The daily life of a New Zealand soldier during the First World War is a story of hardship, danger and death, fuelled by a path of duty and self-sacrifice. Take a look at objects that soldiers handled on a daily basis and get an insight into their experience.
The First World War (1914-1918) had a profound effect on New Zealand and forever changed the country's perception of itself and its place in the world. The war saw almost 100,000 New Zealand service men and women leave New Zealand shores, many for the first time, to serve in 'the war to end all wars'. Initial excitement over the prospect of adventure and travel was hastily quashed as the harsh realities of war became apparent. Of those who served overseas, nearly one in five did not return, a huge price to pay for a population of a mere 1.1 million.
Many First World War tunics worn by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were modelled on the 1912 Pattern other ranks Service Dress Jacket. The jackets were fashioned from drab-coloured woollen fabric with large buttons down the front and a high standing collar. The shoulder straps and collar often bore the badges of the soldier's arm of service.
This example of a tunic belonged to Private Thomas Edward Clough and carries the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps lapel badges.
Upholding dress regulations weren't always a priority for soldiers, particularly during the Gallipoli campaign where the 'extravagant' jackets proved impractical for the hot climate and were tossed aside.
This modest piece of military clothing became essential for those who fought in the drenched, churned landscape that was the Western Front. The notoriously mud-ridden and water-logged trenches became an infamous symbol of life on the Western Front and one of the Allies' greatest enemies.
The low-lying ground, wet climate and constant shelling meant the area was extremely sodden and it was nearly impossible to find a dry spot to rest or sleep. As a result, many soldiers succumbed to trench foot - a fungal infection caused by immersion in cold, unsanitary water.
The nine-foot long woollen leg wrappings known as puttees were wrapped around soldier’s ankles and legs and secured with a cotton tie in an attempt to keep feet dry and avoid trench foot. Puttees also provided protection from abrasions caused by barbed wire, rebounding shells and prolonged horse-riding.
The British style identification tag, known as a dog tag, was worn by all New Zealand soldiers during the First World War. It was a gravely personal yet essential item.
The British dog tags were initially single aluminium discs. However the growing demand and expense following the outbreak of war, led to the adoption of a new disc made of vulcanised asbestos fibre.
The dog tags were made up of two discs, attached with cord and worn around the soldier's neck.
They were stamped with the soldier's name, serial number, country, blood type and religion. Following the death of a soldier, the bottom disc was removed and passed onto the commander for identification and administration and the top disc remained on the body.
Dog tags serve as a devastating reminder that death and loss was a customary part of war and confronted service men and women on a daily basis.
Hussif sewing kit
The 'hussif' was a sewing kit containing needles, safety pins, buttons and thread. The word was derived from the pocket 'housewife' that was commonly used in English households as early as the 18th century. A verision made from sturdier fabric was also carried by soldiers and sailors.
The New Zealand Defence Force had dispensed more than 8000 hussifs by 1916, however home-made hussifs such as this example were often gifts from local patriotic organisations or significant others.
The hussif was essential for the upkeep of military uniforms; basic repairs such as mending tears and attaching buttons were commonplace. As well as practical patch ups, the hussif was used for sewing badges to military uniforms; these badges came in many variations and could signify arm of service, rank or years of service.
At the call of King and Country the New Zealand servicemen left all that was dear to them to embark on a journey of duty and self-sacrifice. They endured hardness, faced danger and confronted death on a daily basis. Collection items such as these ones from Auckland War Memorial Museum offer a unique insight into the materiality of war. The items that characterised their existence bring First World War narratives to life and enable us to deeper comprehend the hardship and adversity they encountered.
More Auckland Museum objects used by soldiers during the First World War can be found on the WW100 website.
'Life in the trenches', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/new-zealanders-in-belgium/a-soldiers-lot, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Aug-2014
'History of New Zealand, 1769-1914', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/history-of-new-zealand-1769-1914, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Jan-2015
Fenton, Damien. New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919. Penguin, 2013
O'Sullivan, Barry and Matthew. New Zealand Army – Uniforms and Clothing 1910-1945. Wilson Scott Publishing, 2009.
Pugsley, Christopher. New Zealand and the Great War of 1914-1918. Bateman, 1996
Cite this article
Meet the objects: The daily life of a soldier. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 3 August 2015. Updated: 6 September 2015.