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    Featherston Military Camp

    Learn more about New Zealand's largest ever training camp

    The Camp System

    Featherston Camp was the largest of the military camps in New Zealand where reinforcements for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force trained during the First World War. Most army personnel trained at Trentham Camp from October 1914 until July 1915, when the Defence Department revised its training arrangements. From January 1916 Trentham and Featherston camps shared the bulk of New Zealand’s training needs. Together with its satellite camps at Tauherenikau and Papawai, Featherston Camp could accommodate 9,850 men in huts and tents.

    Its campsites and training grounds collectively covered 1,861 acres (753 ha) of land in the Featherston–Greytown area. Around 60,000 New Zealand military personnel who subsequently served overseas spent time at Featherston Camp, about two-thirds of the total.

    (Left on large screens) A detail from the architect’s plan of the Featherston Camp rotunda wards. October 1915 (PWD plan 38960, W5 505 38960 pt 2, Archives NZ)


    Trentham and Featherston shared the training of infantry reinforcements, always the bulk of the NZ Expeditionary Force’s fighting force, while Trentham retained the engineers. The mounted rifles, signallers, artillery and machine-gun specialists, and the Army Service Corps all carried out their advanced training at Featherston. By 1918 the camp had 90 permanent instructors. Training thousands of recruits at a time required a lot of space. Land purchase officer A.H. Kimbell leased five neighbouring paddocks from landowners, providing a total of more than 474 acres (191.8 ha) of training ground.

    • Infantry
    • Mounted Rifles
    • Signallers
    • Artillery

    The infantry made up more than half the NZEF’s overall strength throughout the war, with the proportion reaching 60% by 1918. In 1914 New Zealand worked to maintain a total of 4,062 infantrymen in active service through a flow of reinforcements; by 1918 this number had more than tripled to 14,371.

    Infantry training imbued recruits with ‘soldierly spirit’, improved their physical fitness, and taught them ‘the use of rifle, bayonet, and spade.’ The 16-week infantry training programme began with three weeks of recruits’ drill and physical training at Trentham, followed by four weeks – mostly spent at Featherston – of drill (from squad to platoon levels), physical training, bayonet fighting, elementary musketry, individual training, and elementary night training.

    Final leave in the ninth and tenth weeks was followed by platoon and company drill, more night operations, physical training and bayonet fighting, and advanced musketry. The other units shared many of these elements, splitting off into more specialised training after their basic drill and musketry work was complete. More advanced training followed in England to flesh out the men’s understanding of current conditions at the front.

    The realities of modern trench warfare diminished the value of mounted infantry on the Western Front, and the numbers of mounted rifles declined as a proportion of the overall NZEF force. The mounted rifles stayed behind in Egypt to fight in the Middle East against the Ottoman Turks when the rest of the NZEF moved to France in 1916, so New Zealand continued to train mounted reinforcements at Featherston.

    Mounted recruits spent the first seven weeks of their course on the ground doing recruit training – drill, bayonet-fighting, attack and outposts, and musketry. The next four weeks covered basic training with horses, and the remainder was spent on the more advanced and strategic aspects of training (including a four-day mounted trek).

    Featherston Camp provided stable accommodation for 500 horses, along with a riding school and training grounds for mounted men. The camp’s designers laid the horse lines out along the camp’s eastern boundary, along with saddle rooms, harness rooms, guard rooms, and forage stores. The 20 open-sided stables, each housing 25 horses, featured concrete floors, electric lighting, and waste-water drainage. Manure was collected in a ‘dung dump’ for incineration. The camp’s Veterinary Hospital treated horses for a variety of ailments and illnesses. Each round of mounted recruits trained with the same horses, which lived at camp all year round.

    Signallers took charge of communication at the front, relaying messages between the commanders and the front line. Trainee signallers moved around the district with a cable wagon, which allowed them to connect the camp with the training instructors, and the training men with each other, via field telephone. During artillery and machine-gun practice, signallers transmitted the order to fire and reported whether the shots had been successful.

    “The Signallers are always busy on the roads and hills”, Stanbrook wrote in 1917. “Their waggon, with its drum of insulated wire that is paid out by the roadside, is a familiar object to travellers in the district. From the waggon to flag-stations, and from the flag stations to the helios in the hills, headquarters keep in touch with all that is being done, and when the artillery and machine-guns are at battle practice the signallers of all grades keep the guns and targets in touch with the various signal centres, and with the camp.”

    Although the Engineers trained at Trentham Camp, the Engineers’ Signallers trained at Featherston. They built an almost invisible underground labyrinth of trenches to practise signalling with flags, telephones and buzzers. Sections of trench had names such as Nesbit’s Nest, the Whispering Gallery, Hyde Park Corner, Lacey’s Lane, and Pall Mall. The underground parts of the trench system were lit only by lanterns.

    The Field Artillery provided the direct and indirect firepower the infantry and other units relied upon to suppress, disrupt or destroy their opponents, using both conventional artillery (such as 4.5-inch howitzers and 18-pounders) and later more specialised trench warfare weapons such as trench mortars. Their 16-week training programme included instruction in the practicalities of handling larger weapons and their associated technology (communications and signalling, digging trenches and building gun pits, etc.), in addition to the usual drill and musketry lessons. In their first three weeks recruits learnt foot and physical drill, rifle exercises, guard duties, and musketry. The next eight weeks were devoted to specialised technical training, animal management, mounted drill and signalling. Fire discipline, digging, selection and occupation of positions, and gun practice kept them busy in the last five weeks.

    Cundy’s paddock, the main artillery training and parade ground, contained two lines of ‘properly constructed trenches’ by March 1917. The main gun practice was carried out on H. Morrison’s property at Morrison’s Bush near Papawai Camp, which backed onto Jury Hill (Pukengaki). There the larger artillery pieces, the howitzers and 18-pounders, were fired across the Ruamāhanga River at targets on Jury Hill around 3,000 yards (2,743 m) away. The Artillery Signallers viewed the shooting from various vantage points and communicated with the gunners using flags, while the Engineers’ Signallers sent news back to the gunners via a portable telegraph that ran through a central cable wagon.

    How the Camp Worked

    • Admin
    • Food
    • Water
    • Power
    • Waste

    Colonel Noel P. Adams served as Featherston Camp commandant for the war’s duration, drawing experience from an earlier stint as Camp Adjutant at Trentham. Major Neville Newcomb and Captain J.W. Silcock acted as Adams’ adjutants, effectively the camp’s chief executive officers. Camp Quartermaster Major G.B. Banks, who reported to them, was in charge of clothing, equipment and sanitation. These men made up the camp executive, and worked out of offices in the headquarters building along with a supporting team of clerks. The headquarters building also served as the hub of a precinct of administrative buildings located between the hutment camp and the railway siding adjoining Tauherenikau Road. The nearby camp records office managed the personnel files of all men in camp, and the recruits called at the adjacent pay office to collect their weekly allowance. The building’s sturdy brick strongroom held the soldiers’ earnings.

    The eastern half of the camp’s administrative precinct consisted of a group of storage buildings and workshops. The railway siding terminated outside the camp’s forage store and quartermaster’s store, which served as an entrance-way to a courtyard of buildings holding food, oil, disinfectant, and coal. The quartermaster’s store also housed equipment and clothing. It was here that new recruits were issued with uniforms, bedding and other kit. The maintenance of camp facilities and gear was undertaken at the neighbouring workshops, where the camp tailor, shoemaker, armourer, saddler, carpenter, blacksmith and electrician could all be found. ‘Perhaps the most frequented place in camp’ according to Stanbrook, the post office was an important point of contact with the outside world. The men posted 1,134,140 items and received 1,250,650 during 1916, when it was the country’s fifth-busiest post office.

    Keeping the men fed was a daily challenge for the camp supply officer and his team. They had to provide a daily ration of 6 lb 2. oz (2.8 kg) of food per man, amounting to around 21 tons (21,337 kg) of food for the whole camp. This included 9,000 lb (4082 kg) of meat. The camp purchased fresh produce and bulk foods from the local markets, and sourced 400 gallons (1818 litres) of milk each day.

    Featherston Camp had its own bakery from August 1916, which produced around 7,000 lb (3,175 kg) of bread every day by 1917 and as much as 9,000 lb (4,082 kg) in 1918. The brick bakery had four ovens capable of cooking 300 one-pound (454g) loaves at a time. The ovens ran continuously, providing a constant supply of fresh bread. The bakery cost £800 (equivalent to $105,000 in 2010) to build, but was estimated to save the camp £3,600 ($400,000) each year over what it would have paid a contractor.

    The camp cooks prepared meals in the six cookhouses at the centre of the hutment camp. Each cookhouse could cater for 1,500 men in a single sitting using three cookers. The eight dining rooms, each of which seated 600 men, were among the largest buildings in the camp. Shortly before mealtimes the men paraded beside their huts before being led into the dining halls. The camp also had separate cooking and dining facilities for officers and civilian workers. The officers’ mess contained a built-in kitchen and a dining room seating 200. The hospital block had its own cookhouses, dining halls and food storage buildings. Canvas Camp, too, had its own cooking and dining facilities.

    The camp initially drew its drinking water drawn from two 40 ft (12.2 m) deep concrete-lined wells at its north-western extremity. An oil engine and an electric motor pumped the water up to a 13,000 gallon (59,100 litre) water tank on an elevated stand. Gravity created enough pressure to propel the water into the cookhouses, medical buildings and other places where fresh water was required. Water use had to be restricted during dry periods when the level in the wells dropped. This prompted the Works Branch to remodel the camp’s water supply system towards the end of the war. The Branch constructed a concrete reservoir with settling tanks and sand-filters in a paddock adjoining the camp’s northern boundary. Water was diverted for 3 miles (4.8 km) to the reservoir from the Featherston–Longwood water race. By this means 160,000 gallons (727,360 litres) of filtered water could be provided to the camp each day.

    A network of watercourses carried water for ‘ablutions, stables, latrines, etc’ into the camp. Water was drawn from the nearby Tauherenikau River along a main water race which fed open watercourses that crossed the northern part of the camp and traced the western boundary. The water passed through filter beds before being piped around the camp. The Public Works Department initially planned to have waste water (‘from the ablutions-stands, cook-houses, showers, etc’) drain into four soak-holes at the camp’s southern end, but by December 1915 it had decided to pipe it through a central drain into a side-channel of the Tauherenikau River. Rain ran into the concrete channels running down the centre of the camp roadways, which helped to drain away surface water. Unlike those at Trentham, the buildings at Featherston were fitted with spouting which carried rainwater from roofs directly to drains. The hospital block had its own septic tank, ensuring that water polluted with medical waste wouldn’t enter the river system.

    Featherston Camp used several forms of motive power. A powerhouse at the south-western corner of the hutment camp conveyed electricity (for lighting only) throughout the camp by overhead copper wires. The camp’s growth after January 1916 strained the capacity of the original generators, leading the Works Branch to extensively overhaul the machinery. The camp met the cost of this work by selling electric current to the camp shopkeepers and neighbouring farmers. In 1917, a 125 BHP Westinghouse gas suction engine drove two 75 kilowatt Crampton generators, providing 3000 points of light across the camp. By 1919 three motors powered 5600 points of light. Coal and firewood fuelled the bakery ovens, the incinerator, the cookhouses, and the various fireplaces around the camp. In 1917 the camp burned 60 tons (60,963 kg) of coal every week, along with 12 tons (12,193 kg) of coke and 32 cords (116 m.) of firewood. Oil engines and petrol pumps propelled water into pipes and shower blocks.

    Featherston Camp contained two incinerator blocks, built of brick and cement on a foundation of packed stone, with cast-iron doors and grates. The larger block, at the camp’s northeastern corner, had four incineration chambers, including several traps designed for the disposal of faecal matter (though only sometimes used for that purpose). A smaller facility served the needs of Canvas Camp. The incinerators appear to have had a dedicated staff as Public Works draughtsmen drew up a plan for an ‘Ablution [building] for Incinerator Staff ’ in May 1916. This was to have two bathtubs and separate rooms for clean and dirty clothes. Men on incinerator fatigue kept the facilities ‘clean and wholesome’ by scrubbing and spraying disinfectant. Camp standing orders forbade men on incinerator fatigue from wearing their normal clothes for this work, and they had to take a hot bath before visiting their hut or the dining halls. The Defence Department also established a pig farm at Tauherenikau Camp in April 1918, ‘for the purpose of utilizing to best advantage all waste food material’ at the Camps.


    Recruits at Featherston Camp had many opportunities to interact with the outside world during their training. The camp opened its gates to visitors between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Outside these times the permission of the camp headquarters was needed.  Camp rules allowed them to visit Featherston or Tauherenikau during their time off without applying for leave, so long as they were back in camp by the allotted hour.

    The men regularly visited Featherston and other neighbouring towns for food, companionship and entertainment, generating a lively taxi trade centred on the camp. The recruits were soon a familiar sight around the towns, particularly Featherston.

    “On certain nights the township is painted – not red, but khaki. In the quiet streets where in peace times one would meet no one there are now to be seen everywhere groups of soldiers. They are not boisterous, nor given to larrikinism; that the townspeople have learnt. If they are rowdy at all it is among themselves; to civilians they are quiet and peaceable. They take their fill of enjoyment, but they do not worry other people. In Featherston there are two hotels. Before the war they were quiet, country hostelries. Now they are crowded nightly, but with sober, orderly men. The soldiers show little disposition to abuse their freedom. They may take a “spot,” but that is not their only pleasure. In the parlour of one hotel is a piano, and on it the accompaniment to many a song and chorus has been strummed.”

    The Featherston Camp Military Police took charge of maintaining order while the men were out and about, posting pickets (or ‘picquets’) in Featherston when the men were allowed to visit the township, and accompanying troop trains to Masterton and Wellington. The camp guards took charge of the occasional man who returned to camp drunk or outside the regulation hours, giving them a night in the guardhouse cells. The Featherston community rallied to provide facilities for the men training in their neighbourhood. A committee met in March 1916 with a plan to build a soldiers’ club in Featherston township, to be funded by the district’s old-established settlers. The ‘Anzac Club’ opened in October 1916. The club hosted dances, dinners and other social occasions, and the men could play billiards or the piano.

    Soldier’s Club at the Camp. (Stanbrook) Photo courtesy of Wairarapa Archive.

    Public Works builders pause beside the cookhouse and dining halls during construction of Featherston Camp, 1915 (1/2-104271-F, Alexander Turnbull Library

    The 1918 Spanish Influenza

    The 1918 influenza pandemic which claimed around 8,000 lives in New Zealand, killed 284 men in New Zealand training camps – including 172 at Featherston Camp.

    The first signs of illness occurred at the Tauherenikau C1 Camp, where men who had arrived from Auckland on 24 October for fitness training began to show signs of illness. Lieutenant-Colonel R.J. Makgill attributed this outbreak to overcrowding on the troop train that brought the men south. The numbers of the ill grew steadily in late October. The pandemic hit Featherston Camp with full force when the men returned from weekend leave on 4 November – the camp doctors recorded 137 new cases that day.

    The number of new cases climbed each day, peaking at 418 on the 7th, after an exceptionally stormy night on which many camp buildings and tents were wrecked by wind. This led to the men being crowded into small spaces, accelerating the spread of disease. With sick men swamping the camp’s hospital facilities, the authorities quickly converted the camp institutes, 43 of the hutments and other large buildings into temporary hospital wards. All training stopped, as the doctors called in healthy men from the reinforcements to replace the medical staff as they fell ill – 11 of the 21 nurses were sick at one point. The doctors treated the worst cases in the rotunda hospitals and isolation hospitals, with other buildings dedicated to men in various phases of illness and recovery.

    A Hospital at Featherston Military Camp.  Image courtesy of Wairarapa Archive.

    They treated the sick men with sodium salicylate and shots of liquor. ‘Alcohol (e.g. whisky, brandy, or rum) in my opinion proved of great value in the epidemic, and I am convinced that many lives were saved and illnesses averted by its use during the epidemic in camp’, wrote the camp’s Principal Medical Officer.

    The total number of ill men peaked at 2,462 on 11 November, and gradually declined thereafter. The camp hospitals treated 3,174 men during November, but admitted only six new cases in December (when most men had left).

    In late 1919 the names the men who died at camp during the pandemic were added to the memorial at Featherston Cemetery commemorating those who died during training at Featherston.

    The Campsite Now

    The demobilisation of Featherston Camp commenced shortly after news of the Armistice reached New Zealand on 12 November 1918. The camp was used as a hospital for months afterwards and was used to house prisoners of war briefly before they could be shipped back to their country of origin or remain in New Zealand if they wished once the Treaty of Versailles came into effect. From 1920 to 1926, the land was eventually cleared of all the hutments and buildings, until by 1927 the site was essentially returned to paddocks for grazing stock. The Greytown Returned Services’ Association organised a memorial to the First World War camp on the site of the canteen in the late 1970s.

    During World War II, barracks were erected on the site to house Japanese prisoners of war. In 1943, there was an incident in which 48 prisoners lost their lives along with a guard. Japanese Peace Garden commemorating the prisoner of war camp was created in 2001.

    Kaiwaiwai Hall, formerly part of the Soldiers’ Club, Featherston Camp, October 2010. (Bargas & Shoebridge/MCH)

    Featherston Camp: A Primer

    The information about the Camp on this site has been sourced principally from Tim Shoebridge’s excellent publication about the largest and most important military camp in New Zealand’s history and the nearby town of Featherston, the largest town in the Wairarapa during its heyday. The report is entitled Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915–27 and was released in April 2015 by Manatū Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage. A print copy of this publication is available for around $16 each plus postage. Contact the Ministry at if you wish to obtain one.

    View the free online version of the report
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