something of a campaign in itself.

The idea of a memorial was mooted in 1997, before plans to celebrate the regiment’s centenary in 1998 had been finalised. The Gallipoli connection was to the fore from the outset. When the Turkish government heard of the proposal, it promptly offered stones from Anzac Cove, gratis, with which to dress the memorial.

Wellington obtained similar stone from Chunuk Bair in August 1998, and by the end of the year a memorial to the soldiers of the Wellington Regiment had been completed in St Paul’s Cathedral. In the Queen’s City, however, things moved more sedately, with the regiment’s initial proposal for a cairn in the domain rejected by Auckland City Council. In a letter dated May 15, 1997, the council declared: “Our preference would be for a plaque in the near vicinity, on the grandstand or set into adjoining seating or paving. Such a commemorative plaque would be a simpler exercise.” A subsequent phone call made it clear that what the regiment was suggesting was neither acceptable nor possible.

Matters weren’t helped by the Ministry of Defence being a little slow off the mark. Nonetheless, its blessing of the project two years down the track, in 1999, was one of the few gleams of light to illuminate the project during five gloomy years of effort.

Significant traction was gained at last in 2002, at about the time the late Gene Leckey, Regimental Association President, arranged a meeting with newly elected Auckland mayor John Banks. At this point the city’s bureaucrats showed an upturn in interest. Even so, two further Anzac Days were to come and go before the fallen of the Auckland Regiment would be honoured. These things cannot be rushed, Wellington’s experience notwithstanding.

Considerable paperwork had to be dealt to and much political protocol satisfied. A Certificate of Compliance was required. Consultation was needed with the Community Planning Group and the Heritage Division. Political approval had to be obtained from the Hobson Community Board and the Recreation and Events Committee. The Historic Places Trust needed to be informed, and consent sought from the city’s arborists if the oak grove that graced Pukekaroa was to be involved. And the local iwi had to be consulted.

Placed innocuously on a grassy slope, the cairn now stands as a memorial to the local infantrymen who served and died.

The last of these proved the most straightforward, for Ngati Whatua o Orakei raised no objection. Sir Hugh Kawharau replied promptly to a request in August 2003 offering his iwi’s full support and endorsing any of four proposed sites. As for the rest, without the perseverance and tenacity of Captain Blake Herbert, Regimental Archivist, it is unlikely there would be a cairn in the domain today. For Herbert the project became a labour of love, if not an idée fixe. He patiently worked his way round each and every of the many obstacles put in his way.

The delays at the Auckland end caused hiccups in Turkey. Reasonably enough, while the Kiwi soldiers fought their paper war the patient Turks put their generous offer on the back burner. Nevertheless, the moment Herbert perceived light at the end of the council’s procedural tunnel, he expedited shipment of the stones from Turkey. They arrived in February 2004.

In March 2005 Herbert finally received the big tick from the council. All stops were now pulled out to ensure a successful consummation by Anzac Day—a bare four weeks away. Several building firms, some of whom donated services or goods, moved heaven and earth to complete the project on time. All deadlines were met, and on April 25, 2005, after the dawn ceremony at the cenotaph, Major General Mataparae, Chief of the New Zealand Army, undertook the ceremonial unveiling.

The cairn had been designed by Herbert, with Colonel Graham Wilson, the Auckland Regiment’s commanding officer, drawing up the engineering schematics. Concrete for the footing and core had been donated by McCallum Bros. Construction had been undertaken by Richard Kemp. Louis Giacon Stonemasons had laid the Gallipoli stones about black granite plaques provided by monumental masons R.G. Thompson and now gracing each side of the memorial. They acknowledge the service and sacrifice to the regiment’s colours, display the regiment’s battle honours, and reproduce Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s eloquent words of comfort and reconciliation to the mothers of the fallen:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives

You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us;

Where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away the tears;

Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Even now, the story may not be over. Plans are afoot that may see the cairn shifted. The council is considering incorporating it in a revamp of the cenotaph area in front of the museum. This might be well and good, even appropriate. However, it is a decision best left to the former and present members of the regiment.