A Story of Film, a Butt and Bulls

– By Reiner Schoenbrunn (Moving Image Conservator, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision)

It is probably fair to say that most people know about the Featherston Military Camp through the infamous World War II incident in 1943, when 48 Japanese POWs and one Kiwi guard were killed. The fact that a World War I training camp existed much earlier from 1916 -1919 (in some use until 1927) is lesser known and, despite me living in the area since 1988, I was no exception to that.

Snow Man's Land [Expeditionary Force Training, Featherston Camp], filmed by Luther W. Mence, 1918.
Target practice: firing the British Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) Model 1914 Lewis Machine Gun, designed by Samuel McClean in 1911. Featherston and the Rimutaka / Tararua Ranges in the background. Snow Man’s Land [Expeditionary Force Training, Featherston Camp], filmed by Luther W. Mence, 1918.

Little has been published on the camp’s early history and it has only been in recent times that new books have come on the market and filled the information gap. When I spotted Tim Shoebridge’s 2011 publication for Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, I became acquainted with the camp. In 2012 Neil Frances’ book Safe Haven, published by Wairarapa Archive, followed and that started my interest in earnest.

I learnt that many smaller training camps were scattered all over New Zealand, but Featherston’s became the biggest. It is estimated that in the years 1916 to the end of 1918 around 60,000 men trained there for combat on foreign battlefields. The initial “hardening up” – as it was called for new recruits – begun at Trentham (Upper Hutt) for some, and later at Canvas Camp on a stony paddock a mile away to the south-east of Featherston. Accommodation there, if one can call it that, was in tents and everything else happened out in the open. Besides standard drills, the young soldiers had to endure gale force winds, heat, dust, flies, cold and rain, or on a good day, all of it. Once they were “broken in” for military life the soldiers graduated over to the main camp where they lived in hutments of fifty men (2 x 25), had electric lights, showers, drying rooms for clothes, and dining halls. Compared to where they started, conditions must have been perceived as almost luxurious – but it’s by far no comparison to military life as we know it today.

The soldiers were drilled in everything the Defence Forces of the time, in the Mother Country or here in New Zealand, considered relevant for land-based combat. Discipline was high on the list, I am told, so were fitness, marching and endurance, digging, bayonet fighting, horseriding and, of course, musketry training, just to name a few disciplines. Soldiers were trained in domestic duties and camp hygiene as well.

Shooting practice took place 8.6 miles (14 kilometres) away at Greytown’s Papawai rifle range. The soldiers marched there in the morning, practiced, and at the end of the day marched all the way back to Featherston. That, the military leaders considered a great disadvantage. It is recorded that in 1916 a Captain J.A. Wallingford recommended that a 25 yard rifle range be built near the camp for “Miniature Rifle Work’.” In 1918 it was built but, as we know now, it came a little late as the war ended in August.

Several newspapers reported the achievement. Here is what the Marlborough Express had to say on 14 February 1918 (p.4):

“The disadvantage, as regards musketry training, which Featherston Camp has suffered through the lack of a rifle range, will be removed to a great extent shortly, when a rifle range, now nearing completion, is opened. The new range is of the 25 yards type, and of the sealed Hythe pattern – the latest thing in rifle ranges. It is situated at the northeast end of the camp, and in place of a hillside a solid, thick earth wall [correction: brick wall], 18 feet high, has been constructed behind the targets. While the greater part of the infantry rifle practice, including the whole of the advanced work, will continue to be carried out at Trentham, the range at Featherston, together with those of Papawai, will allow of a good deal of rifle practice by troops located at Featherston.”

Snow Man's Land [Expeditionary Force Training, Featherston Camp], filmed by Luther W. Mence, 1918.
Evaluating the hits at the targets. The machine gun used a cartridge of .303 – British, could deliver 500-600 rounds per minute, and had a range of 880 yards! Hitting anything at only 25 yards in practice would have been like childsplay. The newly finished rifle range butt in the background. Snow Man’s Land [Expeditionary Force Training, Featherston Camp], filmed by Luther W. Mence, 1918.
The butt as it is today, from a similar angle as Luther Mence’s film camera saw it 1918.
The butt as it is today, from a similar angle as Luther Mence’s film camera saw it 1918.

Let’s leap forward ninety-seven years to 30 March 2015, when Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision in Wellington launched a new website entitled Anzac: Sights and Sounds of World War I. During the evening the guests enjoyed speeches, a virtual walk through the website and a compilation of film clips. One of the clips on the website, titled “Bright blades flickering into straw-filled sacks,” caught my attention in particular. It is a surviving section of 5000ft of film made by Luther W. Mence, who was a camp photographer and had a photography studio nearby. The clip showed soldiers standing to attention, bayonet drill, machine-gun firing at Featherston Camp’s rifle range and checking the targets at the “butt” (backstop to catch stray bullets). You can watch the film here.

I decided to pay this place a visit and take a closer look at the masonry work which I knew from the books still exists. I contacted Mr. John Hodder, who readily agreed to meet me by the gate on Easter Monday for a show and tell. 

A short flight in his van over bumpy farm tracks gave me time to ask questions. The Hodder family own the land the rifle range used to be on, and have been pioneers in New Zealand since 1840. John’s ancestors owned much ground in and around Featherston and broke it into farmland. After WWII the former camp site had started to overgrow with gorse and young John, and other family members, worked hard to revert it back into pasture. They decided that burning off was the easiest method but old trenches had to be filled, stones and concrete foundations removed. John’s crawler “bellied” in a trench and he had to organise a similar vehicle to pull it out, he said. The Hodders grazed a herd of domestic cows on a paddock just outside the former camp’s site and young John was sent to find a stray calf lost in gorse bushes. He found it, he said, but also discovered a rusty grenade which he took home to show his dad…!

Then we arrived at our destination and got out. I could see from this side that the wall still is in very good condition, no cracks at all and only a few bricks had been removed over the years. That is remarkable considering the number of strong earthquakes we’ve had in the Wairarapa region. John reckons it is very well built, but we assume, like most concrete or masonry structures of the camp, it’s not steel reinforced – just strong mortar mix, solid design and disciplined craftsmanship. We walked over to the other side – the former business-side – but to my concern some fifty bulls were already waiting for us in front of it.

At this point I seriously reconsidered my intention to take photos from this angle. However, I had no choice – in order to match Luther Mence’s film-camera position I had to cross under the electric fence that separated us, step closer to them and then turn my back to work on the shots. I checked for a possible escape route and John stood assuringly a few meters behind to “give me cover,” to speak in military terms. He must have sensed my apprehension and said that the bulls were sort of hand-reared (by Calf-Etaria) and apparently quite tame. I doubted that they knew that! In hindsight I can appreciate their inquisitive nature, after all they are used to looking at grass all day so this intrepid photographer made very welcome entertainment.

Hoof by hoof the herd inched closer sniffling and snorting from their dripping nostrils and I snapped away as fast as I could.

The butt. Alongshot facing east, here with bulls.
The butt. A long-shot facing east, here with bulls.
Short distance firing did a lot of damage to the bricks.
Short distance firing did a lot of damage to the bricks.
The butt from the sunny side.
The butt from the sunny side.
The butt viewed aerially from a drone. Photo by Brian Scadden.
The butt viewed aerially from a drone. Photo by Brian Scadden.

Sources and credits:

Anzac: Sights and Sounds of World War I, www.anzacsightsound.org

Frances, Neil. Safe Haven: The Untold Story of New Zealand’s Largest Ever Military Camp: Featherston. Fraser Books and Wairarapa Archive, 2012.

Marlborough Express, 14 February 1918, accessed via Papers Past

Shoebridge, Tim. Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War. Wellington: Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011.

Special Thanks: Mr. John Hodder and family, Fernside, RD1 Featherston, South Wairarapa