From farms to killing fields

by Kent Caddick

With the declaration of war on August 4, 1914 many young men from around Selwyn saw an opportunity for adventure and a chance to serve their country in the ‘war to end all wars’.

They came from the small country towns around Selwyn to sign up, and the attraction for many of the country lads, with their ability to ride horses, was to join the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment. 

The regiment was assigned to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and formed part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force serving alongside two other mounted regiments — the Auckland Mounted Rifles and the Wellington Mounted Rifles.

Selwyn had a history of soldiers on horseback, with the Malvern Mounted Rifles, Amuri Mounted Rifles and the Ellesmere Mounted Rifles being formed around the time of the Boer war (1899–1902). The three came together to form the 1st Mounted Rifles (Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry) and, along with the 8th (South Canterbury) Mounted Rifles and the 10th (Nelson) Mounted Rifles, became the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment (CMR) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Findlay. The MR was established with 26 officers, 523 other ranks and 600 horses. On September 23, 1914 the regiment left their camp for Lyttelton and embarked on the transport ships HMNZT Tahiti and HMNZT Athenic. Leaving the same day, they arrived at Wellington the next afternoon and disembarked.

On October 14 they boarded the transports again and set sail. With a short stop at Hobart, they reached olombo on November 15.

Two days later it sailed into the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal. Docking at Port Said on December 2 and Alexandria the next day, the regiment disembarked on December 4 and boarded a train for their camp in the Cairo suburb of Zeitoun, where they started a training programme. Their first involvement came in the Gallipoli Campaign between May and December 1915, during which hey participated in the largest battle of that theatre at Chunuk Bair and the fighting for Hill 60. When it was sent to Gallipoli, the CMR left its horses behind in Egypt and the men fought in the same manner as their counterparts in the New Zealand infantry battalions. Evacuated to Egypt, they then took part in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign from 1916 to 1918.

The early battles they were involved in included those at Romani, Gaza and Beersheba. Later in the war they were part of the force which occupied the Jordan Valley. In Sinai and Palestine the mounted rifles were valued for their ability to patrol and carry out reconnaissance over a much larger area than could be covered on foot. 

Their final wartime operation was in connection with the capture of the Turkish Fourth Army. During the four years of war, the regiment lost 334 men (dead from all causes), while another 720 were wounded or debilitated. The regiment was disbanded in June 1919.