Featherston Camp 1916-2016: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, April 2016

By David Famularo

Taken in 1916 or early 1917 this photograph of the camp’s main street looks east along the Tauherenikau Road (now SH2) past the line of shops Photo: Wairarapa Archive
Taken in 1916 or early 1917 this photograph of the camp’s main street looks east along the Tauherenikau Road (now SH2) past the line of shops Photo: Wairarapa Archive

In the book “Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915-27”, author Tim Shoebridge describes the Featherston Camp as “perhaps the most important surviving First World War-related site in New Zealand.”

Yet barely 25 years ago it was almost completely forgotten. People were aware of the prisoner of war camp for Japanese and Koreans located on the same site during World War II, especially the riot that left 64 prisoners dead, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.

Tim’s book published in 2011 and “Safe Haven: The Untold Story of New Zealand’s Largest Ever Military Camp”, written by Wairarapa Archive historian Neil Frances and published a year later have done a lot to change that.

Now the exhibition “Featherston Camp 1916-2016: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History” is likely to cement the camp into the general consciousness of Wairarapa’s residents for the foreseeable future.

The exhibition is a combined effort from Neil at Wairarapa Archive, Aratoi Director Alice Hutchison, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa Art, Science, History Museum in Palmerston North.

The scale of the camp is not easy to imagine until you visit the exhibition in Masterton where you can view not only original photographs, but also a computer generated 3D animation movie tour of the camp created by Gerard Taylor.

While one imagines the camp to be one and a half to two kilometres north of Featherston, probably due to the location of the camp memorial on State Highway Two – in fact it went in all directions from the main road , reaching almost as far south as Boundary Road on the edge of the township where in “Burt’s Paddock” the mounted rifles trained.

The memorial actually stands in the centre of what was the main thoroughfare of the camp, a virtual high street of mostly privately owned businesses selling various products to the soldiers. Anyone who was heading north or south went through the camp, passing sentry gates at either end. “All traffic had to get clearance.

A map of the camp from “New Zealand’s First World War Heritage by Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge.
A map of the camp from “New Zealand’s First World War Heritage by Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge.

Perhaps the idea of a smaller camp comes from people’s memories of the WWII POW camp which, Neil says, was a much smaller affair. The Defence Department still owned a small portion of the land where the original camp had been. It was a convenient place to set up the POW camp but other than the two shared nothing in common, Neil says. He can remember a few dilapidated buildings from the POW camp, like the hospital, still existing into the 1980s.

When Neil began his research almost nothing had been published on the World War I camp for almost a century, other than a section in the Centennial History of Featherston “Gateway to the Wairarapa” printed in 1957. “That book said 30,000 soldiers went through the camp which when I started to do the maths seemed very understated.”

Neil estimates the true figure at around 60,000. “One hundred and twenty four thousand men joined the army and around 60 percent of them went overseas. Other than Featherston and Trentham there were only a few much smaller camps around New Zealand, and most soldiers went through both camps.”

The size of the camp is not its only historical importance. Featherston was a model military camp, the likes of which had never been seen before in New Zealand, Neil says.

“Before World War I New Zealand had never had a permanent large military camp. Trentham had grown like topsy but Featherston was planned as a model camp and a prototype for all future military camps, like Burnham [near Christchurch] would follow a similar model.

“It was the latest thing in barrack design and was completely lit by electricity generated at the camp. It had big enough dining rooms to feed the entire camp of 4500 men all at one go which was good for organising training activities.”

The camp had its own journalist Sergeant G L Stanbrook and published “Featherston Military Training Camp: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement from which this exhibition got its title. “It was part souvenir, part war time propaganda. It is not untrue but it looks at the bright side of life.”

The goings-on at the camp were regularly reported in The Dominion and the Evening Post in Wellington, and Wairarapa Daily Times and Wairarapa Age which were another source for Neil’s research.

Featherston Camp had propaganda value as it showed New Zealanders that their men were being cared for physically, mentally and spiritually. According to the accompanying text for the exhibition the military was “keenly aware that the war was going to last much longer than previously thought, and was eager to show New Zealand that it took the preparation of the nation’s soldiers seriously.

“By the standards of the time it was good basic training. As the soldiers got closer to the front, in Egypt, England and France, they got further training that was more relevant to the battle field. It took about 11 months from enlisting to joining a fighting unit in France. They didn’t throw raw men into battle.”

Today almost nothing of the camp remains. Many buildings were demolished but some were moved and to this day can be found scattered around the Wairarapa and further afield including one which is now a wine tasting room in Waipukurau, according to Tim Shoebridge.

Just beneath the soil around the camp site you can still find concrete guttering and at the very western extremity the largest still extant remnant of the camp – a six metre high and 25 metre long brick wall that was used for short range live firing practice.

The only existing film of the camp shows soldiers firing two Lewis guns at the range, with Neil wryly pointing out the difficulty one of them is having getting his Lewis gun to fire. Looking north west on State Highway Two just south of the Tauherenikau Bridge the structure can just be seen between trees, Neil points out.

Neil Frances with Lee Enfield rifles from the camp
Neil Frances with Lee Enfield rifles from the camp