Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War: NZ society and WW1

by Philip Ferguson untitled

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.

See also: Gallipoli invasion: a dirty and bloody business



  1. […] 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. via Facebook […]

  2. What an interesting read.

    I had no idea of the links NZ had with Germany prior to WW1. Good to be reminded too of the progressive forces in Germany as Nazi Germany so overshadows the rest of Germany’s history.

    The stuff about radicalism in NZ is also fascinating. I must get a copy of his book.

  3. It is essential reading and I think a lot of work needs to be done here in Wellington in the buildup to the opening of the big bullshit ‘war park’ in 2015 to disseminate its contents and mobilise protest.

    • Just reading Stevan’s earlier work – A Southern Gentry, New Zealanders who inherited the earth – good for a class based look at the origins of the South Islands elite and early development of capitalism here…

  4. It’s interesting how hostile a lot of ‘academic historians’ are to Stevan. When I was doing a PhD I used some stuff from a couple of his books and my second supervisor, who was a professor in the History Dept at Canterbury, put red rings around the references and wrote “not a credible historian”. My lead supervisor, another professor, was recently-arrived from Australia and commented to me that he didn’t really know why these red circles had been put round the references. I said it was rather odd because Stevan had a PhD from ANU and had a string of history books published by highly reputable publishers while the guy who questioned his credibility had a BA Hons from Vic and in 30 years of an academic career had only published one book. (My comment didn’t go down especially well!)

    Only last weekend, in a review of the latest Paul Moon book, another senior Canterbury historian dragged Stevan into the review, describing him as a “controversial historian”. Tut, tut that any NZ historian should be “controversial”, ie write stuff that questioned or countered various national fictions.

    Someone in a NZ history class a few years back asked their tutor why none of Stevan’s books were used in the course and was told that Stevan was a “radical”. Again, tut, tut.

    These are the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, methods by which class-focused approaches to NZ history are marginalised and portrayed as not really serious history-writing. The folks who do the marginalising, meanwhile, pretend they have no particular point of view!


  5. ” I think a lot of work needs to be done here in Wellington in the buildup to the opening of the big bullshit ‘war park’ in 2015 to disseminate its contents and mobilise protest”


    Empty Garden – Wellington’s National War Memorial Park | Redline

  6. I think you are far too kind to Germany. They were far more militarist than Britain I have no doubt, the UK was above all navalist. The brutality of their conscription was very great. The significance of the militarisation of the Anzac countries was that the British were doing it, never stated openly of course, in order to prepare for a land war with Germany and were militarising in the UK too, never as bad as NZ & Oz since they did not dare conscript everyone into the territorial army here. Thus the “colonials” were better trained than the totally raw soldiers of the New Armies which may be the reason that they were often put in the forefront of the battle. These measure were always presented as defensive in response to statements by the Kaiser and others and the growth of the German navy. There were plenty of loony nutters in the UK too and remember that the terms of Brest Litovsk did not suggest moderation by Germany. See for British dishonesty. See also the Dora Montefiore and her file on Australia.

    Just because the British were ruthless imperialists does not mean that the Germans were not as bad or even worse. It was an inter-imperialist war, even if there were some democracies on the Entente side, but Czarist Russia was not! (I really liked the “Southern Gentry” book.)
    Ted Crawford

    • Thanks for your response, Ted. I think you probably need to look at what I had to say about the German federal state and its politics, military police and international relations in The Great Wrong War before I answer you very fully, because my ideas are developed there; but it would be hard to get hold of a copy in the UK, I suppose. I’m not arguing that the German state in the way it dealt with other states, or with its own citizens, was less oppressive than the Allied states. All I’m saying is that the widely held, though vague, notion that somehow it was unusually militaristic and unusually expansionist compared with the Allied state seems not convincing.

      The mainstream among historians of late imperial Germany, as you probably know, is that the federal state had no coordinated policy. Although the army was willing to think about, and plan for, a possible war, no other department of state was planning for such a war. War, when it did break out, found the federal government far less well organised financially, industrially, etc. for a major conflict than France. The policy of the German foreign ministry was carried out independently of, and often at odds with, the policy of the army, which in turn was often at odds with the navy, and of course nearly always with the. Historians of late imperial Germany on the whole seem to agree that the extremely complicated constitution of the federal empire was full of unresolved ambiguities, and was evolving in a variety of ways. The Reichstag, which was to the left of the parliaments of Britain or New Zealand, had the power to make the laws and to grant or withhold the budget. The emperor, whose constitutional position as president of the federal state gave him executive powers like the presidents of the United States, delegated nearly all of those powers to his ministers and by the last years before the war there was a growing feeling among people on both the right and the left in Germany that it was time to end the monarchy (the left) or trim the powers of the monarch (the right). Occasional jingoistic speeches by Wilhelm II need to be offset by the remarkable fact that during the whole of his reign until the outbreak of the Great War the federal state of Germany never once went to war against another state – with the sole exception of joining a coalition of western powers and Japan in an invasion of China.

      The British Empire, France, Russia and the United States, by contrast, all waged expansionist wars during those same years – often very bloody wars, such as the British attacks on the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the sultanates of Somalia, the kingdom of Burma, etc. German governors in Southwest Africa and German East Africa carried out atrocious massacres of indigenous people – but so did British governors in Somalia, French and Belgian governors, American military governors in the Philippines, and Dutch governors in the Netherlands East Indies. The outcry in Germany, when the news came through, of the atrocities in the African colonies was far louder than in France, Belgium or the United States about atrocities carried out in their colonies.

      German conscription was strict and harsh; but no more so than in France or Russia. Britain was able to avoid conscription partly because it forced India to pay for, and field, the Indian Army, which was very large and used for imperial purposes. Germany had no such resource in its overseas empire; there was no army presence at all in the whole of the German Pacific possessions, from Samoa to Qingdao, and only a token naval presence. The British Empire (and France, the Netherlands and the United States) on the other hand had heavy army and naval presences in the Pacific.

      Don’t forget that Germany was home to the largest socialist movement in the world, the largest peace movement in the world, and the strongest feminist movement in the world – and that 400,000 German anti-militarists gathered in an enormous demo in Berlin not long before the war, calling for demilitarisation – there was nothing like such a powerful peace movement in Britain, New Zealand, France or the United States.

      The Treaty of Brest Litovsk is touched on in The Great Wrong War too. The string of protectorates it envisaged were certainly intended to bolster the position of the German state in central and eastern Europe. Yet the treaty seems to me to have been no more predatory in the way it carved up former Russian imperial holdings than the way Ottoman and German imperial holdings were carved up by the Allies after the surrender of the Central Powers. At least Brest Litovsk did recognise, in a broad way, the aspirations of the nationalists (not that I’m a nationalist, but national independence was supposedly one of the principles for which the Allies were fighting) in the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine. The partition of the Middle East between France and Britain, and partition of the African and Pacific holdings of Germany between France, Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, on the other hand were done without any reference at all to the nationalists of those parts of the world. The majority of Samoans, for example, clearly did not want to be ruled by New Zealand.

      • I take all your points except that on the German Socialists. When push came to shove in 1914 the majority in the Trade Unions were just as bad as the British, I am not sure the working class were any more radical than in Britain. I will agree too that opponents of the war like Rosa Luxemburg were much better treated in prison than John Maclean. One little anecdote to back you up. My favourite aunt was in Germany in 1912-13 and at one point stayed with a progressive doctor’s family in Berlin, I imagine they were S-Ds. To her amazement all the girls and the boys of the family and their friends both went off to the beer cellar together, something impossible to imagine in the UK of the time. She also was amazed that at a Social Democratic fete there was a shooting gallery where one of the targets was a face of the Crown Prince. That kind of thing would never have happened in England. I have said for some time that if Germany had won it might have been more like Sweden eventually and the UK would have had the fascists.

        I agree I should read the book first before saying anything more about it. I am deeply involved with the Marxist Internet Archive and have supplied them in digital form with most of their stuff by John Maclean, Peter Petroff, Dora Montefiore, indexes and articles of the BSP monthly and a great deal more and I have to proof it all before sending it so my reading is fairly extensive on some narrow sectors.

        One final anecdote. When telling my aunt how fascinating the Court of Louis XIV must have been she replied, “I’ve been at the Hohenzollern court in Berlin and the Viceregal court in Simla and Edward, let me tell you that courts are dull, boring, tedious places full of dull, boring tedious people”. No answer to that really but I have dined out on her reply ever since.
        Ted Crawford

  7. Interestingly, the Irish revolutionary workers’ leader James Connolly thought that, as far as imperialisms went, the Germans weren’t as bad as the British. Personally, I’d tend to agree that they were both fairly equally bad – the German treatment of ‘the natives’ in its colonies in Africa was pretty brutal.

    Nevertheless I think it’s fair enough that Stevan made the point about how the left was far bigger in Germany and Germany was more progressive than Britain in some ways. Living in the English-speaking world we have tended to get a much more pro-British and anti-German perspective beamed into our brains.


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