By Wally O’Hearn
A thoroughbred mare who overcame more trials and trauma than any other thoroughbred in New Zealand history has been acknowledged by the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame.
You won’t find her name attached to any major race wins or for exceptional deeds on the racetrack. Bess is linked to an era which affected the lives of all New Zealanders, and represents the demands put on horses during war.
More than 10,000 New Zealand horses were sent overseas during the First World War (1914-18) and Bess was among the group. Only four returned home to New Zealand and she was the sole thoroughbred.
Coinciding with the centenary of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War, the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame believed it is an opportune time to acknowledge a thoroughbred who represents all the horses whose lives were put on the line in the Great War.
Bess’s story was viewed at the NZRHOF inductee gala dinner at Sky City Hamilton on February 12 to an audience of 300 guests.
“To think only four of them ever came back home and Bess, a thoroughbred, was one of them,” said Chris Luoni, Chairman of NZRHOF. “We are proud to acknowledge Bess as a representative for all the NZ horses that served in the Great War”.
Born in 1910 by Saracen from Miss Jury, Bess was bred by A.D. McMaster, of Matawhero (near Martinborough) and her registered pedigree name was Zelma by her owner, F. Deller, before being presented to the New Zealand Army as a four-year-old. She was allocated to the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment and selected by Captain Charles Guy Powles, who renamed her Bess.
Powles had previously served in the South African Boer War and, after being an officer in New Zealand’s Staff Corps at the outbreak of the First World War, he became Brigade Major to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade (NZMR). He served with the NZMR in multiple campaigns during the war, becoming commanding officer of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles and ending the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Bess and Powles left New Zealand, bound for Egypt, with the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in October 1914. Being transported in rows of cramped stalls and some exposed to the weather, about 3% of the 3815 horses died during the journey.
Nearly all of the horses initially went to Egypt. More than half were riding horses, like Bess, and used by the troops and officers, while almost 4000 were draught horses or packhorses used for artillery and transport purposes and many of these ended up on the Western Front.
Very few horses were used at Gallipoli, so most, including Bess, remained in Egypt during 1915. Bess stayed in the Middle East, along with several thousand other New Zealand horses, and, according to records, she was assigned to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade which, as part of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Mounted Division with Australian Light Horse brigades and Royal Horse Artillery batteries, served in the Sinai Campaign of 1916 and the Palestine campaign of 1917–18.
Shortly before the Palestine campaign ended Powles and Bess joined the New Zealand Division in France and after that she served with Powles during the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland.
At the end of the war an acute shortage of transport and quarantine restrictions related to animal diseases prevalent overseas prevented most horses from returning to New Zealand. But Bess, along with three other horses, was transported home.
The four horses travelled to England in March 1919 and were subjected to 12 months’ quarantine. Bess apparently took part in a victory parade in Britain before arriving back in New Zealand in July 1920.
After the war Bess was the model for the sculpture of a wounded New Zealand horse on a memorial to the Anzac mounted troops at Port Said in Egypt. That statue was destroyed in the 1956 Suez crisis, but copies were made and erected in Australia, at Albany in Western Australia and in Canberra.
Bess continued to serve Powles on her return to New Zealand while he was a commander at Trentham and later as headmaster at Flock House, an agricultural training school near Bulls for dependants of war veterans. Despite the trials and tribulations of war, Bess lived to the grand age of 24.
She is buried at Flock House, near where she died in 1934, and Powles erected a memorial which features two plaques. One denotes the places where Bess served during and after the war, while the other bears an Arabic inscription that translates as ‘In the Name of the Most High God.’