Originally I was going to write a review of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War: New Zealand society in World War I. However, early this year, I attended a seminar he presented on the subject, in which he used a lot of material from the book. I took copious notes, so what follows is more an outline of his presentation, with some additional comments on other material in his book. It’s a book which every worker and progressive person in this country should read; I recommend it highly.
Stevan began the seminar by noting how much his mother and aunts – women from a poor, working class Sydenham (Christchurch) background – hated Anzac Day, being dragged along “to watch the gassed and the wounded being paraded down main streets, with people in tears.” In recent years, teaching students from the Middle East about the First World War, he found them telling him that it was a war for Britain and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire.
He noted that the alignments of the Great Powers before the war were in some flux. At one point, there even seemed some possibility of Britain and Germany going to war with the United States. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the two big issues in the public spotlight were the Irish home rule situation and the issue of religious instruction in schools. The hostility between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian empire got much less attention.
New Zealand in 1914
New Zealand at the time was a very well-educated, well-informed and political society. In 1912 and 1913 there were significant class conflicts and class divisions and alignments were important elements in the politics of the country. When the government decided to join in the war, however, the people had no say.
While the dominant impression for some years now has been that people, especially young men, were gung-ho for war, recent research has suggested a more complex picture. It now seems there was more anxiety than previously recognised. And while many of us will have come across the idea that people in August 1914 thought the war would be a great adventure and over by Christmas, Stevan argued this was not the dominant response. Diaries, letters, even newspapers from the time, suggest people were a lot more ambivalent.
There were also initially divisions between the two main parties – Liberal and Reform. Reform, which represented big business and landed interests, was very much in favour with prime minister William Massey declaring war a noble thing. Liberal opposition leader Joseph Ward initially mouthed sentiments against going to war. To the left of the Liberals, various kinds of socialists had about 10% of the popular support. The newspaper Truth, which subsequently became an extremely reactionary paper, was at the time a radical-Liberal daily read by much of the left; it was a trenchant critic of the war.
In his seminar presentation, Stevan also argued that the war was avoidable. Essentially, it was an aggressive war on the part of the British empire, a war which most people in Germany did not want and did not welcome. However, many in Germany were also worried about authoritarian Russia. This was a factor in German conservatives and social democrats uniting to go to war, he said.
While in World War II New Zealand declared war independently, in the First World War New Zealand was simply part of the British declaration of war – the whole empire automatically was involved. Stevan argued that New Zealand still had options: it could have simply not gone along with Britain or it could have offered a volunteer force as in the Boer War. However, the New Zealand ruling class had its own reasons for joining in – such as ambitions in the Pacific, where the New Zealand elite had long cast its covetous eye on various islands. Samoa was a good example.
Imperialism, expansion and war
Stevan also contrasted the way New Zealand behaved in the Pacific compared to Germany. He said that in Samoa the German administration used the Samoan language and provided free public schools in Samoa. When New Zealand took it over it imposed English. When New Zealand earlier took over the Cooks (1898) it sacked the existing parliament of chiefs and ran the islands as a direct colony. He also noted that the German colonies were less militarised than the French and British ones. This is not to suggest that German colonialism was acceptable, but merely to point out that the French and British were often more repressive.
Germany itself was more democratic than most states in Europe, It was also a less militarised society than Britain – or New Zealand, for that matter. They had no significant military forces in the Pacific, apart from in China and even there they had a small fleet of old ships which could easily have been destroyed by the Japanese who were Britain’s allies. Germany itself had the biggest left and the biggest peace movement. In the British empire, the peace movement was minuscule. The British also had the biggest empire and it was far from benign. Stevan noted, for instance, how about a third of the population were killed when the British waged war to take over a chunk of Somalia.
Additionally, the US empire was expanding, taking over the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, eastern Samoa, and being the de facto ruler of Cuba. Anywhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000 Filipinos died during the US ‘pacification’ of the Philippines. The British and Russians did a deal to carve up much of Iran. France, meanwhile, was the most militarised society in Europe and the French empire was much more aggressive and predatory than its German equivalent.
New Zealand, too, was rapidly militarising before the war. In 1909 there was the Compulsory Military Training law. The New Zealand School Journal pushed an increasingly strong military message to school students. Stevan noted that this sort of militarism was quite new; essentially, it came after the Boer War and tended to replace an older British tradition which was that the state had no right to make people join its armed forces. Moreover, the original New Zealand army was a volunteer force in which the ranks elected their officers. After 1909, the army changed into being a top-down institution.
The increased pushing of militarism within New Zealand also related to the ruling elite’s Pacific ambitions and the NZ government discussed with the British what they would be allowed to take over in the Pacific in the event of war. The NZ ruling elite wanted Samoa and Nauru. New Zealand, as he put it, was “not a passive observer, but an active participant in colonial expansionism”.
New Zealand goes to war
Up until 1915, there was a lot of debate about the war between the Liberals and Reform. However, from 1915 they converge, even forming a coalition government. (Of course, later, in the wake of the 1935 election, the two parties actually merged, creating the National Party – PF.) Old landed conservatives, big business, sections of the middle class and the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches were in favour of going to war. The pro-war churches declared it to be a war for God. Catholics were much less enthusiastic, mainly because the Catholic population tended to be Irish or of Irish descent and much more critical of British policy. Irish Catholic New Zealanders and Maori were the least enthusiastic for war; these groups were also, of course, overwhelmingly working class and/or poor. Additionally, it was only two generations before that sections of Maori had been violently dispossessed during the Land Wars. In the Waikato, for instance, many Maori had no desire to go across the world to fight for the state that had dispossessed them.
The New Zealand government became increasingly repressive. Sedition charges became a useful way of dealing with critics of the war and it became quite easy, Stevan said, for people to be sent to prison.
German war aims were fairly limited. The German ruling class wanted Finland, the Baltic states, Poland and the Ukraine to become independent from the Russian empire (albeit with German influence) and some small rearrangements on the western borders. They mainly wanted a set of buffer states between Germany and Russia, states which would also provide zones for German investment. What Germany wanted is, Stevan noted, pretty much what exists now!
What of New Zealand’s reasons for involvement and its war aims? Conservative historians now argue, he said, that there were rational economic reasons for going to war, such as protecting exports to Britain; it wasn’t just emotional. Interestingly, Stevan questioned this. He pointed out. For instance, that most New Zealand wool, the country’s key export, did not go to Britain; it went to Germany, France and the Netherlands, simply passing through Britain because there was no direct shipping line to the other countries. Similarly, while 60% of New Zealand exports came from Britain, most imports were not British. Germany was not only a key importer of New Zealand products, but also a key supplier of NZ imports. Moreover, just before the war the Germans started allowing in frozen meat from New Zealand (previously, protectionism had kept it out). To help develop direct trade German company Norddeutscher Lloyd proposed a shipping line between New Zealand and Bremen.
When war broke out, one of the first actions of the New Zealand government was the seizure of Samoa. One of the first things the NZ forces did, Stevan pointed out, was commit violence against Chinese indentured labourers. After taking over Samoa, NZ joined in attacking Egypt and was there as a fairly brutal occupying force. NZ troops called Egyptians ‘niggers’, took potshots at civilians from trains, and overturned the carts of Egyptian street traders. The presence of NZ and other imperial troops in Egypt also sent food prices up, making life harder for ordinary Egyptians.
From volunteers to conscripts
New Zealand also joined in the invasion Turkey, an invasion that was repelled by the Turks on the Gallipoli peninsula. After Gallipoli, Stevan noted, there was a rise in volunteering in New Zealand, especially in rural areas but it quickly fell away; after Gallipoli a more pronounced effect was that the shine went off volunteering.and the state in both Britain and the dominions moved to impose conscription. Interestingly, most New Zeraland men of fighting age did not volunteer And most volunteers only did so once conscription was in the wind (volunteering gave them some more choice about where they would be sent than if they waited to be conscripted).
Conscription divided society. It was also a factor in the formation of the Labour Party. However, this was a contradictory process. For instance, in the book Stevan points out that some major figures in the Labour Party in later years, such as Mabel Howard, were gung-ho for the war, while those who came from a radical-syndicalist background were anti-war. (The Labour Party was founded in 1916; for an analysis of its development over the past century, see here.)
The war brought not only repressive legislation to NZ society; it also intensified national chauvinism and racism against ‘foreigners’. German-New Zealanders, no matter how well-integrated into the society they were (or how patriotic they were), became targets. Homes were attacked, people were accosted in the street, and some lost their jobs. Even Lutheran churches got attacked and one was burnt down. The persecution became stronger after Gallipoli and the sinking of the Lusitania, although we now know, Stevan noted, that the Lusitania was carrying contraband.
The book is divided into chapters covering each year and moving back and forward between the horrors of the trenches and accounts of the activities of NZ soldiers in Egypt, Samoa and elsewhere on the one hand and the situation in New Zealand itself on the other hand. The accounts of disease and wounding and death in the trenches are particularly graphic.
By 1918, Stevan noted in the seminar, protests in this country against the war were growing. Christchurch, as the most radical city in New Zealand, saw a particular increase in protests – the biggest in the country – and even rioting. At the same time, NZ troops were invading Palestine and Syria and supporting the British invasion of Iraq. On Armistice Day 1918 a protest in Christchurch turned into a riot, with the central police station being attacked.
After the war
At the end of the war, Britain and France divided the Middle East and took over Germany’s colonies in Africa and part of the Pacific. New Zealand got to keep Samoa and, with the British and Australians, took over Nauru. (In the seminar, Stevan reported that out of German, British or NZ rule, NZ was the least favoured by the Samoans. For what NZ did in Samoa, see here.) NZ also got some German assets.
After the war came the influenza epidemic. The powers-that-be may not have been able to stop the epidemic from breaking out, but it was certainly made worse by the war. Inflation of food and coal prices meant people were already less healthy. Medical services were run down because doctors, nurses and supplies had been diverted to the front. Soldiers were dying in camps and, later, on ships because they were herded together. The epidemic actually began in military camps in Europe in the war and spread massively as troopships returned home.
The war was very good for NZ capitalists who produced goods related to the military needs of the state. It also created jobs for some workers in those industries. The wool kings did especially well. Wealthy landowners built big houses during the war. Middle class women also gained through enhanced employment opportunities. Everyone else, however, particularly the bulk of the working class, suffered. Real incomes for most people sank. Savings declined 10% for lower-income workers but rose for the wealthy.
The growing market for NZ goods in Germany was obliterated. Schools were in a rundown state, as were medical services. Income and wealth distribution was even more skewed than before the war. Chunks of wealth were wasted, since they took the form of war material which got destroyed. The war killed 18,000 NZers, wounded many tens of thousands more and the flu a further 17,000. Suicide went up, especially with the rise in unemployment after the war. Much of the war generation was scarred.
The ‘Great War’ was a war between imperialists, NZ being one of them. There were no noble aims and achievements. Millions of working class people were sacrificed, as were their living standards as ruling classes pursued their own interests. Today, when imperialist powers present themselves as peacekeepers and saviours, it is very useful to go back to World War I and see how ruling classes cajoled the rest of society to accept war and what the reality of war meant for workers in and out of uniform and for the peoples in oppressed countries who simply exchanged one set of imperial rulers (Germany, the Ottomans) for another (Britain, France – and, in the case of Samoa, New Zealand.