Home    History index

How the RNZA 'lost' their collar badges

The events described in this article occurred long before the integration of regular and territorial forces. Therefore please note that the 'RNZA' refers specifically to regular force.

On the khaki service dress (SD) uniforms issued prior to World War 2 all Artillery Officers, both Regular and Territorial, wore collar badges similar to those worn today. Territorial WOs, NCOs and Gunners wore 'grenades universal', so-called because they were worn by certain other troops also, eg Engineers. However, RNZA, ie Regular Force WOs, NCOs and Gunners wore no collar badges.

The reason, according to peculiar types who didn't like the Artillery, was that the RNZA lost their guns at the Battle of Colenso during the South African War, and had been stripped of their badges as a mark of Royal displeasure. Why the Officers had escaped this disgrace no-one seemed to notice, and as no lectures on Regimental history, customs or traditions were ever given in those days, RNZA men taunted with the 'loss' were unable to refute it. Many remained silent because they had heard the story so often they believed it!

There is evidence that Officers, too, believed the story for Sir Stephen Weir in a speech near Enfidaville in 1943 when he was CRA NZ Division, is credited with stating that as the RNZA had redeemed themselves during the campaign in Africa, their collar badges forfeited at Colenso were to be returned to them.

Despite the lack of an official history of the New Zealand Forces in South Africa, the allegation that RNZA lost guns or collar badges is not hard to 'shoot down'. For a start the South African War ended on 31 May 1902, but the New Zealand Permanent Artillery did not become Royal NZ Artillery until 15 October 1902,so how could the RNZA have lost guns - or anything else - during the conflict?

Next, apart from three or four young Officers seconded to Royal Artillery batteries for experience, no NZ Permanent Artillerymen were actually posted to South Africa. The Permanent Force, still suffering from the effects of the 1888 Government retrenchment, was under-strength, and every available man was required for station duties or to instruct the Volunteers who were to form the Contingents for active service. The few who did get away went as Mounted Riflemen.

When the Battle of Colenso was fought on 15 December 1899, the only New Zealand troops in South Africa were members of the First Contingent - who were all Mounted Riflemen. Furthermore, they were located in the de Aar-Coleberg-Arundel area, several hundred kilometres from Colenso.

A battery of Hotchkiss machine guns manned by New Zealand Gunners arrived with the Second Contingent in January 1900, but except for one Officer included no New Zealand Permanent Artillerymen. This battery was short-lived because the guns possessed no advantage in range over the Boer Mausers, and were too heavy for the horses. It was soon disbanded, and the guns returned to store- not lost.

Later in the war a New Zealand BL 15-pdr field battery was formed from Mounted Riflemen 'converted' to Gunners for the purpose. Equipped and trained by Royal Artillery, this battery actually saw service with the Rhodesian Field Force - and it didn't lose any guns either.

Now let us look at uniforms. The RNZA had always adopted the same dress, badges, and accoutrements as the Royal Artillery, and likewise followed the same customs and traditions. With the old full-dress blue uniform which ceased to be worn in 1914, WO2, NCOs, and Men of both RA and RNZA wore grenades universal as collar badges, ie RNZA WOs, NCOs, and Men were still wearing them 12 years after the South African War ended, as official publications and photographs testify. Would they have been wearing them in 1914 had they 'lost' them in South Africa?

In 1902 when SD was introduced collar badges were authorised for Officers only. Look at old photographs of RA personnel taken before and after World War 1; Officers are wearing collar badges with SD, but WOs , NCOs and Gunners are not. Look at photos of RNZA taken during the same period and you will see the same.

Eventually in 1924 the RA authorised the 'grenade universal' on SD for WOs, NCOs and Men, but in 1926 approved a grenade of different pattern. The in 1928 they authorised a different one again. Why none was adopted by the RNZA in the meantime I do not know but it is not hard to guess. By the time the RA made up their minds the cupboard in this country was bare - we were in the depths of the 'great depression'. The New Zealand public begrudged the regular soldier his very existence let alone new badges for his uniform - which apparently had not been needed for the last 30 years.

Since Colenso has featured in this story let us take a look at the battle. The two units involved, 14 and 66 Batteries RA, came into action in the open within rifle range of some concealed Boer trenches. They remained in action under a murderous rifle and shrapnel fire until they had expended all their ammunition, when the few still alive and unwounded were ordered to leave the gun position and fall back to cover. Several gallant attempts were later made to recover the guns but only resulted in more casualties. Two were eventually saved, and for conspicuous gallantry on this occasion six VCs and 19 DCMs were awarded. Far from being disgraced, both batteries were subsequently awarded honour titles, one being 'Colenso'. Neither do their histories record the loss of any collar badges.

The story of the RNZA 'losing' guns and collar badges was nothing more than a malicious fabrication - a product of small minds in a small Army inadequately educated.

WL Ruffell
September 1987

History Index    |    Home