First World War - overview

Page 1 – Introduction

On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. The fallout from this faraway event would ultimately claim the lives of 18,000 New Zealanders and wound another 41,000. Places thousands of miles from home with exotic-sounding names such as Gallipoli, Passchendaele and the Somme etched themselves in national memory during the First World War.

The war took approximately 100,000 New Zealanders overseas, many for the first time. Some anticipated a great adventure but found the reality very different. Being so far from home made these New Zealanders very aware of who they were and where they were from. In battle, they were able to compare themselves with men from other nations. Out of this, many have argued, came a sense of a separate identity, and many New Zealand soldiers began to refer to themselves as ‘Kiwis’.

Ormond Burton, a decorated veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, summed up a popular and enduring view of the significance of the war on New Zealand society, stating ‘somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme, New Zealand very definitely became a nation’ [1].

Quick facts and figures

  • The total population of New Zealand in 1914 was approximately 1.15 million
  • Some 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), and around 100,000 served overseas
  • More than 2200 Māori and around 500 Pacific Islanders served overseas with the New Zealand forces
  • 11 Victoria Crosses were won by soldiers serving with New Zealand forces
  • An estimated 3300 New Zealanders served in the Australian or British imperial forces, winning a further five Victoria Crosses
  • In all, 550 nurses served overseas with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, and many others enlisted in the United Kingdom
  • Around 18,000 New Zealanders died, and about 41,000 were wounded or fell ill; 2779 died at Gallipoli and around 12,000 on the Western Front
  • The names of those who died are recorded on approximately 500 civic war memorials throughout New Zealand

[1] Ormond Burton, 'A rich old man' (unpublished autobiography), p. 138

How to cite this page

'New Zealand and the First World War', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 23-Feb-2015