New Zealand’s Wars: Kiwis fighting at home and abroad

I had been studying Luso-Spanish military history for many years when a friend asked me: “What do you know about your own history? New Zealand History?” Frankly, at that time I had to admit I knew virtually nothing. I have tried to overcome that ignorance, although I’ve never quite managed to write up very much.

Wars in New Zealand

The arrival of the Europeans sparked 70 years of rather bloody conflict in New Zealand.

1806-45: Musket Wars

Inter-Iwi (tribe) conflict was a feature of early NZ history (Crosby,1999). These conflicts intensified with the introduction of the musket in the years after 1800. The unprecedented slaughter which resulted left large areas of NZ depopulated and changed the tribal boundaries completely. The revised tribal boundaries subsequently found a basis in law in the form of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840.

1845-72: New Zealand Colonial (Maori) Wars

The New Zealand Colonial, or Maori, Wars were a series a related conflicts between the Maori tribes of the North Island and the British authorities – initially represented by Imperial British forces then by local the Colonial Defence Force (Belich, 1986). The wars featured small numbers of Maori more or less fending off considerably larger numbers of British (some 18,000 Imperial troops were fielded in the largest of the campaigns).

British Colonial Wars

A large number of British Imperial troops fought in wars outside NZ, then came to NZ as soldiers and/or settlers (King, 1981). Technically these guys were not Kiwis when they were fighting abroad, i.e. they weren’t representing New Zealand, but I thought I’d include the list anyway because by 1900 there were over 6,000 of these veterans resident in NZ.

1841: Chinese War

1843: India

1845: 1st Sikh War

1848: 2nd Sikh War

1851: 2nd Burmese War

1853: Kaffir War

1854: Crimea

1857: Indian Mutiny

1859-60: 3rd Chinese War

1868: Abyssinian War

1873: Ashantee Expedition

1878: Afghan War

1878-79: Zulu War

1882-84: Egypt

British Wars

Kiwis have traditionally been rather fond of the old blighty and so New Zealand has contributed rather heavily to British wars.

1899-1902: South African War

The South African War gave NZ several firsts. It was the first war where a force was raised in NZ for service overseas (King, 1981). NZ was the first colony to volunteer to send a force – the offer was made two weeks before the war broke out. The Kiwis were the first Colonial contingent to set out – nine days after war was declared. Finally, NZ provided 6,400 men over the 3 years of the war, a larger force per head of population than any of the other colonies.

1914-18: World War I (WW1)

When Britain declared war on German (4 Aug 1914) the whole Empire, including NZ, was consequently at war (King, 1981). On 5 Aug NZ offered Britain a voluntary force, and on 29 Aug the first 1,400 of these troops captured German Samoa – the first German territory to be captured in the war. Kiwis subsequently fought in the Middle East, Turkey and France. By the end of the war 100,000 New Zealanders had served overseas, 17,000 had been killed and 41,000 wounded. These casualty rates were, per head of population, the highest in the Empire.

1939-45: World War II (WW2)

New Zealand’s main contribution to WW2 was 2 NZ Division which fought in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy.

1950-53: Korea

‘Kayforce’ was New Zealand’s contribution to the UN land effort in Korea (King, 1981). ‘Kayforce’ was 16 Field (Artillery) Regiment and its associated support services – 1,550 men in total. The Royal New Zealand Navy also contributed six frigates and 1,350 men.

1956-60: Malaya

New Zealand sent troops to Malaya to serve in the Commonwealth Brigade (King, 1981). For two years a Special Air Service (SAS) Squadron fought the communist guerrillas in the jungle. They were then replaced by an infantry battalion. NZ also contributed a Bomber Squadron, Transport Squadron, and a frigate or cruiser at Singapore.

1962: Thailand

The SAS deployed in Thailand for seven weeks (King, 1981).

1964-66: Malaysia

An SAS detachment, then 1st Battalion, Royal NZ Regiment, fought Indonesian infiltrators for a year.

American Wars

More recently we’ve been sending troops to help the Americans.

1965-72: Vietnam

An Engineer detachment was the first NZ force in Vietnam (King, 1981). They were replaced in 1965 by 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery. Infantry rifle companies followed in 1967, the SAS in 1968, then a medical team. 3,890 Kiwis served in Vietnam during 1965-72.

2001-present: Afghanistan

The SAS are active in Afghanistan.


Belich, J. (1986). The New Zealand Wars. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press.

Crosby, R. D. (1999). Musket Wars: A history of inter-Iwi conflict 1806-45. Auckland, NZ: Reed.

King, M. (1981). New Zealanders at War. Heinemann.

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