Monday, February 6, 2017

Something New

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“NEW ZEALAND SOCIETY AT WAR 1914-1918” edited by Steven Loveridge (Victoria University Press, $40)
Four months ago (October 2016), I reviewed on this blog Malcolm McKinnon’s excellent and detailed history of the Great Depression years in New Zealand, The Broken Decade. I said, as I so often have, that revisionism is absolutely essential in the writing of history – especially the need to challenge popular and unexamined myths about the past, by presenting factual detail. This is what McKinnon did. I was even more willing to share this idea when I reviewed Steven Loveridge’s equally excellent Calls to Arms in mid-2015. With scrupulous adherence to detail and the factual record, Loveridge succeeded in showing that, alien though it may be to our values one century later, the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders supported participation in the First World War and thought of themselves as British. Effectively, Loveridge disproved the post-war legend that the unwilling masses were pushed into war by unscrupulous capitalists, exploiters and so forth. For New Zealand, despite tragedies, tensions and losses, the war was “popular”.
With all this in mind, I leapt at the chance to review New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918, a collection of eighteen academic essays edited by Steven Loveridge, who also wrote the extensive introduction and collaborated with other writers on three of the essays.
I knew I would be in safe hands.
Hew Strachan’s Foreword judiciously notes that in many areas, the essayists who contributed to this book are not “overthrow[ing] received wisdom”, because there has been “far too little wisdom to receive”. (p.10). In other words, many of the essayists are covering aspects of New Zealand life during the First World War that have simply not been examined methodically before. Strachan does note, however, that New Zealand’s popular memory has sometimes conflated New Zealand experience of the war with Australian experience, as in our adoption (as late as 1939) of the Australian “dawn ceremony” on Anzac Day, which has nothing to do with New Zealand soldiers’ experience at Gallipoli.  In considerably more detail Steven Loveridge’s Introduction gives an overview of New Zealand society before and during the war. He elaborates on the concept that New Zealand – recently declared a “dominion” – was “born modern”, having relative stability and basic social cohesion as well as a comparatively advanced welfare system. But during the war, there were tensions concerning Maori, the Irish-New Zealanders’ views of the war, conscription, exemptions from military service, and some protests about the lack of “equality of sacrifice”.
This worthwhile introduction over, we launch into the eighteen essays, and here I am going to adopt the unbelievably boring and cloth-eared procedure of commenting on each in turn.
John Crawford’s essay on the Defence Department has the singular merit of not patronising bureaucratic procedures from one century ago, and basically comes to the conclusion that the department was very efficient in gearing the country up for war.
James Watson’s essay on parliamentarians during the war (ironically called “The Continuation of Politics”) presents the basic argument that despite the wartime coalition of Joseph Ward’s Liberal Party and prime minister Bill Massey’s Reform Party, and despite the postponement of elections for the duration, political issues piled up and were debated fiercely in the house, especially when the matter of the conscription of married men cropped up late in the war. There was also the irony (noted on p.53) that while Ward was the deputy prime minister for the duration, he was also (and incongruously) still the official leader of the opposition.
Peter Cooke’s essay on the territorial soldiers and cadets emphasizes their “citizen soldier” status, as they became part of the social fabric of certain towns and communities.
Regrettably I found Roger Openshaw’s essay on New Zealand Education during the First World War to be unsatisfactory. Openshaw tells us about the shifts of personnel in schools; about the struggles university colleges had to maintain their international connections; and about the “patriotic” spirit that was encouraged in schools. But he appears not to have heard of private or church-run schools (he doesn’t mention them) and he speaks of the “triumph of progressive education”. I am always wary when educationists use the term “progressive”. I also note that he erroneously assumes that the University of Otago was part of the University of New Zealand (p.78).
Richard Hill’s essay on wartime policing is to be praised for its straightforward prose and clarity of expression. Hill basically argues that by the time war broke out, the New Zealand police force had evolved away from overtly coercive and quasi-military “frontier” style of policing, and adopted a more “velvet glove” community-based consensus style. However the war (and the depletion in numbers of the police force, with officers going off on military service) meant a return to some overt coercion. This was especially true in the matters of restraining militant “patriots” who rioted or wanted harmless aliens punished; and in tracking down and prosecuting those who had defaulted from military service. Their hand also fell heavily of socialists who circulated anti-war literature.
David Littlewood’s essay on Military Service Boards is an excellent piece of myth-busting. He argues (a.) that military service boards bent to the will of central government in tending to lenience when it came to men who objected to, or wished to be exempted from, military service; (b.) that boards were made up of a real cross-section of the community from farmers to trade-unionists; and (c.) that while there were controversies over whether watersiders or Catholic seminarians should serve in the military, boards either approved of exemptions or postponed appeals in such a way as to exempt applicants anyway. Littlewood is able to prove his claims statistically.
Ian F. Grant’s account of New Zealand newspapers in the war shows that newspapers largely supported the war, the only mild dissenters being the scandal-sheet Truth (which did much advocacy reporting on soldiers’ complaints) and the socialist Maoriland Worker (which wanted Capital to be conscripted). But, notes Grant, in sheer column space, the war itself did not dominate newspapers. Dependence on cable news from Britain and the failure to get accredited New Zealand correspondents to the battlefronts meant there were great delays in important news reaching New Zealand and there was also heavy censorship.
Erik Olssen’s essay on the union movement shows that the great majority of unionists supported the war, but many opposed conscription or were susceptible to calls for equality of sacrifice and the conscription of wealth. Olssen paints a picture of “moderates” having taken over most of the union movement after the defeat of the Red Feds and “Wobblies’ in 1912-13; but the militants gradually clawed their way back in, which means that by 1917-18 there was a great rise in industrial action. Olssen notes that the coalition government prevented much strife, and took the wind out of the militant’ sails, by exempting from conscription many of the categories of worker who had been most militant – such as miners, watersiders and seamen.
Steven Loveridge’s and James Watson’s essay on business interests during the war argues that under the “commandeer” economy, primary industries (dairy, meat, wool) and their service industries (shipping) and their investors profited greatly. This meant that there were great tensions in society between those who saw these enterprises as profiteering. This tension, he contends, stands behind the rise of industrial action later in the war.
Greg Ryan’s essay on sport may at first seem to be the essay dealing with the most frivolous topic, but it has a strong sociological point to make. Ryan notes the divide between those who saw sport as promoting the martial skills necessary in war; and those who complained that organised sport was a distraction and misuse of resources in wartime. Horse racing was most often criticised and condemned. In most codes (rugby, cricket etc.), the main clubs limited their activities or closed down for the duration of the war. However, schoolboy sport flourished as never before.
Peter Lineham’s contribution on the churches in wartime (called ironically “The Rising Price of Rendering Unto Caesar”) shows that on the whole, mainstream Christian churches in New Zealand stood behind the war effort, and vied with each other to show their loyalty by the number of members of each denomination who had volunteered for service. There were tensions over how many chaplains of each denomination were allocated to the fighting forces. Some more marginal churches had apocalyptic visions of the war bringing about a great revival of religion in a society that was secularising. This didn’t happen. And then, in the later part of the war, there was the rise of a virulent sectarianism with the Protestant Political Association. This is a good survey essay, but I do have one query. Did the Catholic Bishop Cleary actually lecture an Anglican group on their duties in war, as reported on p.196? He may have done so (for his times, Cleary was proto-ecumenical), but it still surprises me.
One area of New Zealand life during the war, which I had never considered before, is covered capably in Margaret Tennant’s essay on charities. She paints a picture of great and dedicated industry among those who raised funds patriotically for assistance to soldiers and for relief to refugees from the occupied areas of France and Belgium. It is amusing to read of the extent to which people had to be reminded of what it was appropriate to send soldiers overseas. It is also sobering to note that some people, even at the time, were aware that there was a certain “glamour” in contributing to charities supporting servicemen overseas, which meant that contributions to charities supporting New Zealand’s own poor and needy sometimes fell off.
I enjoyed very much David Grant’s essay on pacifists, whom he calls jocularly “peacemongers”. His is a very nuanced argument, showing that even in “militant” (and certainly in “moderate”) wings of the labour movement, previous anti-war sentiment faded away after war was declared in August 1914. Society – including unionised labour - became overwhelmingly pro-war. Grant deals with real pacifists – that is, not with those who simply opposed conscription when it was introduced in 1916, but those who opposed armed conflict of any sort. Hence, as he deals with cases of socialist and Christian and other pacifists, Grant is aware that he is dealing with a very small minority. (The same was true in the Second World War – see my review of The Prison Diary of A. C. Barrington.)
I take no issue with Brad Patterson’s essay on the Protestant Political Association – the group under Howard Elliott that, late in the war, stirred up sectarian strife with its violently anti-Catholic rhetoric. Patterson looks impartially and intelligently at the extreme claims that were stirred up and provides a good overview of a group that ran out of steam in the 1920s and deflated into extinction by about 1930. Personally, my only problem with this article is that it deals with matters in which I am already well versed from previous research. Hence it told me little that was new to me – but it is an excellent introduction to the topic.
Then there are the two essays that would now cause most unease. Graham Hucker deals with the “Woman’s Anti-German League”, as rabid a bunch of harpies as has ever been assembled in New Zealand, who spent their time vilifying people with German names, sometimes stirring men up to “anti-German” action, and generally doing little for the good of the community. Such things one can do in “patriotic” times! Steven Loveridge’s and Rolf W. Brednich’s essay on Germans in New Zealand gives a more sober view of the more notorious cases of victimisation of Germans.
We conclude with Steven Loveridge’s and Basil Keane’s account of the Maori connection with the Great War – how some iwi were willing to participate, some were opposed, and one prophet preached opposition – and Jeanine Graham’s muted account of New Zealand children during the war, mainly concerned with welfare and the growing influence of the Plunket Society.
No real historian would be so foolish as to claim that a history book is “definitive” and final. There are always new resources to be found, and new perspectives to explore. Even as I read New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918, I was aware that currently a new multi-volume official history of New Zealand in the First Wold War is being prepared under the editorship of Glyn Harper. It will include a very capacious volume on the Home Front.
Until that volume appears, however, New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918 gives as broad an account of New Zealand’s Home Front in the First World War as we yet have. 

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