Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 7, May 1967
THE WAIHI DRILL HALL – A MILITARY MEMOIR
By George Paterson (Sgt. Major)
Well, well, the old Waihi Drill Hall has become "demilitarised" at last. "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi", if such an expression can be applied to this unromantic if historic building. I have been informed that it is now the property of the Borough Council and will in future be used as a Youth Centre. But, bless my heart, it always has been a centre for the youth of Waihi, since boys and young men for many years weekly or fortnightly visited the Hall, where an harassed instructor taught the young idea how to shoot - both literally and metaphorically.
Although I was associated with the Drill Hall for twenty years, I am somewhat unfamiliar with its history prior to 1918, the year in which I was transferred to the Waihi sub-area. I know that it was built shortly after the South African war by members of the Old Ohinemuri Rifles and taken over by the Defence Department when compulsory military training was introduced to New Zealand. Old volunteers of the Rifles, Jack Cornes, Doug Littlejohn, Jim Wotherspoon and other well known citizens often reminded me of this high-handed action taken by the Army and some considered it an injustice that the Headquarters of their old corps should lose its identity. Their attitude was: "Them was the Days" when one volunteer was equal to three pressed [conscripted? – E] men. However, a link was maintained between those two "ideologies", since the Waihi Rifle Club, composed mostly of ex-volunteers, was alotted a room in the building where its members held their periodic meetings and, be it noted, occasional social functions. I suggest that, in purchasing the Hall from the Army, the Borough Council got a fair bargain, as the building, in spite of its drab appearance, consisted largely of good heart of kauri timber. The lining of the office and store rooms showed particularly fine specimens of this and connoisseurs of woodwork often remarked on.
Since the general public of Waihi, apart from Territorials and Cadets, had very few occasions in which to visit the Drill Hall, they would have been, had they cared to look around the place, astonished at the amount and variety of military material stored in the various rooms. There were scores of uniforms, both Territorial and Cadet, sets of web equipment complete with pack, haversack, water-bottle, mess tin etc. hundreds of rifles and bayonets, Vickers machine guns, Lewis light automatics. Stokes mortars and even a few Webley revolvers. In addition there were thousands of rounds of .303 and .22 ammunition which were duly expended each year on the Rifle Range. Itwas a job accounting for all this war material and keeping it in workable condition.
Back to the trainees who are lined up in the middle of the hall waiting for the parade to begin. The word trainees is a short title for members of "D" (M.G.) boy, 1st Battalion, the Hauraki Regt., Commanding Officer Col. Snr. S.S. Allen, D.S.O., E.D. Allied British units, The Warwickshire Regt. and Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. I don't think this high-sounding title added one cubit to the stature of these local lads. The name Haurakis was quite sufficient designation for them. Their instructor doesn't quite fulfil the layman's conception of the traditional Sergt. major; burly, blustery bearded like the 'pard, voice like a stentor, eye like the cherry in a cocktail; who drops his aitches from certain words and tacks them on to others.
No, this other fellow, like Cassius, "hath a lean and hungry look",is clean shaven, and, though careful with his aspirates, makes full use of the letter "R". "FORRM FOURRS" he barks at the somewhat sullen troops who, after several attempts, shuffle into the approximate position. "By the Right, Quick March", and they stepoff irresolutely, while the instructor encourages them in a running commentary, "Right - Left", "Swing your arms"; "keep your dressing and make the World safe for democracy". The big rambling building is filled with echoes of marching feet, shouted orders and clash of arms. A dog in a neighbouring section, alarmed by the commotion, contributes an obbigatto [obbligato? – E] of barking; a shower of pebbles, thrown by some juvenile delinquent, rattles like hail on the tin roof and in the distance the Federal Band can be heard practising Il Trovatore. In spite of this cacophony or because of it the boys carry out their drill movements remarkably well and earn the approval of the instructor. This ends the first half of the evening's syllabus, and the start of the second which is devoted to weapon training. One squad mounts, dismounts, loads (with dummies) and fires at nothing in particular, a wicked-looking Vickers machine gun; another section, with much chattering, strips a Lewis gun and spreads its innards on a ground sheet; a third sets up a stokes mortar and fires at an imaginary target with dummy bombs which don't leave the muzzle, while a fourth squad fits pack saddlery on a wooden mule which stands disconsolate at the corner of the building. This, then, was the pattern, moreor less of the fortnightly parades of the Territorials.
At this point, I must state that, although the parades were compulsory, (I'm talking of the era prior to the re-introduction of Voluntary training in 1930) I had very little trouble with these lads and had the satisfaction of turning out quite a few smart N.C.O.'s and soldiers who could hold their own with any Regiment in N.Z. They could always be depended upon to take part in public occasion which called for ceremonial parades, military funerals and visits to the town by distinguished personages. When the Governor-General Lord Jellicoe paid his Official visit, we provided a Guard of Honour comprising 50 well-dressed men who made a good job of their drill movements and rifle exercises. His Excellency, although a sailor, was quite impressed with the turn out by the local representatives of the Hauraki Regt. During the inspection his Lordship, who possibly expected the Warrant Officer to be built on the lines of an All Black, asked me if I was a farmer! I suppose I had a rather bucolic appearance at the time, but I assured him I belonged to a non-producing section of the community. That evening "conversazione" was held in the Kings Hall at which citizens had the opportunity of meeting his Ex. and Lady Jellicoe[.] To add to the harmony of the proceedings, an orchestra under the direction of Mr Tom Midgely rendered, of all things, the overture Poet and Peasant, and your humble servant happened to be playing second fiddle in the combination. His Ex. listened intently with a pained expression on his sunburnt face and I fancied he couldn't make out which part of the music was the Peasant and which was the Poet. However he bore it all without wincing. Things were worse at Jutland! After the overture finished and when he was thanking the players, his Lordship spotted me (in mufti this time) and looking accusingly at me asked - "Haven't I seen you before somewhere?" I think that what he really implied was - Stick to soldiering and leave fiddling alone!'
Then there was the time when Lord Bledisloe inspected a Cadet Guard of Honour outside the Drill Hall. This Governor General himself a farmer looked me over and feelingly asked if I worked in the gold mine. Heavens, didn't anyone take me for a soldier! Yes, my experiences during these two decades were many, various and interesting. Contrary to expectations I found the folks of Waihi warm-hearted, friendly, generous to a fault; in fact a good cross section of New Zealand's wonderful people. I often think of my family of Territorials and Cadets. Where are they all now? Shallow graves in Africa, Italy, Greece, Crete; plus some grandfathers. I feel proud of having known them, if only at the out-of-date, unlovely, dear old Waihi Drill Hall.