Ormond Burton was born in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden on 16 January 1893. In 1914 he was working as a school teacher, running his own single-classroom school in Ahuroa, a community in the Kaipara area of Northland.
An enthusiastic part-time soldier, he spent two years in the 15th (North Auckland) Regiment, Territorial Force, and two years in the Officer Training Corps at Auckland Teachers’ Training College. When war broke out, Burton volunteered to serve. However, when he enlisted on 18 December 1914, he was not assigned to the infantry. Instead, he was placed in a ‘non-combatant’ role as a private in the New Zealand Medical Corps.
Burton departed from Wellington with the 3rd Reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 14 February 1915. He travelled aboard HMNZT Tahiti, which had recently returned to New Zealand from its voyage to Egypt as a troop transport in the NZEF Main Body. On the voyage to Egypt, HMNZT Tahiti was accompanied by another NZEF Main Body transport including HMNZT Maunganui, Aparima (a newly acquisitioned ship) and Warrimoo, carrying the Maori Contingent.
According to The Pip magazine, published aboard Tahiti, the journey from New Zealand to Egypt passed relatively uneventfully. With the exception of two horses and one man, who all died unexpectedly, everyone who boarded the ship in Wellington arrived safely in Alexandria. The long voyage was punctuated by military lectures and a variety of concerts.
In his book, The Silent Division, Burton describes part of the voyage:
A first ocean voyage, even on a crowded transport, is a wonderful experience with the changing sea and the sky, the freshness of the marvellous dawns and the glory of the sunsets, the fascination of the slow rollers breaking in foam from the bow, or churned by the screws, and trailing away in a gleaming phosphorescence, and the sudden fierce burst of black storm. We touched at Albany and had a route march through the town but were allowed no freedom to wander, for the townsfolk were still in the process of recovering from a visitation by one of the Australian reinforcements which had passed through a few days before us.
Burton disembarked with the rest of the 3rd Reinforcements in Alexandria on 27 March 1915. They went by train to Cairo and marched to Zeitoun Camp the following day.
To an untravelled person like myself, Egypt had a touch of magic: the sudden flashing dawns, and the flaming sunsets; the gleaming wastes of sand, and the green wealth of the market gardens; squalid filthy, teeming slums, and splendid places in gracious gardens; booths in dark narrow streets, and European shops full of luxury goods; schools where little boys sat on the dirt floor chanting the Koran and writing on bits of tin, American mission schools of the latest architecture; people of every colour: olive, black, brown and white, and of almost every race; Nubians, Arabs, Greeks, Egyptians, and all the Europeans; a babel of languages; harlots flaunting from their balconies and doorways, good Moslem women shrinking modestly with covered faces against the walls; the rich and the very poor; the very evil and some who were the salt of the earth.
The 3rd Reinforcements arrived in Egypt just in time to leave for Gallipoli with the other NZEF Main Body soldiers, who had been waiting impatiently in Zeitoun Camp for months.
Burton, now part of the 1st Field Ambulance, New Zealand Medical Corps, left Cairo on 10 April. He described his first impressions of Gallipoli in his autobiography A Rich Old Man:
We were awakened by the booming of great guns and the rattle of rifle fire. The transport I was on was running in towards a tangle of yellow cliffs. Already many other transports were lying about a mile off the shore. Warships were moving slowly up and down, firing heavily. Lines of ships’ boats were being towed in by destroyers or navy launches. A destroyer came back past us, her boats empty, but there was bloody equipment lying about.
The rifle fire from the shore never ceased for a moment. Far up on the righthand side, six white puffs of smoke burst every few moments, simultaneously and in a straight line – Turkish shrapnel. It was an extraordinarily beautiful sight. The rugged crags were brown and green, and then as the sun rose higher, gleaming yellow against the perfect blue of the sea and sky, with the white puffs of bursting shell or the black columns of the high explosive Navy shells. Out on the boats we were spectators, very unwilling ones, but still we could say we had been under fire, for the occasional shell went over us, and the next transport to us was hit.
Burton did not land at Anzac Cove with the initial landing on the 25 April 1915; instead he stayed aboard ship to care for the wounded being ferried back from the beaches of Anzac Cove. There was a scarcity of medical staff on the beach, and many seriously injured men lay on the bare earth for hours waiting for barges to take them back to Lemnos or Egypt for treatment. Burton and his fellow Field Ambulance orderlies were kept extremely busy throughout the first few chaotic days.
Burton transferred to Lutzow to care for the wounded on the voyage back to Alexandria. He recalled:
The voyage was a dreadful one. We had stretchers in long rows in all the holds. Any able to walk were crowded into cabins, or anywhere else we were able to get them. The doctors improvised an operating theatre, where they were able to do the most urgent things, and at least get clean dressings on the broken men... One night I had a hold full of very seriously wounded men. Several of them were dying, and some very horribly, and painfully. There was so much to be done, and so little that one could really do; fix a bandage here, ease a man just a little on the hard stretcher, perhaps get him back on it, give someone a drink, a word here and there, an opiate to someone so that he might die a little more easily. Most of the wounded were very patient and pathetically grateful for the small things that were possible... It was a marvellous relief to get out patients ashore at Alexandria, and to know that they were going direct to properly equipped hospitals.
We cleared the ship of our blood-stained blankets and washed down the stretchers; were ashore, I think for half a day, and then back again to Anzac. We expected to fill up again with wounded and to repeat the trip, but this was not to be. Anzac had a more settled appearance. The intensity of the first few days had gone. More ships were still lying off the Cove, just out of the range of the Turkish guns, and apparently very peaceful and secure.
Once Burton landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, he was based in the Anzac sector, acting in the exhausting and dangerous role of a stretcher-bearer, ferrying wounded men from the front lines down treacherously steep narrow paths to the beaches of Anzac Cove. His service file indicates that he made it through the entire eight month Gallipoli Campaign without falling ill or being seriously wounded. He was deeply concerned for the health of the men he tended. In later years, he was particularly scathing of the poor management of hygiene and of the food and water supplies, which devastated the physical condition of the ranks. This, he believed, marred the progress of the campaign.
In August, Burton acted as a stretcher-bearer for the Sari Bair Offensive, which was launched on 6 August. He wrote:
On the evening of the 5 August 1915, the New Zealand Infantry crossed the vicinity of Courtney’s Post to take up their battle stations... I saw them file past. Battalions that had landed a thousand strong, and had received the 3rd and 4th Reinforcements, were now down to four or five hundred men. I knew very many in the Auckland Battalion, and stood for a long while greeting them as they went past. Most of the men were thin and tired. The mile of march had exhausted them. They were shadows only, of the men who had left Egypt so short a while before, bursting with health and vigour.
In the later stages of this battle, Burton found himself carrying load after load of wounded men from the Regimental Aid Post at the top of Chailak Dere down to beach. He wrote:
[It] was a dangerous highway, and sometimes a desperately crowded one. On the high slopes it sometimes took six men to get a stretcher down. Four men were normally needed for the long hard carry to the Casualty Clearing Station down near the beach, but often only two were available. Turkish shrapnel searching the ravine and the bullets fell everywhere – and at several point the snipers were busy. As we went down, there was the unending line of mules laden with water and ammunition going up, and every kind of carrying party.
With the creation of the New Zealand Division in early 1916, Burton transferred from the 1st to the 2nd New Zealand Field Ambulance and was sent to the Western Front. When the division arrived in France, Burton was attached to the 6th (Hauraki) Company, 2nd Battalion, Auckland Regiment, at their Regimental Aid Post. He was with this battalion for the battle of the Somme, which the New Zealand Division entered on 15 September 1916. Burton identified strongly with the Aucklanders, as he had grown up in the Auckland area and knew many of the men in this battalion. He was stationed on Rhododendron Ridge:
The ‘bivvies’ were snug. Everything was spotlessly clean. The trenches hewn out of the rotten rock were very stable, and once dug required little maintenance. They were swept out every morning. I usually went round the line once a day, to see if there was anything I could do for anyone. Naturally I could find many old friends.
Although the New Zealand Division’s attacks on the Somme were successful, the casualty rate was high, and the unarmed stretcher-bearers and medical orderlies like Burton encountered shelling and machine-gun fire as they struggled to bring wounded men back across relatively open ground. Several stretcher-bearers were killed or injured during the fighting. Burton reflected:
Men came stumbling in. Wounds dressed with all speed! A swift assessment made as to whether a man should stagger on, or be a stretcher case. If the latter, on to a stretcher – we had a pile handy – and moved to one side. Another, and another and another! For some time the doctor was just behind me, handing dressings with an occasional word of advice. The medical orderly was writing tickets... Now some Field Ambulance bearers come up, and our first stretchers are away. A group of German prisoners are seized upon, and told to get on with the others. They are anxious to please, and so we get some more wounded away. By this time a track had formed over the torn earth running towards us, and then away to the rear – one of those strange highways of war, that come in to being, no one knows how.
Burton’s experiences on the Somme greatly affected him, and not long afterwards he requested to join the 2nd Auckland Infantry Battalion, becoming an infantryman on 28 October 1916. Burton explains some of the motivation behind this unusual move in his autobiography:
For myself, the battle was a landmark in experience. At the end of it I was deeply identified with the 2nd Auckland. Moreover, I felt accepted by everyone ... The medical orderly who was not much use anyway, had conveniently been wounded. So with the goodwill and approval of all concerned, I was installed at the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post]. The job, while it carried no real rank, was a strategic one in the Battalion. I met everyone, and there was very much I could do to help many.
Burton was promoted to corporal on 1 September 1917. On 4 October 1917 he fought with the 2nd Auckland Battalion in the battle of Broodseinde. The New Zealanders were tasked with taking Gravenstafel Spur, part of the Broodseinde Ridge, strategically important high ground near the village of Passchendaele, which was held by heavily entrenched German forces.
The New Zealanders succeeded in capturing the Spur and took 1,100 German prisoners. However, the casualty rate among the New Zealand Division was high: 350 men died and approximately 1,350 were wounded, including Burton, who was shot in the chest and left shoulder. He wrote:
Even as we talked I felt a stab in my chest, and saw that the front of my tunic was in rags. Nothing was visible except a small round hole more or less over the heart. This had all the appearance of the typical entrance wound of a rifle bullet. As there was no exit wound, the bullet presumably in the chest somewhere ... At the moment an amazing thing happened. In front of us, in a trench that it would have been suicide for us to attack, the Germans, who a moment before were firing hard at us, were standing up with their hands in the air and beginning to come over to surrender. Why I shall never know; possibly the barrage had shaken them, or perhaps the fear of another wave of assault. I think all the Germans ahead of us were demoralised. With that trench occupied and Bellevue outflanked, the road to Passchendaele was open. I don’t think any attempt was made to exploit the success...
Burton made it to the 3rd New Zealand Field Ambulance and then was transferred to the 18th General Hospital in Camiers. Examination of his wounds found them to be minor, as the bullet meant for his heart was deflected by the thick paper contents of his pocket. He carried with him a copy of the Bible and a photograph of his sister Dorothy, both of which were torn by the projectile. Burton was discharged and attached to the New Zealand Infantry & General Base Depot in Etaples. By mid-November, he had recovered sufficiently to rejoin his battalion.
At the beginning of 1918, Burton was promoted to the rank of sergeant. By now, he had gained a reputation for courage and leadership with the 2nd Auckland Battalion. In February 1917, he rescued a close friend, Lieutenant Jock Mackenzie, from no man’s land after a raid on a German trench. According to the story, a chivalrous German officer witnessed Burton’s bravery and stayed his fire, meaning both men got back to their trenches safely. Unfortunately Mackenzie’s injuries were too extensive and he died soon afterwards. Burton was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery under fire.
Burton participated in several major battles in the last year of the war. He was wounded twice, and although these wounds were each serious enough to get a ‘Blighty’ and be sent back to England, he refused to leave France, seeing it as his duty to continue fighting with his comrades.
His first wound occurred during the German Spring Offensive. He was shot in the right leg and thigh, and admitted to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital in Boulognes on 27 March. He was transferred to Etaples, where he remained for another month in various convalescent facilities.
At the hospital in Etaples I was duly laid on the table. A very friendly and cheerful English doctor had a look at me and gave me the choice of extraction of the shrapnel with or without an anaesthetic. With it I would be very sick afterwards – without it the job might hurt a bit, but I would not be sick. I told him to do what he thought best. Without anaesthetic then. An exceedingly hefty orderly got a grip on me. A couple of nurses did the same. The junk of shrapnel must have entered in a very round about fashion, and have had edges and sharp points all over it. These caught at every turn and twist. Sharp agony for what seemed a long time! Finally he had it out, and was very pleasant about things. But I was really done in, and crawled away into a corner like a hurt dog, and lay there all day. Always anaesthetic for me ever after, when given the choice!
Burton rejoined the 2nd Auckland Battalion and fought in the battle of Bapaume, displaying exceptional gallantry during the advance on Grévillers. Listen to his experiences during the attack on Grévillers.
Burton’s commanding officer, Colonel Allen, recommended him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Burton was humbled by this, as no other man in his battalion had been recommended for this honour. He wrote home immediately – not because he was excited, but for the extremely practical reason that he was still in the midst of the battle at the time, and a DCM could not be awarded posthumously.
His cautiousness was not without justification. Burton was wounded during the attack, this time in the arm, and sent to hospital in Rouen on 24 August. He found himself back in Étaples at the New Zealand Infantry and General Base Depot. A few weeks later he was reunited with the 2nd Auckland Battalion. He reflected:
Back with the Battalion, I found that they had fought again at Bancourt and that between this and Grévillers the casualties had been very heavy. The Company had new officers, and many new faces in the ranks. I heard ... that in the absence of Colonel Allen ... the office had changed my DCM into a French Medaille d’Honneur [avec Glaives, in bronze], all with the best of intentions. Colonel Allen was upset about this and promoted me Battalion Scout Sergeant ... He also sent in a very strong recommendation that my commission should be an immediate one in the field. This was however, turned down at Brigade, as General Godley the overall commander of the NZEF was being rigid on the point.
I was very much in two minds as to whether I should refuse the commission. O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit) would mean for months out of the line... I felt it was perhaps more important that I did my bit to maintain morale, rather than gain slightly in efficiency. However winter was approaching. Probably the front would settle down and I should be back in time for the heavy fighting in the Spring – as we thought ... The day before I left, about 13 September 1918, I went for a last walk through the front line, somewhere about the Trescault Ridge. A Rifle Brigade Battalion was in the line. A cheerful crowd! No one challenged me! ... So in due course I walked back, and that was the end of the war for me.
On 4 October, after rejoining his unit, Burton was selected for officer training and posted to the 5th Officer Cadet Battalion at Trinity College, Cambridge. He completed the course at Trinity and gained his commission as a second lieutenant, but by this time the war had ended.
When the war ended, Burton did not go to Germany with the rest of the New Zealand Division. Shortly after receiving his commission in January 1919, he was shipped back to New Zealand aboard SS Hororata. He arrived in April and was promptly struck off the strength of the Expeditionary Force and absorbed into the New Zealand Military’s Reserve Officers roll.
So now the war was over. I was home again fit and well. So what was to be done? In one sense I was an old, old man, a veteran of the wars come back to a New Zealand where to responsible men I was little more than a boy. I was a man whose developing thinking had been frozen by four years of intense and continuous fighting and yet in whom ideas were surging again as a result of a new freedom. I was a student who had been without books for four years; an efficient and established soldier coming back as an inexperienced teacher.
Burton re-established himself in Auckland and began to write. During the war, Major General Andrew Russell, Commander of the New Zealand Division, had asked Burton to write an account of the division’s service in the war up to 1917. This short history was published by the New Zealand YMCA under the title ‘Our Little Bit’ and was distributed as a souvenir to all the New Zealand servicemen. Burton revised this work in 1919 and it was republished through Clark & Matheson, Auckland, as The New Zealand Division. Because of the reputation these works gained him, Burton was commissioned to write the official history of the Auckland Regiment - the unit with whom he had served since October 1916. He used this work as the basis for a Master of Arts thesis, which he completed through the University of Auckland, graduating in 1921. His book, The Auckland Regiment, was published the following year.
In 1926, he married Helen Agatha ‘Nell’ Tizard, and they had two children: Robert William and Mary.
In 1935 he published his most famous book, The Silent Division. This general history of the war, as experienced by New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, was very well received by returned servicemen and the general public.
Despite the general success of these publications, Burton became increasingly disillusioned by the outcome of the war, particularly the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He abandoned his original support of New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War, and was an outspoken and often controversial member of the pacifist movement, becoming leader of the Christian Pacifist Society of New Zealand in 1936.
Burton denounced New Zealand’s post-war militarism, and refused to return to his pre-war profession of teaching until he could negotiate a clause in his contract that allowed him to forgo the standard oath of allegiance to the Crown if this oath conflicted with his duty to God. He decided to pursue a religious calling.
Burton’s religious beliefs changed after the war. Previously a devout Presbyterian, he began training as a Methodist minister in the 1930s and was posted to Webb Street church in Wellington. His ministry revitalised this poor community, which had been hard hit by the Depression.
Burton’s outspoken campaigning against New Zealand’s participation in the Second World War earned him much notoriety, even within his own church, from which he was expelled in 1942. Later that year, the Supreme Court found him guilty of subversion for publishing anti-war literature. He received a two-and-a-half year jail sentence, of which he served 19 months. While Burton was imprisoned, his wife Nell carried on his work with the Christian Pacifist Society.
Undeterred, Burton retained his faith and his staunch belief in the righteousness of pacifism. Though he continued to protest against New Zealand’s involvement in international wars for the rest of his life, he was readmitted to the Methodist Church and established a successful ministry in Otaki, north of Wellington. He was held in high regard for the courage of his conviction, and admired by many for the quality of his published works. In contrast to his passionate pacifist beliefs, he retained an orthodox approach to religion, and did not embrace the liberal reform of the Church advocated by others throughout the 1960s. He died in Wellington on 7 January 1974 and was buried in Otaki Public Cemetery.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, BURTON, Ormond Edward, 3/483
Burton, OE (unpub.) 1918, ‘Our little bit: a brief history of the New Zealand Division’, Alexander Turnbull Library P 940.412 BUR 1918
Burton, OE 1920, The New Zealand Division, Clark and Matheson, Auckland
Burton, OE 1922, The Auckland Regiment, NZEF 1914-1918, Whitcombe and Tombes, Auckland
Burton, OE 2014, The Silent Division and Concerning One Man’s War: 1914 – 1919, John Douglas Grey Publishing Ltd., Christchurch
Grant, D 2013, 'Burton, Ormond Edward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, viewed 8 October 2014, <http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b53/burton-ormond-edward>
National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, New Zealand in the First World War 1914–1918, viewed 8 October 2014, <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-WH1.html>