Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Piercy, Guest Speaker Peter Cooke, Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy, Heritage Promotion Council Chairman Philip Vallance.


Speech given to launch Heritage Month, ‘Heritage and the Military’, at Trentham Camp Warrant Officers & Sergeants Mess, Sunday 1 June 2008, 4pm

Military Wellington – A Re-appraisal
© Peter Cooke, 2008

I’d like first to congratulate Philip Vallance of Wellington Region Heritage Promotion Council for choosing military heritage as its theme for Heritage Month this year, and to thank Lt Col Stephen Piercy, CO of the Trentham Regional Support Battalion, for his talk on the history of Trentham Camp.

I want you to imagine a scenario.

A reconnaissance by Blue force gathers intelligence, sweeping through the area. It captures prisoners and scouts the scene. Generals eye-ball the potential fields of battle to come, and survey the rich pickings and highly-desirable ground that will go to the victor.

Then the main Blue force advances down the coast. A huge army, thousands of soldiers, armed with the latest weaponry and with amphibious backup. Much larger than the recce parties, it includes the baggage train. Having conquered the territory, they intend to stay.

Soon though, they realise a strategic site has been overlooked - a large off-shore island. Red defenders have taken refuge there, but using subterfuge and their seagoing abilities, the Blue force soon takes that too. Though pushed off the island the Red defenders hold on to pockets of the mainland, despite being harried. The Blue general brings in his allies and with them under his control assumes the title of Supreme Allied Commander. Some Red forces give up and move away but the majority put up stout resistance. They summon their own allies to help retake the island, but despite amassing a huge invasion fleet, their assault on D-Day is uncoordinated and fails. Eventually, their losses on the mainland prove too heavy and they melt away. Allies of the vanquished try to co-exist with the invaders, but haven’t got the sureties to offer and are oppressed. The victors now bring in successive waves of camp followers and their other allies, which more and more come to look like permanent stayers. Some of the original allies have their own agendas and fear the sting of the dominant general supremo. They move south, attacking others in their way, before finally fleeing altogether to another far-off land.

Within a short period, the main allies fall out with each other and start in-fighting. The Supremo general only just maintains his control. Under his umbrella, though, former allies continue to battle each other. This they are doing the day before another invasion arrives in the region. This next invasion - is by Ngati Pakeha.

The scenario is not fictional – it happened in greater Wellington in the twenty years before 1840. Blue forces are largely those of Te Rauparaha of Kawhia. He has been likened to a Napoleon but I think of him more of a Caesar – much more successful and much earlier on the continua of time. His allies are the various iwi and kin-groups from Taranaki who helped him conquer the lands from Horowhenua to Wellington, taking the strategic Kapiti Island - but then falling out and fighting each other. The Red forces are the benighted original tangata whenua.

Something like 25 major battles are known from this period – including two in Island Bay and one not far from here (the Ngati Kahungunu pa of Te Puniunuku attacked by Te Atiawa in 1832). One siege near Otaki involved 3000 participants. 25 battles, compared to only a couple in the 1840s after Pakeha got involved. As a general society we know so very little about these earlier events. Maori oral tradition gives us the basic script, and a few missionaries’ and traders’ diaries have pinpointed the dates and locations, but very little archaeology has been done at the sites. The interpretation on site is virtually non-existent. We need to reappraise Wellington’s military heritage to adopt these events and work them more into our mainstream history. In the overall scheme of things they are our Wars of the Roses, our Hadfields & McCoys, our own killing-fields, with all the drama and tragedy.

But a heritage story with better outcomes comes through the military activity of the post-1840 period. We have traditionally associated it with the British Regiments that were based in Mt Cook from 1843-65, and Mt Cook is indeed the home of NZ’s military. But NZ’s own domestic units, the militia and volunteer corps, should be just as much a reason to celebrate. We had local militias assemble and drilling in 1843. From 1860 volunteer corps spontaneously sprung up. They responded to tensions with Maori, in which also the wonderful Upper Hutt Blockhouse was built, the only 2-story wooden defensible building in NZ. Over the next 40 years volunteers corps came and went, but mostly hung around providing a general sense of security to settlers and a specific sense of purpose to the young men involved. In that period Wellington and its many suburbs and outlying settlements had something like 24 rifles volunteer corps. We’d call them infantry nowadays but they had interesting names like Wellington Veterans, Civil Service, and Zealandia Rifles Volunteers, with the usual smattering of school cadet corps. Virtually all of these units are associated with a suburban centre – Karori, Taita or Pauatahanui – and often drill halls were built by public subscription for these units, and became centres of social activity. Petone’s Drill Hall on Udy St dates from 1883.  Similarly from 1867 artillery volunteer corps formed. Do you know that some of our first engineer volunteers started life as the Star Boating Club corps in 1898.

Our large holding of coastal defence sites is not matched by a good understanding of how people stepped up to the plate to operate them. Or the mariners who ran the spar torpedo boats or prepared to lay mines in Wellington’s choppy harbour entrance.  The competitiveness between Wellington and Petone naval artillery volunteers was legion, but was not enough to force the retention of Fort Kelburne in which the Petone Navals trained, at the foot of the Ngauranga Gorge.

Such units are no less examples of the ‘crew culture’ that Jamie Belich so easily attributes to the formative years of our industrial or maritime communities.

What we have left in our military heritage sites is of world significance. I met a man from the Netherlands a couple of months ago who was travelling the world looking at fortifications. He had located every site on Google Earth, but found once he got there that on-the-ground access was not so easy. Descendants of Patrick Alphonsus Buckley have come to see the fort named after him. Similarly descendants of the old campaigners Te Rauparaha or Te Puni or Te Wharepouri come to see their stamping grounds. A large group of the UK Fortress Study Group is coming here for the same purpose in October. These people are motivated free independent travellers who will seek out-of-the-way places and do not find a little bush-bashing or hill climbing to be an obstacle. They also, I think, spend a bit more when here.

They come for the stark grey fortifications that by their very nature survive well – they are in fact very difficult to demolish. Three sappers died trying to demolish the 1880s see-saw searchlight emplacement at Point Gordon which is one of only a handful installed anywhere in the empire and the only one in NZ.

The best military heritage site in the country in terms of its proximity to a city and ‘wow’ factor is the huge WWII counter-bombardment battery at Wrights Hill. Yet we require it to be restored and manned by volunteers. If this were France or America it would have its own Government Department lavishing love on it. It is our own Maginot Line, Tower of London or Great Wall, just as the battlefields of Te Rauparaha are our Culloden and Gettysburg.

Fort Ballance is another that people clamour to see (which is why we have initiated its second open day there – for 28 June). Ballance is crown land, currently vested with the NZ Defence Force but it needs to move into the heritage estate. It is would benefit by being managed instead by the Dept of Conservation as the historic reserve it is, like North Head in Auckland.

Other sites abound to make Wellington a rich destination for niche visitors – Nineteenth Century emplacements at Kau Point, Fort Buckley and Garden Battery, Twentieth Century gunpits at Dorset and Makara; three anti-aircraft batteries; Underground control rooms at Strathmore and behind the Dominion Museum; Campsites for US forces everywhere. There even a few pillboxes, air raid shelters and road blocks around the place.

In restoring and interpreting these sites we can combine experiences – seeing the Brooklyn anti-aircraft battery on the way to the wind turbine, or a naval Degaussing Range along with an internment and POW campsites on our own Colditz, Somes/Matiu Island or comparing pillboxes with pa at Pukerua Bay.

Military heritage has been adaptively reused. The classic case is the Wellington Artillery Volunteers boatshed which now turns a dollar as a functions venue, next to the Star Boating Club. We lost the Seatoun RSA hall which was an old Anglican Church Army barrack at Trentham, but there are efforts to save the former Roseneath RSA hall at Point Jerningham, which was also a former army barrack. We think the wooden blockhouse from the 1860s is rare – but timber buildings from WWII are getting to the stage where they can be numbered on the fingers of your hands.

Even Wellington’s wharves are becoming a site of commemoration, with numerous plaques erected to maritime or expeditionary forces. Since the 1890s virtually all our forces sent overseas to contribute to the world’s collective security, have left by sea from Wellington. Vietnam was the first war in which all drafts flew out, and then from Auckland. Despite this fact the organisers of "Tribute 08" this weekend still decided to hold their reunion in Wellington and promote our region’s military heritage to Vietnam veterans and their families.

What makes Military heritage a unique category? Is it the unusual structures which are designed and built with an advanced technical and utilitarian purposes. That does drive some people. Or is it because the sites can be related to men and women who were serving their country and in the course of doing so, accepted that doing their duty might cost them their lives. Men and women who understood that such service – and by definition society itself - was potentially more important than them as individuals. I think so. Our most famous officer, William George Malone of the Wellington Regiment, said there could be no better death than one that comes while serving one’s country and one’s soldiers (he added one’s monarch, but let’s not go there).

An area in which we need to lift out game is interpretation. Different brochures or websites published by different bodies might – if you consult them all – tell people what sites can be seen in a particular location. An example would be at Makara. From the village one passes a war memorial, Home Guard concrete trench on the beach, a Maori Pa, and finally arrive at a WWII battery and radar site, with a huge camp site behind it. You might learn of the latter without ever finding out about the former two or three. And my Dutch visitor was sure that a concrete boat shed that he saw there must also be military in origin. We need more co-ordination.

We also need the military heritage to be embraced by the city and regional authorities, and I am delighted to see the Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy here. A few years ago a proposal for a Military Heritage Trail brochure was pooh-poohed by the City Council. The Wellington Branch committee of the NZ Historic Places Trust did it, and this brochure ‘Military Heritage in Wellington Region’ (2004) has been very successful. Positively Wellington Tourism though, hadn’t heard of this brochure – despite it being in their i-Site. The tourism gurus only accept that a site is heritage if a tour to it can be booked on-line through an i-Site.

What can I imagine if the region’s fine body of military heritage were to be well presented and accessible. I could image for instance the northern tip of Miramar peninsula being a wilderness park which also tells a bit about Wellington’s human history. Visitors would be welcomed at Shelly Bay, in which small museums were housed in the many buildings there. These museums would tell the story of Te Whanganui a Tara, the pre-settlement, and perhaps of the early maritime history, of naval artillery volunteers and the Torpedo Corps. Even the air force could get a mention. From there, visitors would walks or ride up the original road that wends its way over the spine of the hill, passed ammunition magazines, to first the Massey Memorial (a former gun battery), then Kau Point and finally ending at Fort Ballance. Other occasional points of history would be presented at relevant sites along the way, such as the old No.1 or Women’s Prison which started out as the labourer’s camp for fort building, then housed prisoners doing the work, then conscription defaulters of the John A Lee ilk, and finally served as a women’s prison (and Robyn Hyde talks knowledgably about it). At Fort Ballance, the end of their journey, the visitors would view the nineteenth century fortifications and minefield control post, with interpretive information about the Pa that once occupied the site, Te Mahanga (The Snare). On live open days, re-enactors would wow them with their drill and musket firings.

I would image tourists flocking to coming here to view it and Wellington’s other tremendous military heritage sites.
It is a great shame that I have to imagine this scenario.
Thank you.


Peter Cooke BA(Hons) is an independent historian specialising in NZ military and engineering history. His recent works include a history of Wellington waterworks, the Royal NZ Artillery, electrical & mechanical engineers, the Wellington RSA, and defence sites around the whole country (in Defending New Zealand – Ramparts on the Sea 1840-1950s).

For further information contact Peter Cooke on (04) 934 6817, petercooke@paradise.net.nz, PO Box 9724, Marion Square 6141 Wellington, NZ