Page 1: Biography
Davies, Richard Hutton
Farmer, surveyor, military leader
This biography, written by Garry James Clayton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was updated in September, 2021.
Richard Hutton Davies was born to the journalist Theophilus Davies and his wife, Mary Curtis Acton, in London, England, on 14 August 1861. He received his early education at St John's College, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, then emigrated to New Zealand. After two years on an uncle's sheep station in Canterbury, Davies settled in Taranaki, where he apparently studied engineering and surveying while farming at Inglewood. He married Ida Mary Cornwall at St Luke's Anglican Church, Bell Block, on 24 February 1886; they were to have two sons and a daughter.
Shortly after his marriage Davies began working as a surveyor in Inglewood. Although he had qualified as a civil engineer and surveyor in 1884, he did not regard his prospects in either field as promising. His training had, however, prepared him for what was to be a distinguished military career. Survey work had enhanced his capacity to live, work and thrive outdoors, and, more importantly, had developed his ability to read ground and plan in detail.
Davies joined the military relatively late. On 10 April 1893, at 31 years of age, he joined the Hāwera Mounted Rifle Volunteers; he was elected a lieutenant on 2 May 1895. Within six weeks he was promoted to captain and commander of the unit. On 3 October 1899, as a temporary major, he transferred to the New Zealand Militia, becoming staff officer for the instruction of Mounted Rifle Volunteers in the North Island. Within three weeks he was seconded in his substantive rank of captain to command a company in the First New Zealand Contingent in the South African War. This appointment provided the opportunities which led to the transformation of Davies from a citizen-soldier into a military leader.
The contingent arrived in South Africa on 23 November 1899 and within a week was employed on active operations with General John French's cavalry division. The New Zealanders quickly earned a reputation for steadfastness under fire and as superb scouts at reconnoitring unfamiliar territory. Indeed, they were so good that the first and most of the succeeding contingents were dispersed to support the numerous mobile columns rather than operating as a national entity.
While serving with the First Contingent Davies received invaluable experience and gained the trust of his superiors, as evidenced by his promotion to major in May 1900, his appointment to command the Third (Rough Riders) Contingent for four weeks in the same month, and his transfer to the 2nd Brigade of the Rhodesian Field Force. Here he commanded a wing of two squadrons of the Fourth New Zealand Contingent in July 1900 and then the complete contingent in August of the same year. As commander of the Fourth (Rough Riders) Contingent Davies's reputation flourished, owing to his professional handling of forces in both set-piece battles and the mobile counter-insurgency operations on the veld. He was made a CB and promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1901. Davies also exhibited a talent for maintaining morale, and encouraged sporting competitions and musical entertainment.
After 18 months' continuous service in South Africa, Davies embarked for New Zealand on 12 June 1901. He was appointed officer commanding, Auckland Militia and Volunteer District in October 1901. This was quickly followed by his promotion to brevet colonel in January 1902 and his appointment as commander of the Eighth New Zealand Contingent which sailed for South Africa the following month.
This command was to be another watershed for Davies. Unlike previous contingents the eighth was operated as a single unit. Davies was thus the first New Zealand officer to command an independently operating force on active service overseas.
Davies's unique command did not last long. Less than six months after his return to South Africa peace was concluded and he was back in Auckland commanding the local military district. From 1902 until 1909 Davies took a leading part in the reform of the New Zealand military. He was responsible for improving Auckland's defence organisation and training until December 1906, when he was appointed inspector general of the New Zealand Defence Forces and a military member of the newly created Council of Defence with the rank of substantive colonel. He used this position to condemn inefficiencies in the Volunteer Force and to call for the introduction of compulsory military service. In December 1906 his wife, Ida, died during pregnancy. On 7 May 1908 Davies married Ida's younger sister, Eileen Kathleen Cornwall, at New Plymouth.
To prepare Davies for higher military rank he was sent to the United Kingdom in 1909 and attached to the 2nd Cavalry Brigade for a year. Davies so impressed his hosts that he was offered a four-year appointment as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade at Aldershot. He accepted this offer with the approval of the New Zealand government and was promoted to temporary brigadier general.
When war was declared in August 1914 Davies took his brigade to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the battle at Mons. In addition, the British authorities requested that he be transferred to the imperial service to command a division. In February 1915 the New Zealand government arranged for his promotion to the rank of major general and approved his transfer to the British Army. On being appointed commander of the 20th (Light) Division Davies became the first New Zealand officer to command a division in the First World War. He continued to distinguish himself and was again mentioned in dispatches in January 1916.
Richard Davies's military career ended prematurely. Physically ailing, he was evacuated to Britain in late 1916. For the next two years he suffered continuous ill health. He committed suicide in London on 9 May 1918. Eileen Davies died in 1971.