On a human scale, Felicity Barnes

Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War
Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross
Te Papa Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780987668851

One hundred years on, WWI continues to loom large in New Zealand life. With the advent of the centenary, New Zealand’s “Great War” has taken on a literally monumental scale, with new and revitalised memorial structures, including the dedication of a national public war memorial space. Anzac Day saw record attendances across the country: 10,000 turned out in Whangarei, whilst Rotorua’s crowds prompted the mayor to consider holding two services in future years. In Wellington, Te Papa’s exhibition [in conjunction with Weta Workshop and Richard Taylor], “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War”, is actually larger than life, using oversized models of service people in an attempt to represent the magnitude of New Zealand’s commitment.

There is no question that war’s impact was immense, especially on a small society like New Zealand’s. But Kate Hunter’s and Kirstie Ross’s new book brings us war on a very different scale. Holding on to Home is a history of New Zealand’s war told through the everyday items people used, made and kept, on the battlefields and on the homefront. Drawing on almost 300 objects from collections around the country, the book tells the story of our Great War from the first soldier recruits, freshly photographed, carrying farewell watches and cigarette cases with their kit bags, to its end, when newspapers carried advertisements for “civvie suits” and iron tonics for those soldiers lucky enough to return. The artefacts capture not only war’s progress, but also its changing meaning. The first image is William Phillipps’s khaki service jacket, still ready for action, its coarse fabric stained by blood and shedding grains of Egyptian sand; the last is a picture of shiny, china soldier figurines made as commemorative items after the war, as mute on the realities of war as the famous “Silent Division”. In-between, there are fascinating depictions of patriotism, anti-war protests, and war’s impact on children, along with touching explorations of injury, death and mourning. In these chapters, war insinuates its way into almost every aspect of ordinary lives, and the objects themselves offer mundane testament to its immense transformative power. Knitting patterns trace out the war in wool; aprons are adorned with the embroidery learnt by convalescent soldiers; hatpins made from uniform buttons commemorate the loss of a loved one.

In these objects, the monumental war shifts to a human scale and is no less powerful for doing so. Indeed, Holding on to Home’s intimate scale should strike a chord with New Zealand readers. The experiences of WWI, and Gallipoli in particular, have long been associated with the ideas and the rhetoric of nation-making. But whilst Anzac Day and centenary celebrations still encourage this interpretation, there has also been a growing emphasis on promoting the public’s personal connections to the war. New Zealanders have been exhorted (in tones oddly reminiscent of recruiting drives and rationing) to “get involved” in the state-sponsored commemorative events, or to “play your part” by sending in stories, photos and information to the Auckland Museum’s online cenotaph. The response has been enthusiastic: at the time of writing, some 14,611 contributions have been made to the cenotaph project. For many New Zealanders, then, a war fought 100 years ago can still seem deeply personal.

Holding on to Home should engage these readers. Though well-grounded in current scholarship, it is written with a light touch. At the same time, however, this book represents an important new direction in the study of history. Material culture the stuff that forms the very fabric of our lives – has been, until recently, neglected as a source for writing New Zealand history. Yet, as Hunter and Ross demonstrate very clearly in this volume, weobjects such as these change the scale, scope, and nature of a history of the Great War: they are the items worn, lugged, held, kissed, passed around, stitched and gazed upon by individuals whose lives were enmeshed by war.

As a result, some of the more familiar stuff of war history is either sidelined or reorientated. There are no detailed battle plans, and we learn more about trench-life on Gallipoli than fighting. Indeed, there are few explicitly war-like objects here. A chapter, “Soldiers’ Stuff”, instead evokes the everyday lives of soldiers through the objects they carried. Bibles, diaries, souvenirs and cigarette cases remind us of the small comforts carried to ease the deprivations of army life. Yet, other than an insert on rifles, there are few objects that speak to war’s lethality, nor to its much-noted industrial quality. In many ways this absence is appropriate, given the book’s ambition to change the scale, scope and nature of war and, of course, there are specialist texts for those interested in the nitty-gritty of military hardware. Still, the inclusion of artefacts like trench clubs or grenades might have reminded us of the hand-to-hand, and sometimes handmade, nature of the fighting war, too. Some more substantial reminder of the Cook Island and Niuean soldiers who served, and of New Zealand’s occupation of Samoa (especially given its disastrous handling of the flu pandemic there, which the book covers for New Zealand), would also have been welcome.

However, arguably the most important consequence of the material cultural focus in this book has been to write, or perhaps craft, women back into the story of New Zealand’s war. It is possible to read whole texts on New Zealand and WWI where women appear only as nurses, prostitutes or addressees at the top of poignant letters home. In Holding on to Home, they are inextricably a constituent part of a larger story, part of the “fabric of war”. They are the bride in the war photograph, the maker of the soldier’s keepsake, the waver of peace flags, even the clerk who administered the deadly lottery of the conscription process. Their presence in this text reminds us that, as we are encouraged to personalise the war, we need to remember the contributions and sacrifices of women as well.

Fittingly, this book is an attractive object itself. The photography and design showcase the artefacts (although, in a minor quibble, I would have preferred the references to be in the captions rather than at the end of the text). The use of inserts is appropriate, but does occasionally interrupt the flow of what is otherwise a highly readable text. Hunter and Ross are accomplished historians, and their skill in this craft is clear in Holding on to Home. It will remain an important resource on the wider impacts of war for many years to come.

Felicity Barnes teaches history at the University of Auckland.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and War
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