Dunsterforce: Kiwi soldiers in the 'Hush-Hush Brigade'
Hand-picked for a secret mission
One of the lesser known but most intriguing campaigns involving New Zealanders in the First World War was the Dunsterforce expedition into the Caucasus mountains and Northern Iran. Needing to keep these oil-rich and strategically important regions out of Ottoman and German hands, Britain sent 350 hand-picked Officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) from New Zealand, Australia and Canada to join the secretive 'Hush-Hush Brigade,' which was established by General Lionel Dunsterville, the man behind Rudyard Kipling’s character ‘Stalky’.
The force was charged with organising local militia to counter Ottoman and German forces which had filled the vacuum in the area left by the Russian collapse after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Their presence greatly alarmed British military authorities as it would allow Germany to gain access to the oilfields of Baku and threaten a vital railway link which could have seen British India threatened.
At least 32 New Zealand soldiers served in the force, most sailing directly from the Western Front on 29 January 1918. As General Dunsterville stated, the men ‘were chosen for special ability, and all were men who had already distinguished themselves in the field. It is certain that a finer body of men have never been brought together . . .’ (Adventures of Dunsterforce, p.9).
Dunsterforce in action
Under the command of Major Fred Starnes of the Lower Moutere, the New Zealanders were noted for their work among the people of Bijar, Iran where they organised Kurdish forces to fight the Ottomans (Adventures of Dunsterforce, p.131) and later fought in the conclusive Battle of Baku in September 1918. Though styled as a military ‘adventure’, the actions of the New Zealanders saved the lives of many civilians from imminent slaughter at the hands of Ottomans.
Spending the last year researching the New Zealanders in Dunsterforce, Auckland Museum Volunteer Peter Ison was prompted by an enquiry from Baku in Azerbaijan to dig deeper. Being familiar with Kipling's 'Stalky', he was soon captured by the story of men “bogged down in Passchendaele and sick of the Western Front – volunteers who were not told anything and still put their names forward”. Tracking down the men who served, he has highlighted an aspect of the war unknown to many.
Aucklanders in the force
Among the carefully chosen soldiers were two Auckland servicemen: Captain Samuel Seddon M.C. and Captain Cyril Seaward M.C. Hailing from Mount Eden, Seddon attended Auckland Grammar School before enlisting with the Auckland Infantry Regiment. After being wounded in action at Gallipoli, he fought in France where he was awarded a Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry in action’. Commenting on his selection for Dunsterforce, Major M.H. Donohoe wrote of Seddon's peculiar habits:
There was Seddon, a Government land surveyor from New Zealand who also looked on Red War in Flanders. In cold weather, of all times, he was always shedding surplus garments until there was a positive danger of his arriving at the stage of the ‘altogether’ . . . . he was always in perfect health, and escaped the pulmonary maladies which proved fatal to so many others who looked askance at him and his hygienic, minimum-clothing theory" - Hush-Hush Brigade: Away from the Lime-light . . .Evening Post, Vol. XCIX, Issue 9, 10 January 1920.
With such habits, Seddon no doubt acclimatised to the Middle East with little trouble! Operating in such new and varied conditions with unorthodox methods, his independence and resourcefulness would have made him perfect for Dunsterforce.
Fighting alongside Captain Seddon was Captain Cyril Seaward of the Auckland Mounted Rifles and the Auckland Infantry Regiment. A Stock Agent from Te Awamutu, Seaward was first posted to the Mounted Rifles on 11 August 1914. Serving at Gallipoli and then in France, he returned to New Zealand before re-enlisting in July 1916.
By 1919 he had been promoted through the ranks from Trooper to Captain in Dunsterforce, and was awarded a Military Cross at Buckingham Palace after leading his platoon forward to secure the line after a failed offensive.
An extremely committed soldier, he served again in the Second World War as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Pacific after thirteen years in the Territorial Force. Like Seddon, Seaward led by example, and was well-suited to special operations requiring initiative and leadership.
View the records of the Dunsterforce servicemen on Online Cenotaph; the gathering point for the personal and official memory of the people who served for Aotearoa New Zealand.
Cite this article
Dunsterforce: Kiwi soldiers in the 'Hush-Hush Brigade'. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 27 January 2017. Updated: 9 March 2021.