We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE HOME FRONT – New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919” by Steven Loveridge and James Watson (Massey University Press, $NZ65)
On this blog, “Something New” usually deals with books that are fresh off the press. The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 is an exception. This scholarly and very detailed book is one volume of the series researched and written for the First World War Centenary History Programme, and published by Massey University Press. Collectively, the series constitutes a new history of New Zealand’s part in the First World War, drawing on newly-available sources and superseding the inadequate 4-volume “official history” that was published in the 1920s. Along with other volumes in the series, The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 was published at the end of 2019.
So why am I now reviewing The Home Front 20 months after publication? Two reasons (a.) I was asked to; but more important (b.) because this book and others in the series were largely overlooked by the popular press and general-interest magazines, or at best noticed only briefly. The only real reviews appeared in specialist and academic publications.
First, a few bibliographic features. The Home Front is a handsome, beribboned hardback. Its 440 large pages of text are followed by 63 double-columned pages of endnotes, scrupulously documenting sources. The index runs to 18 triple-columned pages of fine print. The text is well-illustrated, and one could easily get lost in the many images of New Zealanders in New Zealand over one hundred years ago; but images have the great merit of illustrating topics being discussed on adjacent pages.
The Home Front is more-or-less structured in chronological order. Its Introduction gives a very general history of New Zealand up to 1914, but emphasising the fact that while New Zealand was gaining more autonomy, New Zealanders were still very attached to Britain and very supportive of British preparations for war. Thence successive chapters work their way from the outbreak of war in 1914 to armistice and aftermath, 1918-19. Steven Loveridge and James Watson are not mere chroniclers, however. What emerges are some dominant themes in their account of life in New Zealand during the war.
One major theme is the gradual change of attitudes towards the war from the optimism of the first two years of war to the stress and desperation of the last two years, and especially in 1918.
On the whole, there was widespread public support for New Zealand’s participation in the war in 1914. It was commonly assumed that the combined forces of France, Britain and Russia would easily defeat Germany and its allies and the war would be over in a matter of months at most. There were only a few dissenters from this view. But the authors note that even in 1914 “…beneath all this congregating, cheering, singing and marching… were more complex intellectual and emotional reactions. Generally, the significant contrast was between those who saw the war as a great adventure and those who saw it a a terrible duty.” (p.52)
Initial idealism turned to scepticism. In 1915, most accepted the newspapers’ patriotic version of the botched and poorly-planned Gallipoli campaign as a matter of “splendid gallantry”. In a memorial speech, prime minister William Ferguson Massey described it as “heroic self-sacrifice and endurance….one of the finest and most memorable feats of arms ever accomplshed by men of the British race.” (p.184) Then harder reality hit, with casualty lists in newspapers and the return of wounded soldiers with less upbeat tales to tell. By 1916 “romantic conceptions of combat were viciously challenged by newspapers reproducing frontline correspondence, which could include graphic accounts.” (p.155). For many, the process of grieving began at this point, feeding into the cult of Anzac Day.
So the depressing news continued as the war dragged on. The authors note how society was under stress in the last two years of the war when “… the dynamics of social commitment were shifting. Most wartime societies demonstrated remarkable unity over the first two years of the war. From then on, most became keenly aware that unity and commitment could no longer be taken for granted as protracted mobilisation frayed societies’ moral and material bonds.” (p.263)
The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 at first suggested that this huge ally would now have a real democray. Given that France and Britain were puportedly waging a war on behalf of democracy, it had been a source of embarrassment that one of the Allies was a non-democratic autocracy. Then came the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, Russia withdrew from the war and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty meant that Germany had more than achieved its aims on the Eastern Front. There was the cheer of the United States having joined the Allies. Even so, Germany’s last major offensive in the West seemed to be making huge gains and the war continued to be a meat-grinder until the armistice. And to provide an especially sour end to the war, the influenza pandemic struck the country, killing an estimated 8573 New Zealanders in two months – nearly half the number of soldiers who had been killed in four years of war.
Another major focus of The Home Front is the changing political structure of New Zealand during the war. There were debates in parliament over holding elections in wartime. Bill Massey’s Reform Party won by a whisker of the popular vote in the election of December 1914 and lost many seats. This meant that, in August 1915, it was almost inevitable that Reform and Sir Joseph Ward’s Liberal Party formed a coalition government for the duration of the war. After much bargaining, the Liberals were able secure an equal number of places in the cabinet with Reform. Massey and Ward became, in effect, a double act, making long visits to Britain and to soldiers on the Western Front and being out of the country for many months. Incidentally, Loveridge and Watson squelch the legend that these two political leaders were greeted sourly and with jeers on their last visit to the front in 1918. At the same time, having been shuffled and re-shuffled in a number of attempts to form a viable political party, the new Labour Party at last gained some traction in parliament, even if some of its leaders were opposed to New Zealand’s participation in the war, or at least opposed to conscription (Harry Holland, Paddy Webb, Peter Fraser et al.)
Apart from the obvious matter of supporting Britain, New Zealand’s ultimate war aims were poorly articulated. Early in the war, the New Zealand government was determined to take from Germany control of Samoa. This it did, with many negative results in later years. Like Australia, New Zealand also wanted to block further expansion of Japan into the Pacific – even though Japan was then an ally and had on one occasion deployed a warship to escort New Zealand troopships. Only at war’s end, when the treaties were being signed, were New Zealand diplomats shocked to discover how different New Zealand’s war aims were from Britain’s (see page 400).
The government in those years was preoccupied with organisation for war for which the Minister of Defence James Allen assumed great responsibility and had to make many hard, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. At first, there were plans for munitions to be manufactured in New Zealand; but this proved to be impracticable and New Zealand remained dependent on Britain for weapons, bullets, field-guns, shells etc. Uniforms could be made in New Zealand; but early in the war there were some scandals when tailors and textile factories produced inferior garments or outsourced what they claimed to be producing.
Most fractious were debates over conscription.
At first, New Zealand forces relied on voluntary enlistment, which meant mass recruitment in the more optimistic early years of the war. Loveridge and Watson note that those who enlisted were young. The mean age of early recruits was 25.9 years and they were “largely men with few responsibilities to hold them back and with sociological, temperamental, and potentially economic enticements to go. From the beginning, men in manual work, often casual, remained the backbone of enlistments.” (p.81) With the war dragging on and fewer voluntary recruits stepping forward, conscription loomed But it ran up against the question that the labour movement often posed – if there was to be conscription of men, why wasn’t there also conscription of wealth? Shouldn’t profiteers and the wealthy be taxed to support the war effort? In other words, why wasn’t there what socialists called equality of sacrifice. Over in Australia, two referenda had rejected conscription, which was never imposed there. In New Zealand, the labour movement was split. Some industrial workers supported conscription in the belief that it would mean “more cockies’ sons” would have to go to war. Returned soldiers were also more likely to support conscription, in the belief that without more men volunteering, they themselves might be sent to the front again. After much controversy and debate, conscription was imposed in late 1916. There was still much anti-conscription agitation, and many men who had been balloted simply failed to turn up for registration. Yet this didn’t necessarily mean a sudden lack of commitment. Even in 1917-18, when the war still seemed to be going badly, 20,000 New Zealand men enlisted voluntarily. This did not mean New Zealand was able to raise a second division, which Britain had requested, but it did mean that there was still a large cohort willing to fight.
How the war developed had major effects on another matter emphasised by Loveridge and Watson, viz. the effects of war on New Zealand’s economy. There were many debates over the rising prices for food, especially in a country that was economically based on primary produce. There were regular rumours about profiteering speculators, some of them substantiated. Most important, there was the gradual imposition of the “commandeer” economy whereby the government intervened more than it had before, including filing with companies orders for war necessities. For farmers, there was an economic boom in 1915 because of massive government spending and Britain’s need for food. But by 1917, German unrestricted submarine warfare meant that much New Zealand produce bound for Britain didn’t reach its market and many British goods didn’t reach New Zealand. Hence those who had profited in primary produce now faced a slump. By 1916, New Zealand had already burned through a two-million pound loan from Britain, and the matter of taxation became a major controversy: “The Liberals tended to favour progressive taxation, especially on the war-related profits of wealthier farmers, which vexed Reform. Conversely, the possibility of more extensive income tax or higher customs duties, which would further raise the cost of living, made Liberals anxious about potential losses of their working class support.” (pp.245-246)
Changing attitudes to the war, government manouevring, war aims, conscription and the economy are major themes in The Home Front, but this study also considers in detail the general ethos of New Zealand society. In one sense, this is the portrait of a very narrow-minded, even vindictive, (Pakeha) society. Certainly there were strong suspicions about people of non-British origin, especially “enemy aliens”. Hence the mania for expunging Germanic-sounding names of streets, businesses and locations and replacing them with English-sounding names. Rowdy crowds sometimes smashed up German-owned businesses and some German nationals were interned at places like Somes Island. Croats (then commonly called “Dalmatians”) were regularly assumed to sympathise with the enemy as they were offically from part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They loudly protested their loyalty to New Zealand. Conscientious objectors were treated badly, as were those who spoke out against the war. Maori who claimed to support the enemy were dealt with harshly – hence the armed police raid on the community of Rua Kenana, who was jailed. Maori who opposed conscription were suspect, especially Waikato Maori and their most forceful spokesperson Te Puea Herangi (sometimes knwn as Princess Te Puea). Irish Catholics were under suspicion too, especially in the wake of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916, seen by some as a treacherous blow against beleaguered Britain in wartime. This fed into the intense and rowdy sectarianism of the last two years of the war, when the demagogic preacher Howard Elliott was able to stir up resentment against Catholics and set up his Protestant Political Association, with the aim of preventing Catholics from taking public office. The PPA was, briefly, a mass movement, but it faded away rapidly after the war. Indeed there was a rapid cooling of many passions after the war.
If much of this sounds reprehensible, however, the authors make it clear that even during the war, in both the press and on public platforms, there was much reasonable push-back against extremer anti-foreigner suspicion and sectarianism. On the whole, more moderate voices prevailed.
As in Britain and elsewhere, the war did much to change the public status of women. More New Zealand women moved into factory work and out of domestic service. Yet given that New Zealand women – enfranchised since 1893 – had already been moving steadily into paid employment, the war did not alter their status as drastically as it did in other countries.
There is no question that New Zealand made a huge sacrifice in its war effort. One tenth of the population was under arms – about 100,000 men out of a total population that was only about one million. The New Zealand Division was the most-regularly reinforced on the Western Front. New Zealand forces suffered 59,483 casualties, of whom about 18,000 were killed. Despite one legend, it is not true that per capita New Zealand suffered the greatest loss of life in the First World War. The authors note (on p.412) that 1.6 % New Zealanders were killed, a little more than Britain’s 1.5%; but the score was 2.5% for Austria-Hungary; 3% for Germany; 3.5% for France; and an horrendous 25% for Serbia .
Yet despite everything, for those who remained in New Zealand, this country was an easier berth than most combatant countries. There was greater political stability than in most allied nations. There was a secure food supply despite rising prices; rationing was not imposed ; and the country was far from any battlefront. Also, although it has been denigrated by some revisionist historians, the rehabilitation of returned soldiers was largely successful.
Among many other merits, The Home Front - New Zealand Society and the war effort, 1914-1919 is always aware of the historical era it is addressing – in other words, aware of how people saw things a century ago as opposed to how we see them now. The very last words of book acknowledge that after 1945, and with the decline of British power and changed social attitudes “One result is a modern gulf in understanding the New Zealand society of 1914-18, its commitment to defend what was, but no longer is, and its involvement in what was now sometimes deemed to be ‘someone else’s war’ ” (p.440) Reading this, one immediately thinks of smug and ahistorical books like Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War [reviewed on this blog] which basically berated our ancestors for not having exactly the same outlook and values as we have in the early 21st century. The Home Front concerns history as it was. Not as we would like it to have been.
Footnote: Steven Loveridge is an expert on New Zealand’s role in the First World War. Already reviewed in this blog are his Calls to Arms (2015) on New Zealand’s organisation and preparedness for the war; and the volume of essays which he edited New Zealand Society at War 1914-1918 (2017).