Boots Belts Rifle & Pack


Boots, Belts, Rifle & Pack is the story of  William Malcolm’s service in the New Zealand Army during World War I, recounted through a compilation of the letters he wrote home to his family.


Through the letters, the reader learns what it was like for a young man from a North Otago farm to train at Trentham, travel to England and then serve on the battle fields of France. They are matter of fact, giving a lot of the small details of day to day ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.

Among the correspondence is the letter to his mother written after he learned that his brother, George, had been killed.

. . .  We were camped near an old sugar refienry or what was left of it. McKenzie had told me that George’s grave was about 500 yards north along a sunken road. On three different days I searched for nearly a mile along and in from the road but although I found many 4th Bttn chaps there I could not find him. I found Harry Cottingham within a couple of hundred yds of the factory. He was knocked out on the 6th. Poor old Harry. I had seen him about a week before. The Dinks had their usual luck. On Marching up, they found Fritz marching through the village so you can guess what it was like. They drove him back to a position which the Dinks and our chaps took a few days later. The trenches they took  were in a fearful mess. Old Fritz shelled us a bit but not a great deal We spent 4 days there and shifted back further for the rest of the time. I scored 4 or 5 letter up there date 27th and 31st of Jan. One funny thin is that I had a letter from Dunrobbin dated 18 Feb. today I scored a tin of biscuits from Elsie. . .

Boots, Belts, Rifle & Pack, a New Zealand Soldier at War, edited and compiled by Dorothy McKenzie and Lindsay Malcolm, published by L.M Malcolm, 1992.

They also served


On Anzac Day we remember with gratitude the people, mostly men, who served in the armed services overseas. But those who stayed behind also served, working selflessly for the war effort.

This was particularly so for the women who were left to run farms, often with young children and little if any adult help. Then, when the war ws over, there were the adjustments to be made because when the men came home, they’d changed and so had their wives.

One of those men who returned to find his wife were both different people and that his children didn’t know him at all recalls:

They called us the heroes, but it was the women who stayed behind who were the heroes.

My wife took over the farm and ran it while looking after the chidlren and managed it all by herself.

She’d been doing it all for all those years then I came home, thinking I knew it all and took over.

These days, one of us would have walked out, but then you got on and made the best of it.

His story


My father came to New Zealand, from his home country, Scotland, in the late 1930s. He worked for relatives on a station in the Hakatarmea Valley.


While there he joined the Otago Mounted Rifles as a territorial. When war broke out Dad enlisted with the 20th Battalion and went overseas to fight in Egypt and Italy.


He was badly burnt when a tank exploded and spent a fortnight in a saline bath. He was later taken prisoner but managed to escape and find his way back to allied troops. Dad was one of the soldiers described by Battalion commander Jim Burrows as those magnificent men after the break out from Minqar Qaim.


He didn’t talk much about what the war was like – but we do have a photo of Dad and four others which illustrates it: They were part of the company of 120 who started the battle of Ruweisat Ridge, and those five in the photo were the only ones left on survivors’ parade at the battle’s end.


When his active service finished after the Battle of Casino, Dad stayed with the New Zealand army and was posted to London as a driver. One night he was called to take Lord and Lady Freyberg to the Dorchester Hotel. The only vehicle available was a three tonne truck so he put a chair in the back for the General and Lady Freyburg sat in the cab.  When he pulled up outside the Dorchester, beside Eisenhower’s car, the doorman rushed up to direct him to the tradesman’s entrance. However, Dad ignored his agitated “round the back Chum”, helped his passengers out and drove off leaving the doorman speechless.


After the war Dad sailed back to New Zealand. He was manpowered to the freezing works at Pukeuri where he worked 18 hour days, six days a week. Then he got an adult apprenticeship as a carpenter in Oamaru.


Dad died in 1999 and as I wrote on the earlier post about my mother’s memories, I have lots of questions I regret not asking him.

Sidi Reszegh



                                  Sidi Reszegh


Children are born in the land of the green grass springing,

       Knowing the voice of the streams and the rain’s caresses,

Knowing the scent of the flowers, and the larks’ sweet singing,

       Feeling the West wind cool in their bright young tresses.


But this is the Desert – Earth’s bones to the old sun lying,

      A fit place this for the ancient passions’ burning;

And men who were children in sweet green lands are dying,

      Bone of their bodies to bone of the Earth returning.


Bare belief their bodies through steel hail urges;

       If need be, here I’ll die, my spirit braving

The darkness; but Ah, how the child in my heart upsurges

      Yearning for streams, for the larks, and the green grass waving.


                               – Donald McDonald –


The biographical notes in NZ Farm & Station Verse, where I found this poem, say Donald McDonald was educated at Fielding Agricultural High and farmed at Ngaroma, near Te Awamutu, with his brother.


He enlisted in 1940, served in Fiji for seven months before being posted to North Africa. He was wounded at Sidi Reszegh, wrote this poem in hospital and sent it home in a letter to his mother.


He rejoined his battalion, was taken prisoner at El Alamein and killed in an Italian ship which was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1942 when he was 31. He is buried in Greece.

Her story


I was working in a cake shop in Dunedin when war broke out in September 1939 and  started doing a night a week in the casualty ward at hospital.


I  later did seven days’ training in a surgical ward and became a member of the Edith Cavell nursing division.  Still, working full time I had to attend  lectures, and practise bandaging.  One night a week the volunteers were drilled by an army officer and taken on route marches.


In 1943 I was called up and with four others and posted to Trentham. I hadn’t been further north than Timaru before and was glad to have Violet who I’d met before on the journey.


The new recruits were met by a sergeant at the Wellington ferry terminal who issued their uniforms: men’s greatcoats, battledress, rain coats and boots.


We then continued by train to Trentham where we found our new homes were unlined huts some distance from the ablutions. It wasn’t unusual to wake on winter mornings to find flowers frozen in the vases.


My duties at the camp hospital included polishing with heavy, covered blocks called bulldozers. I also had to polish the copper steriliser with vinegar and salt and everything had to be ready for inspection by the matron and colonel in charge.


The volunteer aids were called on for injection parade and after receiving our own jabs we were expected to look after the men receiving theirs. The men were allowed to faint, but we weren’t!


When I read these notes, written by my mother there are so many questions I wanted to ask her, but she died in 2001. If you have parents, grand parents who are still alive, you might learn from this and show an interest before it’s too late.

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