Celebrating 300 years

Inside the wartime fraternity: Freemasonry in New Zealand during World War 1

Tuesday, 07 March 2017

International brotherhood

With soldiers from across the world meeting and sharing values during World War I, Diane Clements looks at how this period shaped New Zealand’s relationship with Grand Lodge

The armed forces of many different countries fought in World War I between 1914 and 1918, with their experiences often being pivotal in the formation of national identities. But what of the effect these nations had on each other as they fought side by side? The experiences of masons as they travelled to new countries provide an intriguing window into how the war helped to develop the links between Grand Lodges across the world.

In 1914 there were 1,700 lodges across England and Wales, with a further 1,300 spread throughout the British Empire. As British colonies had become independent from the mid-1800s, they had established their own masonic jurisdiction or Grand Lodge. The relationship between the English Grand Lodge and the overseas Grand Lodges strengthened during World War I and was marked at celebrations of the Grand Lodge’s bicentenary in 1917 and of the peace in 1919.

For the soldiers, the experience of travelling to foreign countries, the comradeship and the trauma of war were significant in their personal development. For many, informal links with Freemasons were widened and reinforced, and the bond formed between New Zealand masons and their English brethren is a prime example of how the Craft came together during wartime. 

The first masonic lodge in New Zealand was formed in 1842 and each of the English, Irish and Scottish Grand Lodges all formed lodges there. In 1890, 65 lodges established the Grand Lodge of New Zealand, with Henry Thomson as the first Grand Master. A medal was produced in 1900 to mark its first 10 years. The three ‘home’ Grand Lodges also maintained District and Provincial Grand Lodges in New Zealand. 

William Massey, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, sent a telegram on the outbreak of war in 1914, saying: ‘All we are and all we have is at the disposal of the British government.’ He travelled to Britain several times, both during and after the war, and attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, signing the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of his country. Massey was installed as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand in November 1924.

In 1914, the population of New Zealand was about 1.1 million and 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), which went first to the Middle East and fought at Gallipoli and then to the Western Front. Around 18,000 New Zealanders died in or because of the war, with more than 41,000 wounded.

Wartime fraternity

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry collection includes a gavel with a head made from the stock of a German rifle found on the Somme battlefield in 1916 during an advance on Flers by the NZEF. It was then taken to New Zealand where it was mounted and polished.

The NZEF Masonic Association was formed in France by Colonel George Barclay in 1917. According to an article in The Freemason in April 1918, the association developed from an informal meeting of serving New Zealand troops near Armentières in June 1916.

The association’s original objective was to hold meetings to promote fraternity among its members, with branches formed in various camps, depots and hospitals. One branch was formed in Egypt and Palestine in May 1917 by Brigadier-General William Meldrum (1865-1964), the officer commanding the mounted division. This group held a meeting in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in April 1918. The association’s meetings included lectures and discussions and its members were encouraged to visit other local lodges.

English training

NZEF soldiers came to England for rest, recuperation and training, with Wiltshire’s Sling Camp functioning as their chief training ground, while in London, the NZEF Masonic Association organised visits to Freemasons’ Hall. The association was active along the south coast of England and correspondence between Grand Lodge and Jordan Lodge, No. 1402, in Torquay from December 1917 provides a fascinating glimpse into the interaction between the troops and local lodges.

The Lodge Secretary, Stanley Lane, wrote to London about a candidate, Eric George Rhodes, a corporal in the New Zealand Paymaster’s department: ‘There has been a large camp of discharged New Zealanders near Torquay, this being the convalescent base before embarking for home… several of the officers have visited Jordan Lodge many times.’ Rhodes’ candidacy was supported by a letter from George Barclay himself who was then based at Boscombe.

By the end of the war the NZEF Masonic Association had about 1,500 members. Its members’ jewel was in three grades: metal, silver gilt and gold. In 1919, one of these gold jewels was presented to the Grand Lodge in London to commemorate the association’s wartime work and it remains a treasure of the collection.

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