Alan Stitt was born in the small town of Ashburton in the province of Canterbury on 11 June 1894. He was the second child of Matthew and Margaret Stitt, and brother to Grace Rhoda and Douglas Matthew. Sadly, Stitt’s mother passed away when he was just 12 years old.
Stitt and his brother Douglas went to boarding school at the prestigious Christchurch private school, Christ’s College. Stitt enrolled in 1909 and Douglas joined him the following year. It was there that Stitt met his lifelong friend, Donald Dobson, with whom he would serve throughout the First World War. Stitt graduated in 1912 and went on to study agriculture at Lincoln College, just outside the city of Christchurch.
Like many young men his age, Stitt served in the school cadets while at Christ’s College, rising to the rank of a second lieutenant. When he left school he joined the 13th (North Canterbury and Westland) Regiment, a part-time Territorial Force unit, keeping his junior officer’s rank from the Christ’s College Senior Cadets. He was not officially given this promotion until 1915 (although it was backdated to November 1914).
He enlisted in the NZEF and was posted to the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, in Rangiora on 14 August 1914.
Stitt’s friend Dobson also joined the Canterbury Battalion as an officer, but was assigned to the 1st (Canterbury) Company. The pair served in different branches of the same battalion as officers throughout the war.
On 2 October, the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company departed from Lyttelton Harbour on board HMNZT Athenic, bound for Wellington. The rest of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion accompanied them aboard HMNZT Tahiti. Outside the harbour, the two vessels met the transport ships Ruapehu and Hawkes Bay, which carried the men of the Otago Infantry Battalion and Mounted Rifles Regiment. The ships arrived in Wellington Harbour the following day, where they joined the rest of the NZEF Main Body. The men expected to leave Wellington immediately; however, they were delayed for several days until additional battleships arrived to help protect the convoy from German raiders roaming in the Pacific area.
The official history of the Canterbury Regiment gives some detail about the journey of the ships from Wellington:
The ships for the escort arrived on October 14th: they were HMS Minotaur, and the Japanese warship lbuki. The following day the Auckland transports came into harbour, and during the night the remaining transports left the wharves and joined the Auckland ships in the stream. HMS Psyche and Philomel completed the escort, and the whole fleet left Wellington harbour at 6 am on the 16th. On clearing Cook Strait the convoy formed up in two columns eight cables (1,600 yards) apart, and with the ships in each column three cables (600 yards) apart. The first column or ‘division’ consisted of HMNZT No. 3, Maunganui; No. 9, Hawke's Bay; No. 8, Star of India; No. 7, Limerick; No. 4, Tahiti: and the second of HMNZT No. 10, Arawa; No. 11, Athenic; No. 6, Orari; No. 5, Ruapehu; No. 12, Waimana. The Minotaur steamed six miles ahead, the Ibuki and Psyche were at the same distance on the starboard and port beam respectively, and the Philomel as rearguard was four miles astern. At night the escort closed in to 4,000 yards' distance.
HMNZT Athenic arrived with the Main Body in King George Sound, Albany, on 28 October 1914. On 1 November 1914 the New Zealand and Australian ships departed as the First Convoy. The unit history of the Canterbury Regiment describes an important part of the journey to the troops – the meals:
The food was good, and was usually much more varied than that supplied in camps; but there is no doubt that, on practically every transport that left New Zealand, food was occasionally spoilt by cooks who had plenty of good intentions but little skill in their art. On the whole, however, the men were as well fed as conditions of life on a transport admit. It is true that there were often complaints; but it is also notorious that the monotony of a long sea-voyage breeds grumbling, and naturally both the Main Body and every reinforcement had its share of grumblers. The meals were served in a special mess-room, which was not used as sleeping-quarters, though it was usually available in the evening for amusements.
On 3 December 1914, after several weeks at sea, the Athenic arrived at the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Between Aden and the Suez Canal, the New Zealand troops had been informed that they would not be going to England or the Western Front, but would instead wait in Egypt until further notice.
During their stay in Egypt the NZEF set up camp in Zeitoun, seven kilometres outside of Cairo. The Canterbury Battalion soon settled into a life of constant training interspersed with brief stints of garrison duty along the Suez Canal. However, the dull routine of camp life could sometimes be broken by an off-duty visit to the nearby bustling metropolis of Cairo, noted for the diversity of entertainment on offer.
On the morning of 25 April, Stitt left Lemnos Island with the Canterbury Battalion for Gallipoli. The four companies were split across two transports. The 1st and 2nd Companies were among the first New Zealanders to land on Gallipoli, reaching the beach at 12.30 pm. Meanwhile, the transport carrying Stitt’s 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company and the 12th (Nelson) Company did not arrive at Anzac Cove until 5 pm. Once ashore, the two companies were sent to Walker’s Ridge to join the 2nd Canterbury Company. They arrived around 9.30 pm and spent a long night under heavy fire, attempting to hold the line in makeshift trenches.
Stitt participated in all the major battles of the Gallipoli campaign and was wounded three times. The first occasion was on 12 May 1915, when the Canterbury Battalion was at Cape Helles. He was evacuated to hospital in Mustapha to recover and did not return for a month.
Stitt was next wounded on 7 August during the August Offensive, though it was a slight wound and he remained on duty. The third wound he received later that month was much more serious. It was probably inflicted while Stitt was with his company at the Apex, a volatile forward position that the Canterbury Battalion had moved up to garrison that day with the support of the Maori Contingent. Stitt was sent to Alexandria to convalesce and did not return to the Anzac sector until late October 1915.
After a relatively quiet few months, a decision was made in November 1915 to abandon the peninsula. Secret orders for the evacuation were issued to officers on 15 December, indicating that all New Zealand and Australian soldiers were to be evacuated in three main groups.
On the night of 17–18 December, 10,000 Anzac soldiers were evacuated completely undetected. The remaining men, including the 1st and 13th Companies of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, were split into A, B and C Parties. Stitt was among the 600 men chosen to form C Party. This would be the last group of men to leave Anzac, and competition for a spot in it was fierce, as many men, particularly those who had come ashore on 25 April, felt they were honour-bound to remain until the very end. While A and B Parties departed late on the 19th, the C Party men anxiously waited until 1.45 am on 20 December before beginning a slow, precisely timed withdrawal down to the beaches. By 4.10 am Anzac Cove was completely clear.
Having survived Gallipoli, Stitt moved on to the Western Front.
When the New Zealand Division was formed in March 1916, Stitt was assigned to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment, and promoted to captain. In April, he and the division were sent to France and posted to the Armentières sector. Stitt’s first large-scale battle on the Western Front was the attack on the village of Flers between 15-22 September 1916, during the Somme Offensive.
At Morval on 27 September, Stitt, acting as adjutant of his battalion, distinguished himself when he took over command of the 13th (North Canterbury & Westland) Company after its commanding officer and second-in-command were both wounded. Stitt remained in command of the company for the rest of the battle, displaying exceptional bravery and tactical skill for which he was later awarded the Military Cross.
Stitt confirmed his reputation as a brave and capable young officer at the battle of Messines in June 1917. Having been appointed as temporary major in April, he was given command of the 1st Canterbury Battalion for the assault.
Stitt had been heavily involved in his brigade’s preparations for the attack at Messines, as explained in the Canterbury Regiment’s official history:
On May 10th  the 1st [Canterbury] Battalion... marched to billets at Nieppe.... During this period a brigade school was established at Bonanza Lines, between Romarin and Nieppe, and Captain A. D. Stitt was appointed commandant and chief instructor. Platoon commanders and senior non-commissioned officers from all battalions attended for a week's course, which was devoted mainly to the use of maps and compass by day and by night message writing, and minor tactics. A model platoon was established and billeted at the school, and was used for carrying out the tactical exercises.
The weather during May was wonderfully fine and warm, and enabled preparations for the attack to be pushed forward unceasingly … there was very great activity in other directions behind our lines. Our preparations could not be hidden from the enemy: the country swarmed with men building gun positions, new broad and narrow-gauge railways, light-railway marshalling yards, and dumps for ammunitions, rations, and materials of all kinds, laying buried telephone-cables, improving old roads and building new ones, and engaged in the hundred other activities which must precede an attack on a large scale.
It would have been waste of labour and time to attempt to hide what we were doing… it is impracticable to attempt to hide work on a large scale. So our preparations went on openly, and with very little interference on the part of the enemy. Yet the element of surprise was not precluded from the attack: for though it was evident to everyone that an attack was going to be made, the secret of the date and hour was successfully kept until the last moment. The evidence of prisoners goes to show that the enemy expected us to attack on June 8th, and that our attack on the 7th was a genuine surprise to him.
At zero hour of 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 explosive-packed mines dug under the German trenches on Messines Ridge were detonated, destroying the German front line. Stitt’s battalion went over the top and advanced toward Messines Ridge. The Cantabrians quickly captured all of their objectives with relatively few casualties; however, they soon found themselves under heavy German artillery fire and counter-attacks. For the next five days, the soldiers of the 1st Canterbury Battalion successfully defended their new positions, but at a cost of over 300 casualties. For his leadership of the battalion, and for his actions in follow-up operations in the St. Ives sector, Stitt was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The DSO was an award for gallantry and leadership restricted to officers, and in terms of prestige was deemed second only to the Victoria Cross. It was usually only awarded to those ranked lieutenant colonel or higher, but during the First World War it was occasionally awarded to majors, like Stitt, for particularly exceptional actions. He was just 23 years old.
Hear about Stitt’s courageous actions at Flers-Courcelette and Messines, for which he was awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order:
Stitt survived the German offensives in the first half of 1918 and then took part in the final victorious battles that the New Zealand Division would fight on the Western Front. He led the 1st Canterbury Battalion’s advance to Pont-a-Pierres on 23 October 1918, in the final stages of the battle of the Selle. A few days later on 4 November, Stitt and the 1st Canterbury Battalion reached the outskirts of the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy which the Germans were determined to defend. The town was taken on 4 November 1918, in a daring assault by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade which scaled the fortress walls with a ladder, liberating the town without damaging it with artillery fire. While this attack was taking place, Stitt’s battalion was busy sweeping through the Mormal Forest behind Le Quesnoy, eradicating the last-ditch German defenders hiding amidst the treesbefore the final German surrender occurred on 11 November.
As an infantry officer who volunteered at the outbreak of war, Stitt was very fortunate to see its end. At just 24, he finished his service as one of the youngest lieutenant colonels of the NZEF, commanding the infantry battalion he had joined as a junior officer in 1914. He had been wounded in action four times and mentioned in despatches twice in addition to his other gallantry awards, earning himself a reputation as an exceptional soldier.
Stitt spent most of 1919 in England. He was placed in charge of the steadily dwindling band of Canterbury and Otago infantrymen waiting to be transported back home to New Zealand and demobilised.
In October 1919, Stitt successfully applied to join the New Zealand Staff Corps (NZSC), the first step in becoming a full-time professional soldier in post-war New Zealand. However, upon returning home he was dismayed to learn that his transfer to the NZSC would require him to accept a demotion in rank to captain, and even this would only be a probationary instead of a substantive appointment. The NZSC was only a small group of permanent officers – just enough to keep a kernel of military expertise available for the part-time militia of the country’s Territorial Force to draw on when needed. There were very few positions available, and even for those offered one, like Stitt, the prospects for future promotion or career advancement were dim. Confronted with this gloomy reality, Stitt resigned in February 1920. He left New Zealand soon after, bound for England to marry his English sweetheart Mary Kathleen Harris. On 31 August 1920, the two were married at Holy Trinity Church in Shaftesbury, Dorset. Instead of returning to New Zealand with his new bride, Stitt instead decided to put his agricultural training to use and start a new life in Africa.
The young couple had their first child, Brian Alan, in England in 1921. Shortly after this they immigrated to the British East African colony of Kenya. There they established a farm in the small community of Eldoret, which they called ‘Aotea-roa’ (the Maori name for New Zealand). A few years later the couple had a daughter, Patricia Kathleen. There may have also been a third child, but records for this are unclear.
Stitt returned to active service during the Second World War, serving with the British Forces in East Africa. He died on 16 October 1950 in Nairobi, aged 56. He was interred in the City Park Cemetery, Nairobi, Kenya.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, STITT, Alan Duncan, 6/849
Australian War Memorial
East African Cemeteries and Memorials, viewed 1 September 2014, <http://www.eamemorials.co.uk/>
Ferguson, Captain D 1921, The History of the Canterbury Regiment, NZEF, 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland
Imperial War Museums
Malthus, C 2002, Anzac: A Retrospect, Reed, Auckland
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, New Zealand in the First World War 1914–1918, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-WH1.html>
Te Papa Tongerewa, Museum of New Zealand