Monday, June 30, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“HOW WE REMEMBER – New Zealanders and the First World War” edited by Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
I do not claim to be, and have never claimed to be, an expert on New Zealand’s responses to the First World War, but I probably know more about the subject than the average reader. In part this is because I once wrote the biography of somebody who became involved in the conscription controversies in New Zealand during that war (James Michel Liston – A Life, Victoria University Press, 2006). In part it is because I spent one semester at the University of Otago standing in for Professor Tom Brooking and lecturing on New Zealand in the First World War – and later returned to the same university and taught a paper on New Zealand under the Liberal and Reform governments, covering the same general era. And in part it is because I have a family military connection, although I am personally and strictly a lifelong civilian [look up the posting “Goodbye Soldier” on the index at right].
Additional to this I have, simply out of interest, read great swathes of the First World War literature in terms of novels and poetry and cinema, and have every so often written about it on this blog [look up the postings “Images of War”, “Storm of Steel”, “They Didn’t All Write Anti-War Poetry”, “What Passing Bells?”, “Myths and Legends of the First World War” and “Time Stumps the Best of Intentions” on the index at right]
Like a great many New Zealanders, I have forebears who fought in the New Zealand Division in the First World War. On my mother’s side, there was a great-uncle who managed to fight his way through the war and survive. On my father’s side, there was a great-uncle who died at Passchendaele. I am aware that a greater proportion of New Zealand manpower was mobilised for military service in the First World War than in the Second World War. Also like many other New Zealanders, I have strong feelings about the way the war is both remembered and mythologised. In my own case, I am particularly allergic to the Gallipoli myth. My own view is that, in 1915, New Zealanders (and Australians) willingly participated in the Dardanelles campaign as subjects of the British Empire. The only “nationalism” involved was the colonial “nationalism” of saying to Mother England “Look, Mum, we’re big boys and can play war games for you too.” Only later, and with much distortion of the historical record, has Gallipoli been mythologised as the beginning of an independent New Zealand consciousness. I do not say this to belittle the soldiers’ hardships and courage, but I do profoundly resent the notion that New Zealand’s participation in this foolish campaign (the one great Turkish victory of the war) is somehow the foundation of our sense of nationhood.
There now. In this year in which everyone is marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, that is what I bring to a considered reading of these 20 essays, which Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts have gathered together and edited under the title How We Remember. The title points to the central theme of how New Zealanders remember the First World War, which is not necessarily the same as how New Zealanders experienced the war at the time. And remembrance means that New Zealanders are as conscious of the images of the war created by British and other novels, poems and films as they are of the New Zealand experience. The editors’ introduction sensibly reminds us that how people experienced the war was not same as how popular memory reconstructs it. The introduction also notes that the literary works now regarded as the “classics” of that combat are not those that had a great audience when they were produced. As Harry Ricketts has noted before (in his excellent book Strange Meetings – The Poets of the Great War, Chatto and Windus, 2010) Wilfred Owen may now be regarded as Britain’s greatest First World War poet, but his reputation was tiny when he was alive and he was little known for many years afterwards.
Reading How We Remember, I did what I usually do when I have a book of essays to review. I began at the beginning and, occasionally gritting my teeth (as I made my way through those essays that did not engage me much), I ploughed through to the end, in the order in which the material is presented. Only when I closed the book did I reflect that How We Remember presents a couple of distinct types of essay.
First there are those that give an exposition of necessary historical information. Considering this type, I might almost advise readers of this collection to turn to Jock Phillips’ essay and read it first, as it is the one that most clearly gives an overview history of the ways New Zealanders have remembered the First World War. Had I been editing this collection, I might have placed it at the beginning. Similarly, David Grant’s essay tells in detail the story of a conscientious objector, the socialist Mark Briggs, and the punishments meted out to him by a wartime New Zealand government that was not friendly to COs. As many others have done, Grant notes the irony that Peter Fraser, Briggs’ socialist supporter in the First World War, was to become the PM in the Second World War who insisted on the most rigorous treatment of conscientious objectors. Grant’s originality, however, is in noting that Britain’s treatment of conscientious objectors had become more humane and accepting in the Second World War, whereas New Zealand’s had not. Both these essays are solid expository writing. Anna Rogers’ account of a New Zealand nurse called Fanny Speedy simply chronicles her war service rather flatly and notes the fact that New Zealand nurses were often patronised by their British opposite numbers.
Given the collection’s stated theme of remembrance, some of the necessary historical information is not so much on the war, as on how the war was represented
Jane Tolerton gives what amounts to a brief note on the World War One Oral History Archive, which she ran with Nicholas Boyack, and the soldiers’ anecdotes that it unearthed. Beginning with personal reminiscences on how, as a child, he reacted to war, C.K.Stead gives a partial account of the war literature (that which he discusses is mainly British, of course), much of which is familiar stuff. The best aspect of his essay is Stead’s close consideration of the way W.B.Yeats snubbed the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and Yeats’ decidedly odd reasons for doing do. Regarding other representations of the war, Sandy Callister examines how the war affected the art of Jan Nigro and Jenny Haworth discusses New Zealand art during the First World War, making the point that the government was slow to appoint official war artists.
I particularly enjoyed Redmer Yska’s account of a more demotic representation of the war, that of the weekly newspaper and scandal sheet Truth. In 1914, Truth was strongly anti-war. Censorship did not allow it to keep that stance for long, so it adopted the cunning strategy of cooperating with censorship by playing up stories about the hardships and complaints of soldiers, all the while representing them as sterling and patriotic lads. Truth was also anti-conscription and openly opposed the imposition of conscription in 1916. [Unlike the government of Australia, where conscription was never imposed, New Zealand’s government allowed no referenda on the issue]. As a side issue, I did wonder why Yska didn’t draw the obvious comparison with horrible Horatio Bottomley’s British wartime journal John Bull, which was “radical” in the same way that Truth was, and equally popular with soldiers in publicising their complaints. Reading Yska’s lively essay, I also couldn’t help remembering the silly misuse of Truth, as a criterion for determining objective facts, which Stefan Eldrid-Grigg made in his 2010 book The Great Wrong War.
Turning from the necessary historical information, the other dominant type of essay in this collection is the personal reflection. How We Remember begins with John Campbell’s brief and commonplace entry, which is simply the lament for the death of a farm lad whose name he found on a monument. The book ends with the gifted young novelist Hamish Clayton’s rather opaque comment on how difficult it is for us to imagine the New Zealand experience of the war. Equally opaque (or rather, oblique) is Simon During’s account of how the First World War, and the European background of the writer’s family, led him as a teenager to be influenced by Celine and Kafka and their nihilism. I warmed to John Horrocks’ article, which is mainly about war memorials, but which has a distinct anti-war undertone and certainly anti-Gallipoli-myth undertone. John Priestley’s piece comes nearest to the way my (“baby boomer”) generation sees the Great War as he speaks of great-uncles in the First World War (as I can), and of how the Second World War was still remembered as a recent event when we were kids. As for Dave Armstrong, his contribution is one of a number which shows somebody of the anti-Vietnam War protest generation at first scorning Grandpa’s stories about service in the First World War and only later coming to respect them and realize their value. Though he is mainly concerned to discuss the genesis of his play King and Country, Armstrong does make the sound point – which cannot be reiterated too often – that Passchendaele in 1917 was far more lethal for New Zealanders, and in effect far more crucial for New Zealand identity, than Gallipoli was.
I have reacted to this collection as a contrast of necessary historical information and personal reflection. Putting the two genres side-by-side, I am interested in how one can make some nice oppositions and contrasts.
Consider John Broughton’s brisk account of the Maori fighting participation in the war (the silent night-time bayonet attack at Gallipoli etc.) interwoven with the wartime waiata written by Sir Apirana Ngata. This is Maori seen in purely heroic terms. Now contrast it with one of the collection’s really outstanding contributions - Monty Soutar’s painstaking thirty-page account of why Commanding Officer Godley broke up the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli and sent four of its officers home. This does not present Maori in any less heroic a light than Broughton does, but it situates Maori in a far more complex political and racial situation than Broughton suggests. (Basically Soutar examines the breaking up of the Maori Contingent in terms of Godley’s desire to protect the Pakeha officer Lt.Col.Herbert, who was in charge of the contingent and also very unpopular with the men.)
Incidentally, I would credit Soutar with the best and most dispassionate piece of battle writing in this volume. Here is the paragraph in which his gives part of the Gallipoli action:
“While the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters were in possession of the crest, getting to them in daylight was perilous. A narrow saddle ran from the Apex to a small pinnacle some 100 yard ahead, with Chunuk Bair a further four hundred yards beyond. The Apex offered only a frontage of 60 yards for any unit to launch an assault from. The previous day the Auckland Battalion, trying to do just that, suffered 300 casualties and never got further than the pinnacle. The 10th Gurkhas, following them, were driven by fire down the left-hand slope into the Aghyl Dere. Darkness was the main advantage the Wellington Battalion and some of the 7th Gloucesters had in reaching the crest. The 8th Welsh had tried to follow at dawn but were ‘cut to pieces’ ” (p.54).
Outside fictional reconstructions, that is the way works of history should describe battles – pithily, and identifying concisely the main groups involved.
On the issue of contrasts it is also interesting to put two other essays side by side. Jane Hurley draws on her late father’s research to write a detailed account of New Zealanders who were imprisoned by the Turks. The unsanitary and primitive hospitals and camps to which they were taken were mitigated for them by their realization that wounded and invalided Turkish soldiers were treated as badly as the ANZAC POWs were. Her essay abounds in stories of mutual kindness between Anzac and Turk.
By contrast, military historian, and army officer, Chris Pugsley produces something startlingly different when he discusses the Turkish theatre. He begins by expressing really strong emotions as he talks of his visits to Gallipoli, in a way that at first led me to believe he was going to reproduce the familiar tale of heroism, sacrifice and the making of a nation. But once he passes this point, he presents a version of the campaign far more pitiless (on both sides) than the one Jane Hurley’s piece implies. Soldiers killed and were killed and rarely had time to express fine sentiments about the people they were fighting. Pugsley also considers at length the way the campaign has been mythologised as much by the Turks as by Allies. Turkish memorials sometimes present totally fictitious images of Anzac and Turk in 1915 playing football together. As Pugsley notes, Turkish memorials are now more likely to be anti-German, because their ally in 1915 is now seen as the nation which treats Turkish immigrants harshly. This is as much an alteration of the past for purposes of the present as the anachronistic “nationalism” which has young Australian and New Zealand tourists crowding in to Gallipoli on Anzac Day to “celebrate” the birth of their nations.
As you will by now have seen, I found much thoughtful material to savour in this collection, but I save the two very best contributions for last. They are both special because they present specific historical material that has not been considered adequately before.
One is Paul Diamond’s account of the blackmailing, in 1920, of Wanganui’s homosexual mayor Charles Mackay by the homosexual agent provocateur, and returned soldier, D’Arcy Cresswell. As Diamond says, this story has been much told recently, especially by gay writers who use it as an instance of old-time intolerance and who puzzle over why one homosexual man should blackmail another. What Diamond adds to it is the context of the aftermath of the First World War. There is the strong possibility that Mackay’s political enemies resented him for seeking electoral advantage by showily volunteering for war service; and then not going off to actually serve. They appear to have found in Cresswell’s family people who were very severely damaged by the war, had suffered bereavements because of the war, and were willing to score off a public figure who seemed to them a “slacker”. As Diamond very correctly says, nobody can know for sure what happened when Mackay pulled a gun on Cresswell, but his scenario is one that gives the case more nuance than has usually been suggested.
Finally, I note the most powerful and pertinent essay in the book. It is written by one of the editors, being Charles Ferrall’s “Maurice Shadbolt’s Gallipoli Myth”. In his essay, Ferrall shows how, not only in his (admittedly fictionalised) play Once on Chunuk Bair; but also in his collection of interviews Voices from Gallipoli, Shadbolt created myth. Quoting from parts of the interview transcripts that Shadbolt chose not to use in his book, Ferrall proves that Shadbolt distorted what interviewees actually said in order to enhance the idea of New Zealanders at odd with their British commanders. Shadbolt appears to have even made things up to give the interviews a “nationalist” Kiwi slant. In Once on Chunuk Bair, meanwhile, certain events are obviously there for purposes of legitimate dramatization. But others are literally impossible in terms of what the Gallipoli campaign actually was. Ferrall situates Shabolt’s anti-British myth in the period when the play was written - the 1970s and 1980s when New Zealanders were still reacting to Britain’s having entered the EU and therefore having “betrayed” us economically. His concluding words are:
“Shadbolt’s Gallipoli is neither historically accurate nor necessary. Voices of Gallipoli and Once on Chunuk Bair have a significant place in the history of how Gallipoli has been remembered but should not otherwise influence how we remember the campaign during the Centenary.” (p.108)
Even as one who saw and enjoyed the first production of Once on Chunuk Bair at Auckland’s old Mercury Theatre, I applaud these words.