The land wars in New Zealand were preparation for the terrain-tortured European battlefields of WW1 in that Maori defences featured ramparts, bunkers and trenches built with traditional Maori earthmoving skills.
This legacy of military engineering resurfaced on the slopes of Gallipoli and the battlefields of France and Belgium between 1915 and 1918.
Before 1914, New Zealand was divided into four military districts and each one had a fields company of sappers (engineers).
Along with members of the Maori Pioneers, these engineers were involved in digging the trenches that became the impasse for the ANZAC forces stuck on the slopes of Gallipoli until they retreated in late 1915. It was the incessant digging for cover and fortification against German-led Turkish forces that earned our troops the name ‘digger’, a term still very much used today in Australia to describe a military or even civil veteran. It also has to be noted that a lot of that digging was done by members of the Maori Pioneers and it was Maori labour that was to become, back home, the backbone of the Ministry of Works.
However, it was in France and Belgium that Kiwi engineers earned a reputation for trenching, fortification and, in particular, extensive tunnelling in the later years of the war – tough and dangerous work.
A special tunnelling company, largely made up of ex miners, mined and counter-mined the frontlines on the Western Front. So much ‘digging’ was involved in this theatre before the German army was rolled back into Germany, that in 1918 an entrenching group was formed that peaked in strength at three battalions. At its peak the NZEF Engineering Corp’s fighting strength was over 23,000. It included 1620 sappers and 900 tunnellers. The New Zealand Society for Civil Engineers listed 113 of its members going to the Great War with 50 becoming officers and 14 of them killed.
There is no doubt that their participation in the Great War brought New Zealand into ‘international’ focus and connectedness as these troops brought their new skills home into civil construction under our Public Works Department and agencies, and private contracting companies.
Such people included Arnold Downer, who served in Egypt and France and who came home, finished his civil engineering studies and became famous for his tunnelling expertise while working for the Public Works Department. He founded Downer & Co in 1933.