One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue: New Zealand, the British and the South African War
ed John Crawford and Ian McGibbon
Auckland University Press, $39.99,
Landscapes of Conflict: A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars
Random House, $39.95,
New Zealanders at War
Penguin Books, $39.95,
Italian Odyssey: New Zealanders in the Battle for Italy 1943-45
Reed Books, $29.95,
One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue finds that the Boer War had the effect of militarising New Zealand and could be seen as a kind of curtain-raiser for subsequent outbreaks of hostilities in the 20th century. The sporting metaphor is apt enough for a rugby-crazed popular culture, but an economic analogy might have been even more apposite. Was the export of New Zealand cannon-fodder to the big 20th century wars a logical extension of the meat export industry, so central to the New Zealand economy since the 1880s and an early conditioning experience in the mechanics of mass production and marketing? Substitute live male bodies for the products of the freezing works and you have a perfect paradigm for war as a gigantic consumer industry.
But New Zealand historians have generally been rather timid about appreciating the economic aspects of war, preferring to stay safely with military operations and ideological and political approaches in their struggles with the problem of causes and effects. An unprofitable dispute hangs like a battle fog over military studies. Revisionists have questioned the popular appreciation of the achievements of the men of our 20th century wars with the assertion that New Zealand males have no natural advantages as soldiers and that their inflated reputation has misled whole generations of inheritors. Consequently the qualities of New Zealand soldiery in the field is a subject for polemic that applies not just to the participants of the two world wars but also to the New Zealand mounted rifles who galloped off enthusiastically to South Africa at the turn of the 20th century.
John Crawford reviews their performance and takes an “old-fashioned” view to the effect that their success was due to the quality of the men. They were competent horsemen and reasonable shots, “who were able to cope with the conditions they encountered”. He cautiously concludes that “New Zealand was fortunate that its first experience of sending troops to fight overseas should, in part because of the particular characteristics of the South African war, be such a success.”
Apart from the military implications of New Zealand participation in the Boer War, an amusing feature of One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue is its treatment of subjects that today have a fashionable resonance. The social history of the war seems more interesting, and perhaps more significant, than the actual hostilities: for instance, the opposition to New Zealand participation, the role of women as nurses, as teachers in concentration camps and not least as home front patriots who busied themselves at civic farewells, garden parties, fund raising, sending comforts and gifts to the front, writing screeds of excruciatingly bad verse and posing on floats and carriages as Victory, Britannia and Peace. Some enthusiasts even formed a Khaki Contingent of Wellington Amazons, who did military drills and tricks on bicycles.
But the contributors to One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue seem not to have discovered that one such group featured in Black and White, a British magazine, as a “New Zealand Young Ladies Contingent”, appearing modishly in long skirts, military tunics, slouch hats and carrying lethal-looking rifles. The magazine suggested that since Oom Paul, the Boer leader, was talking of putting women in the fighting trenches, “perhaps we could oblige him with an opposing force of Amazons”. But this was a provocative idea, much ahead of its time and yet to be fully realised in a shooting war.
The social jollification and patriotic fun in the dressing-up cupboard that enlivened the New Zealand home front in the Boer War reinforces the view that war is a diverting entertainment for those not actually at the sharp end. These days, warfare has burgeoned into a continuous entertainment, which lends itself to television extravaganzas and morbid indulgences at ANZAC Day observances as well as to a pathological addiction to funerals, war memorials and post-bellum battlefield visitations by politicians and other victims of the current vicarious-enjoyment-of-other-people’s-misfortunes syndrome.
However, with the help of Landscapes of Conflict the desire to commune with our troublesome past can now be enjoyed as a tourist experience. Nigel Prickett (Curator of Archaeology at the Auckland War Memorial Museum) has compiled an impressive guide to sites and landscapes of 19th century warfare between Maori and Pakeha. It is carefully illustrated by historical photographs of personalities, fortifications, monuments, buildings, graves, earthworks, paintings and sketches as well as by contemporary colour images from the author’s own collection.
The work is supported by a generous descriptive text that requires no specialist knowledge to follow and is organised on a campaign-by-campaign basis ranging from the 1843 Wairau incident to Te Kooti’s War of 1868-72. A landscape approach to the disaffections of the colonial past lends itself equally well either to a serious antiquarian passion for the visible outlines of early conflicts or to casual, leisure-time, dilettante explorations. But Prickett points out that many sites are on privately owned land, raising the question of whether or not some of the important ones like Orakau and those in the Wanganui region should be publicly acquired. One wonders though whether it wouldn’t be better to let these dismal relics moulder into insignificant contours of neglect while New Zealand gets on with the tribulations of economic development and the urgent need to fashion some sense of a national unity more adequate for the concerns of a modern nation state than the existing hotch-potch of confused notions and inflated expectations.
Alternatively a reader wishing to sample the attractions of the local bellicose past can now consult a reprint of Michael King’s New Zealanders at War for a conventional plod from the 1840s to recent peacekeeping expeditions. It is easy to read and handy for brief reference, though a parsimonious publisher does not seem to think the book worthy of an index. Or an armchair trip can be taken to the battlefields of Italy where in Italian Odyssey Matthew Wright, a professional historian, follows the campaign from the ordeal of Orsogna to the final offensive across the Senio and the triumphant occupation of Trieste. He manages to convey some telling images of the conditions in which the troops fought by the selection of illustrations, some of them the work of George Kaye, one of the better official 2NZEF photographers.
There’s also a schematic drawing of the king of the battlefield – a German Tiger tank that, even more than 50 years on, gave me a sudden frisson of alarm and prompted me to wonder if a few foreign archival shots from over the hill of 90th Light Panzer in the desert, of 1 Para Regiment swaggering defiantly out of Cassino, a Spandau team crouched over their deadly weapon, and a nebelwerfer battery in action, might have made the odyssey even more complete for a contemporary readership blessedly uninformed about such gritty realities.
Still, Wright is more perceptive than some of his cohorts. He finds that the New Zealand assault on Cassino failed, not because of any shortcomings on the part of the troops but because they were mis-employed and asked to do too much with inadequate resources. He also recognises General Freyberg’s enormous experience and his importance when estimating the performance of the New Zealand Division. Sensibly, Wright points out that the real question is not whether the New Zealanders succeeded or failed at Cassino but how a nation with a wartime population of only 1.7 million, and only a brief military tradition, achieved such an outstanding reputation in the field.
In surveying our military history, several of the writers in the works mentioned here fancy that war has been a vehicle for a more “assertive national identity”, a “national growing-up process” and “an attempt to manufacture national pride and cohesion”. But there is no attempt to define any of these concepts or to analyse the salience of public opinion and the strength of popular attitudes surrounding them. This sloppiness is a pity because New Zealand is now in an acute crisis of identity and the subject is important.
A nation can be defined as a people possessing a developed national consciousness which is grounded in a combined striving for unity, freedom, distinctiveness and prestige among nations. We now may be less unified and less free than at any time in our history. Economically, we are dominated by foreign commercial interests; militarily, we are powerless, having divorced our traditional allies at a time when terror is a menacing global presence; while, politically, we are increasingly divided into ethnic factions and beset by minority demands for separatism and special status. Perhaps war has, in general, contributed very little to any lasting mystique of national consciousness, let alone assertions of national identity. Maybe the All Black Tour of 1905 with its modest silver fern emblem did more to display images of distinctiveness and prestige than all last century’s wars combined.
A serious look at whatever might be meant by national identity would involve some stringent research into character stereotypes and celebrities in the mass media, into images of national affirmation and consciousness, and into the symbolic nature of political leadership. It would also involve an investigation of the political culture, and some systematic public opinion sampling to ascertain the parameters of core attitudes and beliefs concerning nationhood, foreign policy, ethnicity and perceptions of self. Such an enterprise is well outside the bounds of the publications reviewed here but could be a useful field for future inquiry by the history/culture industry if it is ever able to extricate itself from the battlefields of race relationships and 20th century wars.
Les Cleveland was a soldier in a World War II rifle company and has written numerous articles on popular culture and military occupational folklore.