We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, November 14, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“AFTER THE WAR – The RSA in New Zealand” by Stephen Clarke (Penguin / Random House, $45)
So what is the RSA to me?
Personally, nothing, apart from childhood memories of dodging drunken men rolling out from the local RSA, and getting a bad impression of them. And apart from a few times as an adult being a guest (sometimes of my army officer brother) in an RSA club and finding it much more congenial, welcoming and cosy than I ever thought it would be. I could at least get some impression of the camaraderie former servicemen would have enjoyed there, even if I’m not one of their number.
But my rational brain tells me that the RSA was, at least for most of the twentieth century, as important an institution to New Zealand as churches, trade unions, political parties and other service clubs, because it represented a particular strain in the New Zealand character. So I looked forward to this history, timed for the centenary of the RSA (founded in 1916), because I looked forward to the rich social history that I thought it would embody.
Although it is fully illustrated with evocative photos and other images, and although it has been written by an historian who spent some years as an RSA official, I am not sure that Stephen Clarke’s After the War – The RSA in New Zealand really fits the bill. Overall it seems a compromise between a popular book for the masses and a rather dry official history, perhaps too much playing the role of advocate for the RSA. And – an important matter when one is reading the text – Clarke’s prose style is often clumsy or off-tone.
Alarm bells rang for me with the very opening words of Clarke’s Preface: “For a small, peaceful Pacific nation at the uttermost ends of the earth, Aotearoa New Zealand has shed a hell of a lot of blood overseas.” (p.6) Why “a hell of a lot” after a grandiose phrase like “the uttermost ends of the earth”? Is this an attempt to grab attention by being slangy? Does Clarke think we will not be adequately impressed by his ensuing statistics? They tell us that in the twentieth century, 30,000 New Zealanders were killed in overseas wars and 250,000 service people returned from wars.
Clarke’s preface goes on to explain that while this book’s six chapters are presented chronologically according to the history of the RSA, each chapter is divided into four parts – first concerning the nature of the service people who came back from the given war; then concerning organisational changes to the RSA over the years in terms of its leadership; then concerning the RSA’s advocacy for returned service people and the benefits it provided; and finally concerning the RSA’s part in “preserving memory”, including the way Anzac Day is celebrated.
Chapter One tells us that there were 16,697 New Zealand war dead in the First World War. On the whole the servicemen who returned were well integrated into society; but a high proportion were suffering from what was then called “shell shock” and would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The impetus behind the formation of what was originally called the Returned Soldiers Association came from a number of serving soldiers in the midst of the First World War. In April 1916, various local clubs and societies that were catering for returned soldiers affiliated into a national RSA. The most prominent advocate of this national federation was Captain Donald Simson. But Simson was not elected first president of the RSA because many saw him as too politically ambitious and self-promoting. Instead the association’s first president was Sir William Tutepuaki Pitt, a Maori, showing that from the first the association was inclusive and not just a club for white boys.
By 1917, the newly designed RSA badge was “much more popular than the red armbands which the government had authorised men to wear while awaiting discharge, and when finally out of uniform to prevent the approaches of the white feather brigade of patriotic women.” (p.25)
Early on, the new national organisation resolved that the RSA could never be party political, but it could act as a lobby group, putting pressure on politicians over issues concerning returned soldiers. Its first major campaign was to push for it to be made mandatory that returned soldiers be reinstated in the employment they had had before their war service. The RSA also advocated for repatriation grants to returned soldiers who hoped to take up farming or set up businesses.
Surprising as it now seems, the earliest RSA clubs were “dry” and not licensed to sell or serve alcohol. As the Great War neared its end, one of the major preoccupations of RSA members was how the war should be publicly commemorated. It was only by 1922 that Anzac Day had become the fully solemnised thing that it was to remain for decades. Before that there had been the soldier’s own “Landing Day”, first celebrated in 1916 on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. This was more a festive affair (i.e. drinks and informal speeches) than a solemn one. However the RSA conceived of the formalised Anzac Day as a family occasion, designed as much to impress civilians with the sacrifice soldiers had made as to allow soldiers themselves to remember. The RSA also advanced the idea of war memorials as specific sites of remembrance, rather than having public utilities (such as halls or swimming pools) claiming to be war memorials. Hence the cenotaphs that were erected around the country.
Between the two world wars (Chapter 2), the ethos of the RSA was epitomised by its long-serving dominion president Sir Andrew Russell, who served, with only one short break, from 1921 to 1935. The RSA was not yet seen as a national institution. In fact for many, it was seen as an organisation that would dissolve as soon as men from the Great War were immersed fully in civilian live. By 1925 membership was under 8000, which suggests that most eligible servicemen were so well integrated into civilian life they did not feel the need for RSA’s companionship. Many regional associations had closed, so that now, instead of being a national coordination of local incorporated clubs, the RSA became a centralised association with a national executive. But was a slight rise in membership in the late 1920s.
There began to be an emphasis on reunions as the RSA’s members aged:
“The RSA was well aware of the attraction of reunions to returned men and used them to rejuvenate interest in those associations that had languished since the early 1920s or to establish new ones. By 1930, the RSA could declare that one of the major reasons for the renewed interest ‘was the desire of ex-soldiers – almost veterans now – to meet old comrades, and to recall the happenings of other days.’… Military rituals, toasts, songs and skits, together with alcohol, the lubricant of comradeship, created an atmosphere conducive to wartime reminiscences. Returned men came back to recall the good times; it was sacrilege to speak of the horror of war. This was not a case of collective amnesia; it simply did not need to be spoken about and was best not. The toast to ‘Absent Comrades’ was evidence that no one had forgotten. ” (pp.70-71)
Only in 1939 was the first Anzac Day Dawn Service held in New Zealand. The whole concept of the Dawn Service was brought back from Sydney by NZRSA executives in 1938, after they had participated in joint remembrances with Australian returned services. In Anzac Day commemorations, up to mid-1930s there was often a sermon on peace and the need to avoid future wars, but these faded away after the mid-1930s when the new Labour government began to beef up defence and the next war loomed. RSA remained non-party political and the national executive had the good sense not affiliate with the short-lived, right-wing New Zealand Legion, which wrongly imagined that old soldiers would all be susceptible to its authoritarian message. But in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the RSA did constantly press governments until a special War Veterans’ Allowances Act was passed by the Liberal-Reform Coalition government early in 1935.
Obviously, with its influx of new members, the Second World War led to the greatest shake-up of the RSA since its foundation (Chapter 3). In terms of fatalities, the Second World War was less lethal for New Zealanders than the First World War had been. There was a total of 11,625 New Zealand war dead in the Second World War, but there were much greater numbers of returnees from war than there had been in the earlier conflict. Sir William Parry (dominion president 1935-43) recognised that the organisation had to cater for sailors and airmen as much as soldiers, so (while neatly remaining the RSA), in 1941 the organisation ceased to be the Returned Soldiers Association and became the Returned Services Association
There was a huge influx of new members during the Second World War, but many younger returnees chose not to join:
“The complaint was that they could feel unwelcomed, reflecting the closed culture of certain local associations. However, by far the most common reason why returned men did not join the RSA or any ex-service organisation for that matter remained, as after World War One, the desire to put war experiences, and anything that reminded them of it [sic], behind them, in order to get on with the rest of their lives. On the whole, however, the ‘elder brothers’ supported the transfer of power to their ‘younger brothers’ and the widespread myth that they were generally rebuffed does not stand up to closer scrutiny.” (p.107)
In 1943 merchant seamen were allowed to join the RSA and there was also the setting up of women’s sections. For some time, in the Second World War only, there was a rival “2nd NZEF Association” made up of younger men who saw the RSA as stuffy, conservative and dominated by officers from the earlier war.
Although remaining non-party political, the RSA during the Second World War did get involved in some controversial public issues. One was the call for “equality of sacrifice”, which came to a head in 1943 with the “furlough affair”. After some period of leave in New Zealand, men who had already served overseas in the first echelon were called back to camp. A minority refused to return, arguing that trained men who had not yet been sent overseas should now be sent in their place. The officials of the RSA tried to stay neutral in this matter, but did lobby to get the government to reverse the prosecutions of some of the defaulters. In 1945, when the controversy was over, the executive allowed the defaulters to join the RSA.
However, the RSA’s official attitudes tended to be conservative ones:
“If the RSA was forceful in its advocacy of equality of sacrifice, it was voracious in its campaigns against those who shirked their wartime responsibility, viewed as the enemy within. It vigorously led campaigns against conscientious objectors (‘conshies’), military defaulters (‘shirkers’), communists (‘Bolshies’), enemy aliens and fifth columnists. The RSA sincerely felt itself to be fighting for the rights of service personnel but in the process it became somewhat of a patriotic ginger group, often at odds with government policy and public opinion, whose tactics sometimes resembled those of a vigilante.” (p.124)
In terms of the ongoing finessing of Anzac Day, it was only during the Second World War that Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” was adopted as the remembrance ode that was recited at the Dawn Service and in local clubs.
The peak of RSA membership was in 1947, when there were 136,000 RSA members nationwide (Chapter 4). Of these, 92,000 were Second World War returnees. But by the mid-1950s, membership had declined considerably. Even so, the 1950s and 1960s were in many respects the height of the RSA’s national prestige.
“It was during the postwar period that the RSA was more visible than at any other time in its history, as a result of the sheer size of the membership and its status. The RSA badge was an instantly recognisable symbol; it visibly divided the adult male population between those who had served and those who had not. For this reason Review [the RSA magazine] regularly called on members to ‘Protect Your Badge’. Nonetheless, headquarters still received 4000 requests each year for replacement badges, and retold the story of a badge found in the stomach of a cow killed at the freezing works, adding thankfully that ‘there was no sign of the owner or the owner’s coat.’ ” (p.148)
From 1948 to 1953, the Second World War officer Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger was dominion president. He shared in many of the conservative values of the day, but in 1948 he publicly opposed the sending of a “whites only” All Black team to play in segregated South Africa, arguing that if Maori could represent the country in war they should also be eligible to represent that country in its most visible sports team. He was bitterly disappointed that most of the RSA membership did not share his views.
At the same time, the RSA and its executive were the main lobbying forces behind the introduction of Compulsory Military Training in 1947, despite strong objections to what left-wing publicists called “peacetime conscription”. The updated War Pensions Act of 1954 was supported by the RSA, but did not meet all their requirements for an increase in disablement allowances.
What is most interesting in Stephen Clarke’s account of the postwar years, and what this reviewer found the best sustained piece of writing in the book (at pp.173-180), is the chronicle of changes in attitudes towards Anzac Day in the 1950s and 1960. It first became less sectarian, as all Christian denominations at last felt they could participate in its ceremonies, then it began to be seen by the general population as more of a sheer holiday than a day of commemoration. On the whole, for the general population, memories of war faded quickly.
By the mid-1960s, it was clear that the officially-expressed attitudes of the RSA were no longer in sympathy with the attitudes of a growing number of New Zealanders (Chapter 5). The RSA was strongly in favour of New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. 3000 New Zealand servicemen were rotated through the Vietnam conflict, though the peak of New Zealand participation at any one time was 600. 37 New Zealanders died. Older members of the RSA were often not welcoming of younger men who had come back from Vietnam. The RSA was often on the conservative side in arguments about the 1981 Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand and New Zealand’s withdrawal from AZUS etc.; but gradually in these year “home” service people (i.e., those who had been in the armed forces but had never been sent into conflicts overseas) were accepted as members and some women began to be elected or nominated to the national executive.
Bearing in mind that the RSA central office was essentially a coordinating body for separately incorporated local clubs, by 1970 many local clubs were accepting “non-RSA members”:
“Up and down the country the opening up of clubs and membership brought pleasure to some and discontent to others. RSA members somewhat looked down on Club members as simply coming for cheap drinks, or just drinks in still dry areas, more than camaraderie; and some vigorously opposed women joining this previous male bastion. But the upside of Club ‘wallets’ and ‘purses’ was a boost to trading revenues….” (p.199)
In the late 1960s and early 1070s there were some scuffles around cenotaphs on Anzac Day as anti-Vietnam War protestors challenged the RSA. This sort of confrontation ended when the Vietnam War ended. Even in the time of controversy, however, there was general agreement that the Dawn Service was for ex-servicemen whereas the later citizens’ ceremony was for all. But by the late 1970s, attendance at Anzac Day ceremonies became so thin that some predicted the day would die out.
Yet then from late 1980s, there was a gradual resurgence in numbers participating in Anzac Day ceremonies. Why? Because a new nationalist mythology, quite at odds with the historical facts of Gallipoli in 1915, claimed the day as somehow representing New Zealand’s cultural independence. By the 1990s, RSA membership was 128,000, that is, the highest number since Second World War. But 59,000 of these members (getting on for half) were now “Associate” members i.e. civilians who were neither returned service personnel nor “home” service personnel. Like Anzac Day, RSA clubs were gradually becoming places of historical remembrance (and socialising), rather than places where ex-servicemen gathered.
Stephen Clarke closes his book (Chapter 6) by bringing it up to date in the last decade. This is the era of New Zealand forces now being sent on “peacekeeping” missions, sanctioned by the United Nations, in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. 5 New Zealand personnel have died in Afghanistan, but given the small scale of New Zealand’s participation in these missions, there are very few “new” returned service people to swell the ranks of the RSA. Now, overwhelmingly, membership of the RSA does not consist of returned service people. In these circumstances, the RSA has been extensively revamped, partly through Stephen Clarke’s own initiative, as a public service club honouring New Zealanders who display outstanding qualities of public service (the inauguration of “Anzac of the Year” Awards) and encouraging high-school students to understand something of New Zealand’s military history (the Cyril Bassett VC Public Speaking Competition).
Somewhat uncomfortably (for this reader at least) Clarke speaks of “re-branding” the RSA, in a way that can only suggest a business proposition rather than an organisation representing a large part of the population. In 2004 there was the return of the Unknown Warrior, and just before 2015 there was much RSA history-related activity prior to Gallipoli centenary. But, with real numbers of ex-service people dwindling, there has also been the closure of many local RSA clubs. Says Clarke:
“The national body can advise – and even then, turning around a failing club is a timely [sic] and costly business – but it has no authority to force or implement the necessary changes and no capital to invest in struggling or assisting with potential new green sites. The considerable media attention that surrounds RSA closures – easy fodder for consumption with widespread perceptions of a dying organisation – means that a closed RSA is not just a local issue but erodes the RSA brand.” (p.242)
After enjoying all the many images and photographs, and after diligently reading all the text, I closed After the War feeling that it was dutiful and worthy and does the job of official commemoration that it sets out to do. But it is dry and not a lively read. Clarke has used a wealth of archival material, but appears not to have indulged in any oral history component in his research. There are too few illuminating anecdotes about attitudes related to the RSA over the years, and hence too little of the personal touch. On the rare occasions when I found them, I enjoyed revealing little tales such as the one (p.76) about Palmerston North’s public library in 1930 banning All Quiet on the Western Front, because they deemed it pacifist propaganda. Meanwhile the local RSA branch bought copies for their own library. Presumably the old digs were interested to find out what a German writer thought about the war they had fought. I am also distressed that Clarke does not stop to consider the difference between real remembrance (what survivors thought of the wars they were in) and synthetic remembrance (the media presentation of past events). At the moment, we are engulfed in the latter, exemplified by the gargantuan Hollywood-like display of Gallipoli soldiers, invented by Weta Workshops and now on display in Wellington. A truly awful distortion of an historical event.
And – oh dear! – that clumsy prose. Wrap yourself around the following description of Anzac Day:
“….the day that originated with and for most of its history expressed New Zealanders’ pride in their country’s military contribution within a traditional alliance framework has been reforged with a growing pride in New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, including its nuclear-free status.” (p.228)