Cultural mobilisation, Philippa Mein Smith

Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War
Steven Loveridge
Victoria University Press, $40.00.
ISBN 9780864739674.

Impressed by the Blackadder account of WWI when he was a child, Steven Loveridge grew up to write a PhD thesis followed by this book, whose aim is to explore not WWI as it was fought, but the relationship between the local war effort and New Zealand society. Loveridge argues that there was a broad cultural mobilisation in New Zealand in support of the war effort. This mobilisation was not imposed by elites but swelled from the ground up, buoyed by a suite of generally accepted cultural values, beliefs and sentiments. To make his case, Calls to Arms is organised into six chapters, supported by illustrations that survey selected areas where New Zealand society and culture intersected with mobilisation for the Great War.

According to Loveridge, the critical cultural element for a pro-war consensus was a sense of being British. Any nationalism that New Zealanders felt before the war was a “Greater British nationalism”, because New Zealand formed part of a British global order along with the other white Dominions. So much for Ron Palenski’s argument in The Making of New Zealanders (2012) – not addressed in the book – that national identity was established in the late 19th century. Loveridge instead subscribes to James Belich’s view that New Zealand was a “better Britain”, or a more progressive model for being British, and of tightening ties to Britain in the early 20th century. This collective commitment to a Greater British concept and nationalism, he argues, was mobilised to sustain social consensus during the war, and it is belief in Britishness that sets the scene for subsequent chapters.

The mobilisation of anti-alien sentiment – specifically against Germans – is explored in chapter two. This begins with the familiar quotation: “To be truly British we must be anti-German.” (In 2012, Andrew Francis published an entire book with this title, which is briefly referred to here.) Somewhat oddly, Loveridge proffers anti-Australian sentiment as a precursor of wartime anti-alienism, in addition to anti-Asian prejudice. Granted, New Zealand chose not to become the seventh state of the new Australia in 1901, and the historical equivalents of jokes were already evident about how the migration of New Zealanders to Australia raised the IQ of both countries. But to claim that Australia was seen as “less than truly British” is a stretch. Australia was truly British in many senses, including as a British Dominion. The convicts whose descendants were tarnished by the “convict stain” were British; it is just that New Zealanders saw themselves as better British, and so a little superior to Australians. Loveridge does not acknowledge the family connections that demonstrated Australians were not foreign, let alone alien. G W Russell’s comment as Minister of Internal Affairs that Australians “seem to be a different population altogether from New Zealand” needs to be placed in context. Russell had served as a New Zealand representative at the Australasian federal conferences in the early 1890s, and was a member of the Federation Commission in 1901. He espoused popular views that New Zealanders were islanders and Australians were continental people, and that over time, these island and continental types would diverge in response to their environments.

Loveridge is on firmer ground when he argues that the idea that the New Zealand soldier personified patriotism had been around since at least the New Zealand Wars. The belief that the New Zealand environment bred men who made excellent soldiers was readily mobilised for the war effort. Nor was this idea unique; it was a facet of the Australian bush legend as well. Loveridge labels this belief in New Zealand masculine character the “proto-Anzac ethos”. It follows, then, that the Anzac myth was a refinement of British myth, which is Jenny Macleod’s argument in Reconsidering Gallipoli (2004), although this is not mentioned (possibly because she omitted New Zealand from her comparison of Britain and Australia).

In contrast to the qualities of soldiers, Loveridge shows how the “shirker” was mobilised as a masculine anti-type during the war in order to promote national efficiency and racial fitness. Unsurprisingly, attitudes to shirkers hardened as the conflict dragged on. One argument in support of conscription was that volunteering promoted the survival of the unfit, that is, the shirkers who evaded the call to arms. Loveridge explains how the shirker represented a wartime characterisation of eugenic thought that classified the population into fit and unfit types.

As for the part played by women: the book provides a useful summary, but offers no new insights about women’s responsibility to maintain standards at home or women’s war work, which, as the governor’s wife, Lady Liverpool’s, knitting book put it, required women to “wait and knit”. The discussion of women’s wartime employment could have been clearer. While women were not mobilised, as they might have been, scholars such as Melanie Nolan have shown how single women continued to move into paid work in the first half of the 20th century, while married women moved into the paid workforce after WWII.

There was no obvious change during the Great War. Loveridge agrees that during the war, as after, the feminine ideal continued to be of woman as mother, represented by the work of the Plunket Society, one of whose edicts was the duty of motherhood. During the war, the principles of women as moral guardians – used to argue for women’s suffrage – and of heroic maternal sacrifice, were mobilised for the war effort. Such beliefs reinforced the practice of handing out white feathers to perceived shirkers: why should one mother give up her sons for the Empire while another kept hers safe at home? Post-war, too, there was clearly a drive to “repair the war wastage”, to quote Truby King, and to “save the babies” by continuing to reduce the infant mortality rate. This drive extended to saving mothers’ lives in childbirth, an issue not mentioned in the book.

The final chapter on the culture of sacrifice, however, does contribute to knowledge by demonstrating how the populace in general attached meaning to the enormous loss of their loved ones through an emphasis on sacrifice. Certainly, the language of sacrifice was prevalent in remembrance and on Anzac Day. Although I was initially puzzled to find a discussion of war memorials in a book about cultural mobilisation for the war effort, when New Zealand’s memorials were mostly built in the 1920s, Loveridge makes the reasonable point that war memorials were not merely “propaganda”, but expressed deep human feeling and grief. That is, as with other aspects of mobilisation, war memorials were “bottom up” initiatives rather than imposed from the top by an elite. Further, the notion of “equality of sacrifice” – that the costs of war should be borne equally – was marshalled in support of conscription in New Zealand. As Loveridge notes, New Zealand’s acceptance of conscription was unexceptional since Britain, Canada and the United States adopted the practice; it was Australia’s rejection of conscription in two referenda that was exceptional in the British world.

Overall, Calls to Arms helps to make sense of New Zealand’s WWI and is persuasive that there was a popular consensus in support of the war. Loveridge argues convincingly that this consensus on the home front arose from a complex of enduring values, sentiments and beliefs that together amounted to a cultural mobilisation. The book’s contribution lies less in the chapter content, much of which will be familiar to New Zealand historians, than in the colligation of themes that produces a convincing argument. The book would have been better, though, if it had placed New Zealand in an international context by indicating where New Zealand was similar to or different from other countries, as in the conscription case. In the greater British world emphasised by Calls to Arms, was New Zealand typical or not in terms of its cultural mobilisation for the war effort and, if so, where? Such research would be welcome.

Philippa Mein Smith is a history professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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