John Robert Dunn, known as Jack, was born in the small town of Tinui in the rural province of Wairarapa to Matthew and Sarah Dunn on 22 November 1888. His parents were recent immigrants to New Zealand from Glasgow, Scotland. Several of Dunn’s brothers and sisters were born overseas, and it appears that two of the boys, Robert and John, died on the long sea voyage and were buried at sea. Dunn was raised as a Roman Catholic and grew up in the Wairarapa community of Whakataki, near Castlepoint, where he attended the local school with his older brother Matthew.
Dunn began his career at the Wairarapa Daily Times, based in Masterton, and by 1911 was the sub-editor. In August 1912 he took up a position at the New Zealand Times in Wellington, but by August 1914, when the war broke out, the 25-year-old Dunn was back in Masterton, listing his current employer as the Wairarapa Daily Times.
As well as a being talented journalist, Dunn served for several years in the Masterton Rifle Cadets. He was a keen amateur sportsman, and competed in many athletic events in the Wairarapa region through the Wairarapa Amateur Athletics Club and the Masterton Harrier (or cross country running) Club.
Perhaps spurred on by journalistic curiosity, Dunn enlisted in the NZEF on 11 August 1914, just days after New Zealand’s declaration of war against Germany. He was assigned to the 17th (Ruahine) Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion with the rank of private, and was sent to Awapuni racecourse in Palmerston North, where the four companies of the Wellington Infantry Battalion (also known as the Wellington Regiment) were gathering to begin their training. The official history of the Wellington Regiment records:
The training, like all training in camps throughout the War, consisted largely of physical exercises and route marching to get the men fit and hard, with a little musketry and steady drill, to get cohesion in the unit. There are two training days which deserve special mention, not, perhaps, for the training performed, but for happy recollections. The first was a route march to Feilding, where the troops were the guests of the people of Feilding, and were entertained on arrival at the racecourse. The Feilding ladies had gone to great trouble to provide delicacies for the troops, many of whom were recruited from the Feilding district. The troops bivouaced for the night at the racecourse, and marched early the next morning on the return journey to Palmerston North. Here a public welcome was accorded them in the Square.
The Wellington Infantry Battalion travelled to Wellington on 22 September 1914 to join the rest of the NZEF. The battalion was split for the planned voyage and the Ruahines were assigned to HMNZT Arawa. There was a large parade for the departing soldiers on 23 September, attended by the Governor, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Mayor of Wellington. However, the soldiers did not leave Wellington for another few weeks. While their armed naval escort awaited further reinforcements, the infantry remained in their onboard quarters and continued their training regime around Wellington. The official history of the Wellington Regiment details:
In order to waste no time, rigorous training was the order of the day. The Regiment marched, manoeuvred and fought in miniature battles over the rugged hills on the out-skirts of Wellington, a not unfitting preparation for the fighting, soon to be our lot on the steep slopes of Gallipoli.
HMS Minotaur and the Japanese battleship Ibuki arrived in Wellington Harbour on 15 October, and the New Zealand Main Body prepared to depart the following day.
On 16 October 1914, Dunn embarked from New Zealand aboard Arawa. This ship was the third largest in New Zealand’s Main Body. It carried the majority of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, the Signal Troop and part of the Field Artillery Brigade from Wellington to Egypt - a total of 1,259 men, 59 officers and 215 horses. Dunn’s brother Matthew, a trooper with the Wellington Mounted Rifles, probably also travelled onboard this ship.
After five days at sea, the Main Body reached Hobart, Tasmania, where the Wellington Infantry Battalion disembarked for a route march. The Wellington Regiment’s official history states:
It was an intensely hot day; but it was a relief to be ashore. The inhabitants received us with open arms. At the halts on the march, doors of houses were opened and the inhabitants, young and old alike, brought out jugs of refreshing drinks, and cakes and fruit, and handed them round to the perspiring troops. They picked flowers, making bouquets for the men. All ranks returned to the ships greatly cheered by their run ashore, and with feelings of gratitude for Hobart and its inhabitants. The fleet sailed from Hobart on the 23rd October, but not before a great many cases of apples had been shipped for issue to the troops.
The convoy arrived in King George Sound on 28 October, where they met the 26 Australian troop transport ships. Together the New Zealand and Australian ships departed from Albany on 1 November 1914. Ships from Fremantle joined the convoy at sea shortly after.
On 9 November 1914, the wireless operator aboard HMNZT Arawa picked up a faint signal coming from an unknown warship in the Cocos Islands. A battleship from the convoy’s escort, HMAS Sydney, was sent to investigate, and intercepted the SMS Emden, a German raider, which had been stalking allied vessels throughout the Pacific and South East Asia. The event caused great excitement among the soldiers. An extract from The New Zealanders at Gallipoli reads:
At twenty minutes past eleven the wireless announced. ‘Enemy beached herself to prevent sinking.’ Restraint was thrown aside. The men cheered again and again. Messages then chased one another in quick succession: ‘Emden beached and done for. Am chasing merchant collier.’ The cheering burst out afresh, for this was the first mention of the ‘Emden’. How the New Zealanders envied the Australians this momentous achievement of their young navy.
The Arawa passed the equator on 13 November 1914. As with every other transport ship, the men aboard participated in a ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony. Unfortunately this day was marred by a serious accident. Captain E J H Webb, a doctor from the New Zealand Medical Corps, hit his head when diving into ‘Neptune’s Pond’, which had been set up on the deck. He was taken to hospital when the ship reached Colombo but died a few days later.
The men aboard the Arawa liked to claim the distinction of being the first New Zealand troops to come under fire. When the ship reached the port of Aden it failed to drop anchor in the correct area, earning itself a shot across its bows.
When the convoy reached Suez on 30 November, they received word that they were to disembark in Egypt and not carry on to France as had been expected.
The Arawa arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on 3 December 1914. Dunn’s 17th (Ruahine) Company, along with the West Coast Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, departed Alexandria by train bound for Cairo. There were no transport vehicles to meet them at Helmieh Station, so they had to march with their full kit to the site of what was to become Zeitoun Camp, arriving late in the evening.
After arriving in Egypt, the New Zealanders spent several months in training. Dunn’s commanding officer for the Wellington Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, was known for his strict disciplinarian attitude towards this training regime. The routine is described in the official history:
Training now began in real earnest. Every morning before breakfast ‘physical jerks’; and, at 8 am, the battalion paraded, carrying lunch in haversacks, and the day was spent in training. Full packs were always carried on the march, and across the desert the going was heavy and dusty. The training grounds were usually selected at a distance three or four miles from the camp, so as to ensure a certain amount of marching every day.
Although the nights were invariably cold and the early mornings raw and misty, the sun shone from a cloudless sky throughout the day, and tunics were soon discarded. Training was never interfered with by the weather and, in fixing training schemes, weather contingencies were not considered.
On 25 January 1915, the New Zealand forces relocated to the Suez Canal area to join a garrison of Indian soldiers in the defence of this strategic asset. An Ottoman column was reportedly massing to attack the canal, but no significant battle ensued. The New Zealanders spent a relatively uneventful month in the canal area. The Wellington Infantry Battalion left the Suez garrison on 26 February, returning to Zeitoun Camp and the monotony of their daily training regime.
At the end of March it became increasingly clear that the Anzac soldiers would be sent to the Dardanelles. Orders were received for the New Zealand Infantry Brigade to leave Zeitoun Camp on 10 April 1915, bound for the Greek island of Lemnos. The Wellington Infantry Battalion sailed on the Itonus and Achaia, arriving on 15 April at Lemnos’ Mudros Harbour, where a large fleet of British and French warships had gathered.
Dunn’s unit, along with the 11th (Taranaki) Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 between 12 pm and 6 pm. Early on the morning of 26 April, the Ruahines moved up to Plugge’s Plateau, but fell back later after suffering heavy casualties. The whole battalion moved up to Walker’s Ridge on 27 April, where it remained until 5 May, when the whole New Zealand Infantry Brigade was sent down to Cape Helles.
Sickness was rife in the Anzac sector due to poor hygiene conditions. Dunn suffered two major bouts of sickness during his short time on Gallipoli. On 16 May, while his unit was still at Cape Helles, he was admitted to the New Zealand Field Ambulance with influenza.
After a week Dunn was discharged and returned to his unit, which had since returned to the Anzac sector. Within ten days of his return he had developed pneumonia. This time he was sent off Gallipoli to No. 1 Australian Stationary Hospital on Lemnos, where he remained for two weeks. Subsequent events suggest that he had not fully recovered before being sent back to Gallipoli on 16 July 1915.
In Dunn’s absence, the Wellington Infantry Battalion had taken over the garrison role at Quinn’s Post. Lieutenant Colonel Malone took great delight in reorganising this area and bringing it up to his strict high standards. The official history of the Wellington Regiment commented on Malone’s character:
An entry in his [Malone’s] diary of this date says: ‘a more dirty, dilapidated and unorganised post it is hard to imagine. Still I like work and will revel in straightening things up. There are no places for men to fall in. The local reserve is posted too far away and yet there is at present no ground prepared on which they could be comfortably put. I selected a new Headquarters Shelter for myself and gave orders that every rifle shot and bomb from the Turks was to be promptly returned at least tenfold. We can and will beat them at their own game.’ This was the spirit in which Lieut.-Col. Malone tackled the task of straightening up Quinn's Post and the period from the 9th June, until the end of July, is largely the story of how the Colonel converted the most dangerous and insecure post on the Anzac Position into the safest and most impregnable, and turned a higgledy piggledy collection of battered and insanitary trenches into a clean, well-organized post. In justice to previous garrisons it must be said that timber and iron for trench work were more easily obtainable in June and July, than they had been previously; but, in any case, Colonel Malone had a way of getting things quite his own and was never satisfied to take ‘No’ for an answer.
On the afternoon of 18 July 1915, Dunn was found asleep while on sentry duty, probably at Quinn’s Post. He had returned to Gallipoli from hospital just two days prior and was sent on duty despite reporting sick earlier that morning.
Dunn was put before a court-martial, charged with endangering the safety of his unit. On the recommendation of Malone, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
However, he was saved from a firing squad by order of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who confirmed the sentence but remitted the punishment of death. On 5 August Dunn was informed that, while he would have to serve ten years’ hard labour for his crime, he would be temporarily released from custody to participate in the forthcoming August Offensive.
On 6 August 1915, just days after Dunn’s death sentence was remitted, the British launched the August Offensive. As a soldier of the Wellington Infantry Battalion, Dunn fought in the thick of battle to take and hold the key strategic position of Chunuk Bair. If Dunn made it to the crest of this hill, he may have fought alongside his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone, the man who had recommended his execution.
On 8 August 1915, Dunn was reported missing in action. It was not until 22 January 1916 that he was officially listed as ‘reported missing, believed dead’. A Board of Enquiry finding in December 1917 stated he was ‘killed in action’.
Dunn gave his life while fighting for the NZEF at Chunuk Bair. The tiny rural Wairarapa community of Tinui, where Dunn was born, chose to commemorate his war service when constructing their memorial in 1924. His name is listed, without ignominy or distinction, alongside the names of all other local men who died while fighting for New Zealand in the First World War. Dunn’s sacrifice is also commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, alongside 849 other New Zealand soldiers with no known graves whose names are listed on The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing on Chunuk Bair. Nonetheless, the guilty verdict of his court-martial sentence has never been revoked. Several members of the extended Dunn family have explored the details of his short life. This includes the artist Pat White, who created an exhibition based on Dunn’s story through the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, and published an accompanying catalogue, Gallipoli: in search of a family story.
Wairarapa Archive in Masterton, the town where Dunn lived just prior to the outbreak of the war, has done considerable research into his life and military service. They aim to encourage debate and understanding of the circumstances surrounding Dunn’s court martial and premature death. Towards this end, the archive has made Dunn one of the key figures in their community engagement programs with local school children studying the First World War. They have also developed an exhibition about local servicemen for the centenary of the war that includes a section on Jack and Matthew Dunn.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, DUNN, John Robert, 10/594
Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira 2014, Cenotaph Record: John Robert Dunn, viewed 9 September 2014, <http://muse.aucklandmuseum.com/databases/Cenotaph/4289.detail?Ordinal=2&c_serialnumber_search=10/594>
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Cunningham, WH, Treadwell, CAL, & Hanna, JS 1928, The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914-1919, Ferguson & Osborn Ltd, Wellington
History Group of the New Zealand, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Government of New Zealand 2014, New Zealand History, viewed 8 September 2014, <http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/>
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa 2014, Papers Past, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast>
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>
Waite, F 1919, The New Zealanders at Gallipoli, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Christchurch