Myth and memory, Edmund Bohan

Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front
Matthew Wright
Penguin Books, $45.00,
ISBN 9780143020561

 

The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI 
Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Random House, $55.00,
ISBN 9781869792633

 

In 2007 the lamented Harvey McQueen, one of my fellow students long ago in Neville Phillips’s 1957 history honours class at Canterbury University College, called for a general, popular history of “our” Great War from “a skilled writer in the mould of Sinclair, Oliver or King to give an overview and link the various elements into a coherent whole.” The obvious question to ask, then, is whether either of these two spectacularly contrasting books achieves – or even approaches – the model McQueen called for.

WWI, the most cataclysmic event of a century far too tragically crammed with that succession of subsequent cataclysmic events flowing from it, holds a unique place in New Zealand’s historical memory and has arguably had more written about it than any other single event. It is doubtful if any New Zealand family was unaffected by it, and its ramifications continue to resonate. In short, it marked the greatest watershed in our history, and a succession of diligent and perceptive social historians have dissected every aspect. And although for far too long our often blinkered academic attitudes as to what was “proper” history all but ignored purely military history as a genre, there has in recent years been a welcome if belated recognition of its importance. The credit for this must go to such distinguished – and always readable – scholars as Christopher Pugsley, Glyn Harper, Ian McGibbon and Matthew Wright.

The admirably prolific Wright’s credentials as both military and social historian are impressive: a biography of Freyberg; perceptive histories of New Zealand’s navy and airforce; WWII studies of the Crete, North African and Italian campaigns, escaped Kiwi prisoners of war; and the Pacific war; the 19th-century New Zealand wars; the New Zealand Division on the Western Front during 1915-18; a succession of regional social histories; a general history of New Zealand; and specialised works on such diverse topics as Kiwi aviation, cars and trucks.

He is, then, more than qualified for such a book as Shattered Glory, and with a sound grasp of the wider strategies – as one might expect – the Gallipoli and Western Front campaigns are clearly described and expertly analysed. The book is in four parts: “Hope and glory”; “Gallipoli”; “Western Front”; “Shattered glory” – plus an introduction entitled “Myths, legends and the death of glory”. A mere list of some of Wright’s chapter headings hints at its sombre, over-arching tone: “Jingoism”; “Massey’s tourists”; “Innocence destroyed”; “Enduring the unendurable”; “Mechanised death”; “Biting and holding”; “A land for heroes?”; “Myth and memory”.

Wright’s prose is clear, sober and unfussy, yet, when it needs to be, tellingly powerful. His judgements are sound and, above all, balanced and his final chapter, “Myth and memory”, is particularly fine. As one might expect, his research is thorough and wide-ranging.

Shattered Glory deserves and, hopefully, will enjoy, a wide popular readership and survive even the sourest scholarly scrutiny. It is, therefore, a shame that his publishers have served him less well than he deserves with dull, hazy and often indistinct illustrations. What a pity that he did not enjoy the high quality paper and superbly reproduced illustrations Random House provided for Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s far less satisfactory study.

Expect none of Wright’s sober historical balance from Eldred-Grigg who has always prided himself on being provocative and has succeeded in so many past (and far better) books than this in stripping away some of the myths of 19th-century colonial gentility to reveal the colourful and often violent realities of our nation’s founding fathers and mothers. So here he sets out a challenging thesis to jolt us out of whatever cosy assumptions he imagines we might still possess about the war and its place in our notions of nationhood: that WWI was “wholly avoidable for New Zealand, wholly unnecessary – and almost wholly disastrous”; that its costs were enormous in every respect; and that we still feel its effects socially and culturally today.

There can, in fact, be no argument that it was disastrous – not just for New Zealand but for every country and every empire involved; and it still resonates powerfully in our ever evolving culture. It was not, however, avoidable for New Zealand given the cultures, philosophies and politics – both international and domestic – prevailing in 1914; to imagine otherwise is to indulge in historical fantasy. As Eric Hobsbawm, for example, so brilliantly described in the penultimate chapter of The Age of Empire (1987), every country involved was swept into that war on an unprecedented flood of patriotic fervour.

Eldred-Grigg’s emphasis is essentially social and relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and especially the idiosyncratic editorials of Truth. As with Wright, the breadth of his research is admirable. Factually, though, he presents nothing that is new or cannot be found in other studies. The novelty is his interpretation of those facts presented in his racy but sometimes breathless style that can veer dangerously towards a parody of Truth’s abrasive, mocking tone. There are lots of colourful quotations and myriads of sweeping generalisations, but there is also too much repetition, overstatement and relentlessly strident spleen as he sustains his onslaught against “imperialism” – especially Britain’s. Regrettably this can degenerate into sarcastic and emotive ranting that ultimately becomes tiring, weakens his arguments and is therefore self-defeating. This short paragraph from p 73, summing up New Zealand’s declaration of war, provides something of the prevailing flavour:

Wellington went to war, not wisely but mindlessly. Massey, Ward, Findlay Dillon Bell and the others who headed the two big political parties were not shrewd realists balancing profit against loss. They were quivering bundles of emotion, swept by passion, behaving childishly when they made up their minds to send away a murderous army.

 

There is a strange naivety too in Eldred-Grigg’s attitudes towards Germany, which he constantly refers to as “the federal state” (a curious and irritating affectation) and which he seems to regard as a wholly contented, peace-loving, happy place in contrast to bellicose and dreary Britain and France; a put-upon victim of the evil and lustful empires of Britain, France and Russia – and even of remote and insignificant New Zealand itself, with its grandiose ambitions to be a Pacific power – all apparently intent on grinding down and randomly slaughtering their subject peoples.

And while Eldred-Grigg extols the richness of German artistic, musical and literary heritage, he fails to give due weight to the increasingly dominant intellectual and philosophical theories that underlaid some of that culture: the ideas of racial exclusivity and superiority that would soon erupt and engulf Europe and beyond with such disastrous consequences, and the expansionist ambitions of both the aristocratic Prussian military elite and Germany’s affluent and ambitious middle classes. Nor in his diatribes against British and French ambitions to secure Middle Eastern oil, for instance, does he seem to acknowledge Germany’s equally devious campaigns to do exactly the same by actively encouraging emerging Arab, Afghan and Indian nationalist movements, and by taking command of the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s armies.

Eldred-Grigg has taken historical revisionism to extreme lengths, but is too determined to shock, too wayward, and, for all his real literary gifts and occasional brilliance, his arguments fail to convince. He also seems to have largely accepted Kaiser Wilhelm’s rather far-fetched claim that Britain, France and Russia were the real aggressors and were conspiring to destroy Germany’s world-wide empire (as well as those of tottering Austria-Hungary and Turkey), a view that Niall Ferguson specifically and effectively refutes in his magisterial War of the Worlds.

Random House has served its author well in splendidly reproducing and generously allowing him scores of illustrations, sketches and cartoons that are a delight; but the absence of footnotes is inexcusable. One hopes that this is not establishing a faddish and misguided publishing precedent. It is surely the ultimate form of publishing arrogance to demand that we have to sit chained to our computers if we want to check the writer’s sources – and few of the many non-fiction books I’ve read in recent years demand such continual checking. The space that could have contained those footnotes has been needlessly wasted by a self-indulgent design concept and an absurdly lavish layout.

The publisher’s blurb also proudly proclaims The Great Wrong War to be the long-awaited “overview” Harvey McQueen called for. It isn’t. Wright comes much closer to achieving that ideal.

 

Edmund Bohan is a Christchurch historian, biographer and novelist.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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