In the March 2011 issue of Behind the Parapet, I asked for help with information on Bess the Horse. I had spotted a small piece on the New Zealand Herald website in April 2010 about a cairn and plaque commemorating the life of the horse Bess who was born in 1910 and left New Zealand to see action during the Great War, returning after the war and eventually dying in 1934 where the cairn was erected.
With BtP now on line, my hope was that someone would see the item and send me a photograph of the memorial. Imagine my surprise and delight when I received an email from Sandra Stock, who not only lives in the area but was also arranging a display about Bess in time for the 2011 ANZAC DAY service. I am indebted to Sandra for the information and the photographs included in this article.
The cairn is located at Flock House off the road from Bulls to Scotts Ferry Road. The town of Bulls is at the junction of Highways 1 and 3 to the NW of Palmerston North in the southern part of the North Island of New Zealand.
Some reports state that Bess was the only horse to return to New Zealand after service overseas. In fact four horses are reported as being returned. Why is there this discrepancy? Was Bess the only one to serve in all the theatres of war where the New Zealand forces served? Perhaps someone can solve this 90 year old riddle!
Bess, whose real name was Zelma, was born in 1910 in Martinborough and bred by A D McMaster who donated her to the war effort. She became the mount of Guy Powles of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles; at the outbreak of war he held the post of Brigade Major, later being promoted to Lt Colonel. Guy Powles was born in Wellington on 15 December 1871, educated at Wellington College and he fought in both the Boer War and the Great War. Being a farmer he would have worked with and been used to riding horses. Many New Zealanders who were able to ride horses became members of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. As well as being a competent leader and soldier, Powles is also remembered as a photographer who took many photographs during the campaigns.
In 1914 there were some 400,000 horses in New Zealand of which about 10% were considered suitable for war service, although only about 11,000 actually went overseas. Shipments ceased in December 1916 due to shipping shortages.
New Zealand horses were used on the Western Front and in the Middle East although very few were used at Gallipoli. Of over a quarter of a million horses lost by the British and Empire forces during the war, only about one in five was destroyed by enemy action, mainly shellfire with a few due to poison gas.
In Europe, with fodder relatively plentiful and nutritious, no lack of clean water to drink, it was the years of suffering cold, wet and muddy conditions which caused the animals to quickly lose condition and succumb to lung and digestive troubles. During the winter of 1916, one veterinary hospital in France was losing 50 horses per week to a virulent form of influenza.
By contrast, in the Middle East, horses often had to eat rubbish food and drink foul water. With the start of the campaign to drive the Turks out of Egypt and Palestine, wells were few and far between and it was difficult to get enough water to quench the raging thirst of more than a few horses. The harsh environment and disease took a steady and relentless toll of the horses. Marches of more that 30 miles across arid, waterless terrain, through deep sand or across rocky, grassless hills, in daytime temperatures of 40ºC (104ºF) or more, were commonplace. The high temperatures did not faze the horses, but the hard work, poor food and dirty water weakened them gradually. As well as normal equine diseases, the horses were exposed to tropical diseases and infestations, war wounds, exhaustion, poisoning as well as extreme heat and cold. Between April 1916 and November 1918, New Zealand Forces lost 1416 horses; of these 211 died, 184 had to be destroyed, 383 were killed in action, mainly Turkish artillery or aircraft bombs, while 559 were evacuated to hospital.
After the end of hostilities, there were 60,000 military horses in the Middle East with no remaining use for them. Almost 2,500 were in New Zealand hands and strict quarantine regulations expressly prohibited the importation of horses from the Middle East. A number of horses were still to be used by the British Occupation Forces, but that still left a large number whose fate was to be sold to the local population. Those unfit for work were destroyed and some, perhaps a few hundred, of the New Zealand horses were downgraded and also destroyed to spare them a life in local hands.
Bess was more fortunate having been Guy Powles' mount for all his time in the desert. In 1918 Powles and Bess moved to France and, in 1919, to Germany. Bess was taken to England for the Victory Celebrations before returning home. Having been in disease free British fields meant she was considered to have been in quarantine so was clear of any latent Middle East infections.
A letter from the Administration Headquarters of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in London dated 1 July 1919 detailed what was to happen to four of the New Zealand horses. They were to be retained by the Imperial Authorities on loan in Britain for 12 months and then returned to New Zealand.
"Knowing the esteem in which these horses were held by all ranks of the NZEF it was considered that possibly the best arrangements would be made."
A Miss Gwendoline Russell of Heath House (sister of General Sir Andrew Russell) and a Lady Brice (or Price) each agreed to take two horses until March 1920. Captain Riddiford's charger and Colonel Powell's charger were sent to Lady Price. Miss Russell "asked that two horses be sent to her which are quiet and suitable for a lady to ride."
Those sent to Heath House were those of Major General Sir A Russell and Colonel M G King.
A letter dated 23 November 1920 from General Headquarters, Defence, Wellington to the Director of Veterinary Services states that "Four horses ex NZEF were landed in New Zealand from SS "Westmeath" on 6th June 1920."
(While on their way back a fire broke out on board and photographs of the horses as well as their feedstock were destroyed and they had to be fed on bread!)
An added note signed by Major E Puttick, NZ Staff "Q" Duties, to the Camp Commander Military camp Trentham states "Please inform Lieut Colonel Powles accordingly and hand the mare "Bess" over to him on 30-10-20."
So Bess returned home.
Col Powles remained in the army. At the end of the war he became second in command at the training camp at Trentham, later being appointed Chief of General Staff.
Towards the end of the Great War, it was proposed in the New Zealand Parliament that the debt owed to the British Royal and Merchant Navies, by New Zealand farmers, be acknowledged; they had been able to continue to export their wool-clip to the UK during hostilities. A Fund was set up, and from 1921 payments were made to seamen's dependants in the UK. The Fund also purchased Flock House Farm near Bulls so that dependants could be brought over, taught at Flock House and placed on farms in New Zealand. Guy Powles was principal of Flock House Training School from 1930 to 1935.
One day in October 1934, while Colonel Powles was riding his faithful mare, "she suddenly decided to lie down and die there and then." Bess was buried where she lay and a cairn was erected at the site which is on Forest Road.
(After he left the army, Powles returned to farming, becoming a sheep-farmer. He died on 17 June 1951.)
To bring the story up to date. In 2004 a service at the cairn was held, initiated by Murray Haitana (Kaikanawa Horses), Greg Bradley (the Mounted Rifles) and Warren Jansen who had worked for Col Powles.
In 2011, a call went out to horsemen to come to the Memorial for the 9am service. The riders and their mounts were to set up camp at Flock House.
On ANZAC Day 2011 it poured with rain all day! But that didn't prevent a great turnout of about 100 at the service. Among them were descendants of the Powles family, Riddifords, McMasters and the Dellows (who originally bought Bess). Riders were led up the road by a piper and the service was led by Warren Jansen.
Article and images above contributed by John M Cameron.
Image below courtesy New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
The image includes the caption:
This photograph of Bess taken on the banks of the Jordan River in 1918 shows what great condition the men of the NZMR kept their trusted mounts.
The New Zealand horse was of exceptional quality, much bigger and stronger than horses of the Middle East and Europe. The endurance and stamina of the Brigade was second to none, and regularly horses were going without water for 40 hours. On one occasion a squadron traveled over hot dry desert for 72 hours without any ability of watering their horses, such feats enabling the ANZACs to surprise and outflank the enemy on many occasions
Useful link: Lieutenant Colonel Charles Guy Powles 1872-1951
(note rare image of actual Great War mounted charge on this link).