Edward Puttick was born in Timaru on 26 June 1890, the son of John Prior Puttick, a London-born railway platelayer, and his wife, Rachel Orpen, who came from County Kerry, Ireland. He was educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru, and in 1906 joined the engineering branch of the Roads Department (later the Public Works Department) as a draughtsman. He joined the Territorial Force in its first year and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 15th (North Auckland) Regiment on 1 May 1911. In 1912 he transferred to the 5th (Wellington) Regiment and was promoted captain on 28 January 1914.
At the beginning of the First World War Puttick was a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Samoa, serving from August 1914 to April 1915. He then joined the main body of the NZEF in Egypt, and was a company commander in the 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade in operations in January 1916 against the pro-Turkish Senussi of Cyrenaica, who threatened Egypt’s western border. In April he went with the New Zealand Division to join the British Expeditionary Force on the western front near the French and Belgian border as a staff captain in the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade. In July, now a major, he was appointed second in command of the 4th Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, in which role he took part in the battle of the Somme. During the battle of Messines (Mesen) from June to August 1917 he was twice put in temporary command of the battalion. On 12 October 1917 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and given command of the 3rd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which he led in the battle of Passchendaele (Passendale). During the 1918 German spring offensive he was shot in the lung on 27 March. After convalescing in England he became commandant of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade depot at Brocton, Staffordshire.
He arrived back in New Zealand on 19 December 1918. He married Irene Lillian Dignan at St Andrew’s Church, Epsom, on 31 January 1919. On 13 March he was posted to the reserve of officers and returned to the Public Works Department. Puttick applied for a regular commission but was at first declined. However, his services were lent to the army in August 1919, and on 1 October he was appointed to the rank of major in the New Zealand Staff Corps. In 1920 he commanded a small expeditionary force to Fiji to aid the colonial government, who were faced with a strike by Indian public works and municipal workers.
A series of staff appointments followed. Puttick was assistant quartermaster general from 1924 to 1929, with a brief interlude as staff officer in charge of No 5 Regimental District in Wellington. From October 1929 to January 1933 he was staff officer in charge of No 1 Regimental District in Auckland. Promoted lieutenant colonel on 1 October 1933, he was quartermaster general between 1934 and 1936. In 1937, now a full colonel, he went to Britain on attachment to the War Office and then took a course at the Imperial Defence College. He acted as military adviser to the New Zealand delegation during the 1937 Imperial Conference and was one of three New Zealand ushers in Westminster Abbey at the coronation of King George VI.
On returning to New Zealand in 1938 he became adjutant and quartermaster general, in which capacity he had to deal with the ‘four colonels revolt’ when four Territorial Force brigade commanders published a manifesto criticising government defence policy. Puttick insisted that they should be suspended as an example to the army for breaking King’s Regulations and maintained they should have resigned before going public. In 1939 he commanded the Central Military District as preparations were being made for war.
Puttick sailed with the 1st Echelon of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in January 1940 as brigadier commanding the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. While General Bernard Freyberg was away in Britain, Puttick commanded 2NZEF in Egypt.
His Second World War fighting experience was confined to the campaigns in Greece and Crete. He commanded 4th Brigade in the retreat from Mt Olympus. In Crete, where Freyberg was made commander of the Allied forces, Puttick commanded the New Zealand Division from 29 April to 27 May 1941. In the critical loss of Maleme airfield to German paratroops he failed to ensure that Brigadier James Hargest of the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade counter-attacked to support the 22nd Battalion on the airfield perimeter. After the withdrawal from Crete the New Zealand prime minister, Peter Fraser, who was in Cairo at the time, offered him the position of chief of the general staff, a post he took up on 1 August 1941. He also became general officer commanding the New Zealand military forces. In April 1942 he became the first New Zealand-born soldier to reach the rank of lieutenant general; subsequently he was chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Puttick thus had a key role in advising the government over preparing to meet a Japanese threat and on the allocation of resources during the Pacific war. He was convinced that Japan would be deterred from invading New Zealand because of American naval power and the country’s lack of attractive resources, but he recognised the part preparations for home defence could play in maintaining public morale. In the debate over whether to withdraw forces from the Mediterranean or Pacific theatres, Puttick argued that the 2nd New Zealand Division should not be brought home until the war in Europe was finished: it would be expensive in shipping, and defeating Germany was the first priority.
Standing 5 feet 10 inches, with brown eyes, a square nose and red hair, Puttick earned the nickname ‘the Red Hun’ because of his reputation as a ‘terrific worker’ and a ‘terrific talker’. During the depression, when compulsory military training was abolished and the future of the army undecided, his compulsive work habit had found an outlet in cataloguing the base library in Auckland. Some colleagues found him difficult to get on with; detractors suggested he had a ‘Public Works mentality’. However, confidential reports on him between the wars always marked him highest for administrative ability, and his military assessments display a clear, logical mind. He acted capably at cabinet meetings and got on well with politicians. The exception was Fred Jones, the defence minister, who never forgave Puttick for organising stores for an expedition to garrison Fanning Island (Tabuaeran) in the Line Islands before the government had agreed to the expedition.
Puttick retired at the end of 1945. He was appointed a KCB in 1946 and led the New Zealand contingent to the Victory Parade in London on 8 June that year. In retirement he wrote 25 Battalion for the official war history. His wife died in 1964 and he lived his final days in a small cottage beside the sea at Raglan. He died in Hamilton on 25 July 1976 and was buried with full honours at Karori. Three daughters survived him. Edward Puttick is remembered as a very capable head of the army during New Zealand’s greatest period of danger and the country’s most extensive war effort.