Yesterday today, Glyn Harper

How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War
Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739353

With the centenary of WWI now upon us, a flood of books on New Zealand’s role in that conflict can be expected. The first of these appeared in late 2013, and this trend will continue for the next few years. Amongst the books on offer in 2014 is How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War edited by Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts. Few of the publications that will appear over the coming years will match How We Remember for its diversity or its insights.

Following on from an introduction written by the editors, How We Remember features 20 chapters written by people from varying occupations and backgrounds. These include well-known journalists, historians, academics, freelance writers, lawyers and scientists. The chapters have been assembled in no particular order. One of the attractions of the book is the variety of topics and viewpoints it contains. A reader cannot anticipate what the next chapter will be about until they start reading it.

While all the chapters offer something of interest, there are a few real gems. Amongst these is Paul Diamond’s account of the blackmailing of Wanganui’s homosexual mayor, Charles Mackay. While this story has been told before, Diamond is the first to examine the incident as a legacy of WWI. Charles Ferrall’s chapter on Maurice Shadbolt’s myth-making in his two Gallipoli books is revealing and an impressive piece of analysis. Christopher Pugsley’s reflections on Gallipoli are always worth reading, as is Monty Soutar’s work on the Māori Contingent. Redmer Yska’s chapter on the weekly newspaper Truth was both entertaining and analytical. It reveals how this much-read paper could be both anti-war and pro-soldier at the same time. Anna Rogers’s reflective piece on a New Zealand nurse provided a compelling reminder of how the war impacted on the women who served in it. None of them had an easy war and most ended it physically and emotionally drained.

There are some less satisfying parts of the book. In 2014 it is perhaps naïve to hope that we had moved on from accusing those attending Anzac Day Dawn Services of “facile nationalism” and “a glorification of war”. Similarly, another writer recalls her “slight repulsion” as people lined the streets, many in tears, as the funeral cortège of the Unknown Warrior made its way along the streets of Wellington. Those wanting to connect with a pivotal event in their nation’s past and to reflect on the cost of war do not deserve this scorn.

One of the most misleading and disappointing chapters was Jock Phillips’s “Lest we Forget: Remembering, and Forgetting New Zealand’s First World War”. Phillips is a well-known historian and a gifted writer. This chapter had the potential to be the stand-out piece in this volume. However, in reminding the reader that “memory can play tricks and be highly selective”. Phillips demonstrates that historians are not immune from these vices either. The glaring example of this is Phillips’s claim that New Zealand soldiers in the United Kingdom “began to dislike England itself” and developed “a contempt for Poms”. In evidence of this gross generalisation, Phillips offers the following commentary from “a committed Anglican and Anglophile” Peter Howden:

Most of the arrivals including myself are wondering what sort of a country this is that we are fighting for. The general conclusion is that we should hand it over to the Germans and apologise to them for having nothing better to give them.

 

It sounds a damning indictment. But the reality was that this letter was written by Howden just five days after arriving in England and he had not yet been outside of Sling Camp, the New Zealand training camp on the Salisbury Plain. The next paragraph of the letter, which Phillips has omitted, makes it clear that Howden’s complaint is not about England or its people, but about its climate. It reads:

The reason of this rather unflattering idea is that it has snowed nearly every day since we have arrived and last night there was a fall of over a foot in depth.

During the day time the wind gets up and as you can guess it is not very warm standing about all day.

 

Tricky and selective indeed!

Phillips concludes his chapter by noting that WWII was “a different kind of war” with “none of the mindless horror of the Western Front trench; and no event in the Second World War could equal the stupidity and chaos of Passchendaele”. This is an extraordinary statement to make. All wars are different, but there was certainly enough “mindless horror” in this second great conflict as any victim of the holocaust, Japanese prisoner of war camps, and fire-bombed cities could testify. And the first three battles of Monte Cassino in January–March 1944 certainly matched Passchendaele for their stupidity and needless casualties. It is a myth to believe that military folly is confined just to WWI.

This is a book about how WWI has been remembered in New Zealand. There is very little about New Zealand’s experience in the war itself. Challenging, perceptive and wide ranging, all chapters in the book are well worth reading.

One further statement needs to be questioned though. On page 13 the editors write that “military history in recent years has rivalled in popularity rugby and cooking books. Perhaps it will even surpass the latter during the centenaries of August 1914 and April 1915”. Popular cooking books in New Zealand sell in the hundreds of thousands. A popular military history book will be doing well if it sells more than 2000 copies. While military historians would love to sell as many books as popular chefs and sports writers, even with the centenary of WWI having now arrived, this will be unlikely.

 

Glyn Harper is a best-selling military historian and Professor of War Studies at Massey University.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Sociology and War
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