World War One in Europe broke out 100 Years ago in August 1914 and despite New Zealand’s apparent isolation in the South Seas, within a week there was an emergency never before experienced.
It happened much like a turn-out, familiar to all fire brigades.
First, the urgent plea for help - these days a 111 call.
But in early August 1914, within days of Britain declaring war against Germany, it came in the shape of an overnight cablegram from London asking for help: would New Zealand troops mobilise immediately?
The siren sounds, the duty crews muster at the fire station.
On this occasion it was the clarion call to arms which thousands of men answered from throughout the country, volunteering their services and reporting for duty.
Fire appliances, personnel and equipment are immediately despatched.
Servicemen embarked on troopships and departed overseas without delay.
And then engage with the enemy.
The battle was usually all about fire-power rather than against the flames of fire.
Fire brigades suffer
Fire services were very much affected by this mobilisation. They were to feel the effects right from the start and then for the duration of the war. The profile of the prospective soldier paralleled, almost exactly, the ideal firefighter. They were younger men, fit, adventurous, aware of training requirements, accustomed to discipline and working in teams, ready to face urgent and sometimes risky duties and who had already shown selfless community spirit by joining their volunteer fire brigade.
Firefighters willingly repeated this commitment, this time to their country, by signing on as volunteers in the call-to-arms. UFBA lists showed that in the first 6 months of war some 200 firemen enlisted.
Suddenly, in August 1914, fire brigades found they were farewelling members who were rushing off to the front. Among the first, Hawera Brigade said a hurried ‘au revoir’ to Firefighter Ernest Ure while Lower Hutt made a hasty ‘bon voyage’ to Cecil Seager. Both were on the first troopships to leave as members of the Samoa Advance Party, departing on an urgent mission which, within a week or two, would take over German-occupied Samoa.
Leaving for the Front
Other brigades staged their own send-offs. Noticeably, no one was saying “good bye”- that would not have been the thing. Some functions ended with presentations to those being farewelled. Nelson Volunteer Brigade gave a wrist watch to departing men, Gisborne gave travelling rugs while Mt Albert gave military brushes, safety razors and a wrist watch.
In Napier, fellow brigadesmen turned out with their fire carts to give a rousing farewell and then chased the troop train a distance from the station.
It wasn’t long before some soldiers were returning home. The first came back from Samoa and others followed later from Europe. Most brigades, together with their communities, held ‘Welcome Home’ evenings. Firemen like Lower Hutt’s Cecil Seager and Hawera’s Ernest Ure were honoured for their service to King and Country in Samoa.
The good news of those returning was often tempered by the fact that some had been injured at the front. Bad news continued for some brigades who received word that their members had paid the supreme sacrifice and would not be returning. These mixed emotions were typical and prevalent in brigades up and down the land.
By the end of 1916 some 1,003 firemen had enlisted: the numbers of experienced firefighters remaining were thin, both in city (paid and auxiliary) and volunteer brigades. The Inspector of Fire Brigades, Captain Thomas Hugo, recognised the deteriorating situation. “I advise brigades to enrol men beyond military age who have had firefighting experience and to look to well-grown youths of an athletic disposition to assist brigades.”
There was a move to put paid firemen on the list of essential occupations so they could neither enlist nor be conscripted. This was also considered for volunteers. Some Fire Boards and Brigades approved the proposal while others did not like the idea of exempting firemen. The idea was abandoned so the hardship in fire services was to continue.
Hostilities ended in November 1918 and the UFBA compiled a Roll of Honour which was finalised in early 1919. The UFBA was proud of the contribution made by1,553 firefighters, “…our members responded to the Empire’s call which should arouse the spirit of enthusiasm in all of us”. But it’s with regret the record shows 195 died, 238 were wounded, 205 invalided and 5 taken prisoners of war.
We will remember them.
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