Anzac Day Special : The New Zealanders on Cannock Chase

It’s been a while to say the least, but I’ve been inspired by recent events to get back into the swing of writing my blog posts. I’ll be starting my writing again with a special blog post for ANZAC day, about the time the 5th Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade spent on Cannock Chase during the First World War.

Cannock Chase (August 2020)

For those who are unaware, 25th April is ANZAC Day. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – which was a unit formed during the First World War that encompassed troops from the Antipodes. ANZAC day is a special day of commemoration much like Remembrance Day, honouring Australian and New Zealand troops killed in conflict. The first ANZAC Day was set up in 1916 to commemorate the anniversary of the first major engagement of these troops during the First World War; the Gallipoli Campaign.

The Gallipoli Campaign was undoubtedly a watershed moment for the ANZACs. Their first large scale involvement in the First World War resulted in significant levels of casualties, contributing to the national identities of these countries. But both of these nations spent more time, and had more casualties inflicted on them, on the Western Front, including involvement in key battles such as the Battle of the Somme and Third Battle of Ypres.

As these troops were so far from their home nations, it was required that bases across the UK were created in order to house these troops. And in 1917, the 5th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade made their home at Cannock Chase.

New Zealand troops at Cannock Chase (1917/1918)

Cannock Chase was a historic hunting ground for hundreds of years and at the time, was part of the Shugborough Estate, the home of Lord Lichfield. In 1914, Lord Lichfield ‘gifted’ the expanse of land to be used by the War Office, who set up a training facility there. There were two camps, named Brocton and Rugeley, after two towns that bordered the Chase. At its height, each camp could take 20,000 men comfortably, with a maximum capacity of 50,000 and it is believed that at least 500,000 men spent some part of their training at Cannock Chase, including JRR Tolkien.

The 5th Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) arrived on Cannock Chase in September 1917 and would stay there until returning to New Zealand in May 1919. The unit had been involved in fighting at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 and the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917 and as such, was an experienced unit. This combat experience made them an ideal training battalion, training new recruits at Cannock Chase, before being sent as reinforcements to fill in other New Zealand battalions out on the Western Front.

Named the ‘Cannock Chase Reserve Centre’ the camp was commanded by Major-General Davies. One of the training staff, ‘Robbie’ Robertson later wrote:

‘Some four miles away was the historic county-town of Stafford whose people proved to be eminently kindly and hospitable. The camp itself was thoroughly equipped for all branches of general and specialist training, the open spaces offered ample scope for close order work, while the climatic conditions, combined with the nature of the soil, gave a realistic touch to the frequent rehearsals in trench routine and attack and defence.’

Most instructors were seasoned veterans and various inspections praised the work of the unit in training recruits. General training included: formal drill, bayonet fighting, protection against gas, physical training, musketry and the all-night occupation of trenches. Specialists were also trained at the camp including Lewis gunners, signallers, scouts, and bombers. Many of the features associated with these training regimes survive upon the Chase as earthworks including practice trenches and large rifle butts.

The NZRB left a number of influences on Cannock Chase and the surrounding area and people. Civilians had built the camps themselves in 1914 and many continued to work in the laundries, canteens and shops on site, in additional to the 1000 bed hospital at Brindley Heath. Good relations were maintained, with soldiers and civilians encouraged to mix at concert parties, tea dances and other forms of activity. Indeed, many New Zealand troops got on so well with the local population they ended up marrying some of the local girls. The high opinion in which Stafford held the NZRB resulted in the Brigade presenting a silk New Zealand flag to the town ahead of its departure in 1919.

Another visible influence left by the NZRB is ‘Freda’. As with many other units, the battalion had a mascot called Freda, a Harlequin Great Dane. The most accepted, and most likely true story is that the unit had been gifted her by a local in 1917. Freda unfortunately did not survive the units time on the Chase, and she was buried there in 1918, near to their camp at Brocton. Freda’s collar was returned to New Zealand and is held in the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

Freda’s Grave (August 2020)

When the NZRB arrived on the Chase, they had not long just been involved in the taking of the Messines Ridge in Belgium in June 1917. The village of Messines occupied a ridge which commanded the area to the south of Ypres and this feature formed a strongpoint in the German defences. The British had lost the ridge in Autumn 1914 and preparations were under way in 1916 to recapture the area. Extensive training including the use of large scale models began well before the assault and mines were constructed out beneath No Man’s Land and under the German positions.

The assault commenced without the customary artillery barrage assisted by the detonation of 19 mines constructed below the German positions. The capture of the village of Messines itself was the responsibility of the New Zealand Division which included the NZRB and following a ‘sharply fought action’ in which the German garrison commander and his staff were captured the village was under NZRB control. This assault was of importance to the New Zealanders, and as such, led to the building of the Messines Model. Covering around 35 square metres, the model was constructed using German prisoners of war and was completed in May 1918, just in time for the first anniversary of the battle. While the camps were gradually dismantled after the end of the war, the Messines model remained and even became a tourist attraction between the wars, before the Second World War and the creation of RAF Hendesford meant that the model was covered over. In 2013, the model was excavated and found to be in remarkable condition. It was also much larger and more detailed than anticipated, resulting in the project being extended. The model was covered over again after the excavation in order to keep it protected.

Messines Model in 1918, Brocton Camp in the background

Quote possibly the most visible reminder of the presence of the New Zealanders on Cannock Chase is the number that are buried in the Cannock Chase War Cemetery. There are 379 burials in the cemetery, 73 of them being New Zealanders. Most of them would have died during the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918 but there are some interesting exceptions, including one who committed suicide and one who died in ‘suspicious circumstances.’

Cannock Chase War Cemetery (April 2021)

There are many different and interesting stories that can be covered on the involvement of Cannock Chase during the First World War, which I will be writing about in future posts. If you are interested in finding out more about Cannock Chase, or any other elements of the First World War, make sure to subscribe to the mailing list for blog!

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