Lest we forget
One hundred years ago a patriotic New Zealand answered the call to serve King and Empire and followed Britain into World War I. Over the following four years some 100,000 New Zealand troops were sent overseas, 18,800 were killed and 40,000 were wounded. Professor Tom Brooking discusses the impact this had on New Zealand and the importance of remembering their stories.
As the country prepares centenary events to mark the outbreak of World War I, Professor Tom Brooking (Department of History) says the term “lest we forget” now relates to more than just observing anniversaries. Capturing stories from the descendants of those who experienced war may help explain the legacy of this seminal, yet little understood, event in New Zealand’s history.
Brooking is involved with a Dunedin City Council committee organising events and exhibitions to show the war’s effect on communities in Otago and Southland.
“The events must both reflect the tragedy and scale of the loss of life, and be relevant so current generations gain insight into the realities of war – the impact on those who went, on the home front and on post-war society.”
In September, the 1914 embarkation of Otago Infantry Battalion troops for training in Egypt will be re-enacted and Christopher Pugsley, senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, will give a lecture on the invocation of troops around New Zealand.
Successive exhibitions between 2015 and 2018 at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum will mark important events in which the Anzac forces played a key role.
Although now viewed in light of the tragedy and loss associated with the conflict, Brooking says patriotism and fervour combined to create an almost jubilant mood when New Zealand entered the conflict in late 1914, with “perhaps more than 80 per cent of people supporting the war”.
Explaining this excitement 100 years on is complex.
“Most recent migrants were from Anglo-Celtic countries and ‘New Zealanders’ in the early 1900s were British subjects who often referred to Britain as Home with a capital ‘H’, even if they and their forebears had been born here.”
Although New Zealand had been granted dominion status in 1907, an imperialistic political mindset prevailed at the outbreak of war.
The widespread desire to serve King and Empire was reflected in the high rates of volunteers: about 38 per cent of eligible men joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces and other armed services compared with 39 per cent of Australians and 37 per cent of British.
Despite a lack of modern equipment, New Zealand was relatively well prepared for hostilities: 30,000 troops were war-ready in 1914, most of whom had taken part in school cadet programmes (introduced in 1877) and compulsory military training (introduced in 1909). After 1910, British General Godley had overseen national training and, although he had a mixed reputation as a wartime commander, he had organised the army and prepared for deployment scenarios such as the occupation of German Samoa, which was New Zealand’s first act of war in August 1914.
Brooking thinks most New Zealanders were keen to enter the war for “sentimental and pragmatic” reasons.
“If we wanted continued access to the greatest trading block the world had ever seen and the lucrative London market we would have to earn our place,” Brooking explains.
New Zealand’s economy was boosted after the British introduced the war commandeer system, which guaranteed prices of produce at about 50 per cent above market rates. Exports buoyed the economy and tax did not increase to the same extent as it did in Britain.
With the exception of small pacifist denominations, most churches supported the war. Some first-wave feminists and the socialist parties were other minorities that voiced strong opposition.
The tale of Brighton farmer Archibald Baxter – father of poet James K. Baxter – highlights the treatment of the few conscientious objectors. Despite imprisonment at Trentham Military Camp, transportation to France and brutal treatment, Baxter’s resolve was undiminished.
The failure of the Gallipoli campaign, publication of casualty lists and return of wounded saw an element of “quiet disillusionment” develop. Against the backdrop of majority support, a few regional newspapers began to voice criticism of the war.
In 1916 conscription was introduced to maintain troop levels. Australia rejected conscription by a slim margin in two public referenda after the Battle of the Somme, but New Zealand had introduced it before the battle, in which 1,500 were killed and many wounded.
By war’s end 18,800 of 100,000 New Zealand troops sent overseas had been killed and 40,000 wounded.
“Some argue we were already New Zealanders by the end of the Boer War and the war consolidated this. We need to get away from the notion that the nation was born on the bloody slopes of Gallipoli – that is too simplistic. Also, one tenth of the population went to war, what about the other 90 per cent? In many ways we were more imperialistic after the war.
“Before the war leaders such as Richard Seddon were nationalist first, then imperialist. Later leaders, such as William Massey, shifted the balance to imperialist nationalist.”
Trade links were also strengthened in the inter-war period as Britain “tightened-up” its Empire by introducing initiatives such as agricultural research centres to enhance food production.
The country’s move towards the political centre-left in the wake of the worldwide depression in the 1930s and the publication of several hard-hitting books – such as Robin Hyde’s 1931 novel Passport to Hell and Baxter’s We Will Not Cease – also prompted a re-evaluation of imperial allegiance and the impact of the war.
Brooking says the experiences of Premier Richard Seddon’s three sons show how the fortunes of war could smile, or otherwise, on those who served. Richard (junior) was a Boer War veteran who was killed in France in 1918. The second son, Thomas, returned after being decorated for bravery and served as a long-standing Member of Parliament. Seddon’s youngest son, Stuart, spent the rest of his life in psychiatric care as a result of trauma experienced at war.
“They are roughly representative – about a fifth of those who served were killed or seriously wounded, a fifth had serious health problems and the remainder would have had a range of experiences, from awful to not too bad.”
The social cost of the war remains relatively obscure and, while some postgraduate research has examined how the war affected rural centres and Dunedin, there has been a lack of systematic research or assessment of the broader impact of war and its casualties on communities in Otago.
Brooking says the impact of the war on the home front, for those who did not fight, is also little understood.
“A wealth of information on personal recollections could be lost if grandchildren and now great-grandchildren have not recorded the war veterans’ experiences. Their stories may be contained within families, but when the troops returned they often could not, or would not, relate their experiences – it was so hellish and otherworldly in relation to the civilian life they could not explain it. The Returned Services Association [formed in 1916] was an important outlet, but many did not share their experiences."
“Post-war, there was a need to move on. However, the proliferation of war memorials throughout the country – more than 450 are listed on the national register of war memorials – reflects the profound effect not being able to repatriate those casualties had on subsequent generations. It indicates communal grieving marked in the most elaborate ways.”
Several publications in the 1960s and documentaries such as Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, in which 26 survivors of the campaign all aged in their 80s and 90s talked candidly about their experiences, were vital in reintroducing the public to the realities of the conflict.
“The ‘baby-boomers’, those born just after World War II, grew up in a very martial society and a reaction to that came in the 1960s, specifically in the form of opposition to the Vietnam War. In the late 1970s there was very little interest in World War I.
“Then, in the 1990s, numbers attending Anzac services increased dramatically. I think the realisation that something extraordinary had happened coincided with affordable travel to the previous theatres of war.”
Gallipoli remains the focal point for Anzac involvement in the war, even though the majority of casualties occurred in Europe: 2,752 New Zealanders were killed in Gallipoli, whereas more than 14,000 died on the Western Front and 500 in Sinai.
While there are memorials in several of the University’s residential colleges, in the Registry building and on the Leith Bridge, Brooking believes a more prominent “yet subtle” memorial on campus may lead to greater recognition of the conflict.
“Many young people attend services because of interest in the human cost and the great tragedy of so many people losing their lives, rather than the greater narratives of nationhood or Empire. That is why national and local commemorative events will emphasise the human aspect, and why future efforts of remembrance are so important,” he says.
Photo: Alan Dove