In the wars, Piers Reid

The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History
ed Ian McGibbon, with the assistance of Paul Goldstone
Oxford University Press, $89.95,
ISBN 0195583760


The 20th century has seen a significant readjustment of New Zealand’s outlook on matters of defence. From being the most bellicose and militaristic of nations, New Zealand has become a champion of peace and strong supporter of the orderly and diplomatic resolution of armed conflict. Jingoistic backing of the British Empire has been replaced by more thoughtful reflection on our own national interests. The public of New Zealand appears to recognise the need for armed forces for both national security and to promote regional and global peace. However, they no longer appear to want to provide New Zealand forces to enforce privilege by any special grouping of nations, or to contribute to ideological disputes between coalitions.

It is almost an irony that New Zealanders can look back with pride on the history and feats of their armed forces while distancing themselves from many of the views that produced these endeavours. It is not uncommon to find some New Zealanders caught between being enormously proud of and a little embarrassed by their military past.

Another change is that New Zealanders no longer see war as a remote, male-dominated domain, but instead interpret it in almost Clausewitzian terms as totally involving all elements of our society. These distinct shifts in emphasis have been well understood by our political leaders, but more slowly accepted by some within the military establishment. The trend is seen, for example, in Helen Clark, who dedicatedly advocates peace, while still respecting the part played by our military in the past and today, taking a personal interest in the well-being and preparedness of our armed forces, and describing a book about New Zealanders at Passchendaele as her best reading of the year 2000.

It is gratifying to find that The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History has captured these themes. Editor Ian McGibbon and his assistant editor Paul Goldstone have written most of the entries and have astutely compiled a work that, while containing essentially matters of solid fact, considers our military history in light of today’s attitudes. Accordingly, it gives substantial coverage to the roles of Maori and women in wartime. It finds space for religion and war, literature, venereal disease, anti-nuclearism and anti-war movements, and includes entries on such notable conscientious objectors as Archibald Baxter, Archibald Barrington and Ormond Burton.

The work recognises and emphasises the role war has played in shaping New Zealand society. McGibbon describes it as “an attempt to demonstrate the central place of war in New Zealand’s history”. So it uses a large canvas to paint the events and influences which have coloured New Zealand’s understanding of war. This is no easy task and the involvement of 67 contributors implies an editorial challenge of a high order. The result is an editorial success, consistent in quality and genuinely producing a new survey of New Zealand’s development.


But it is first and foremost a sweeping survey of New Zealand’s military history and is remarkable for its range and scope. From earliest settlement, through the Musket Wars and Land Wars until today, this book recounts by topic and personality – Maori and pakeha, male and female – the key ingredients of our military history. Yet the approach McGibbon has taken is not entirely orthodox. He has, for example, chosen to group many battles and engagements into broader campaigns. While not perhaps appealing to the military purist, this does greatly simplify the narrative for the general reader and does not assume prior understanding of military campaigns. Similarly he describes his selection of personalities as “necessarily somewhat idiosyncratic”. It is unclear how it could be otherwise unless the volume were many times its current size, but it is as good a selection as I have seen.

With uniformly high-quality entries on matters such as battles, campaigns, ships, aircraft, capabilities, equipment and personalities, the Companion traverses and explains nearly all. It acknowledges the quite disproportionately large sacrifices made by New Zealanders in foreign wars: nearly 28,000 dead in the first half of the 20th century. The impact these able-bodied young men could have had on the building of New Zealand will never be known.

Most of our commonly known military history centres on the army and, when asked, Kiwis instinctively think of places like Gallipoli, Passchendaele, El Alamein and Cassino. It is therefore especially interesting, and perhaps relevant to today’s defence debate, to note the enormous number of New Zealand aircrew who died in World War Two. Collectively in all theatres, nearly 4,200 New Zealand airmen died, a considerable proportion of the 11,625 New Zealanders killed in that war. The influence and impact New Zealand fliers had was outstanding. They proved innovative, daring and capable of holding high command. Within the RAF, two New Zealanders, Air Marshals Park and Conningham held vital high-level wartime commands while pilots such as Deere, Checketts, Kain and Hesselyn became “aces”.

This RAF connection is important, for a strong thread throughout the Companion is the close association of New Zealand’s and Britain’s armed forces throughout all of our major and costliest conflicts up to the mid-20th century. From British command during the Land Wars followed British leadership in effect during both World Wars. British officers such as Group Captain Bettington and the highly influential Air Chief Marshal Cochrane largely built the pre-World War Two RNZAF. The relationship between the two air forces was perhaps the easiest among the services as the two grew up together from their inception.

The Companion shows the connection to be even stronger and longer-lasting in the case of the Royal New Zealand Navy. The RNZN was until the mid-20th century – and beyond in some naval officers’ minds – very much an offshoot of the Royal Navy. First constituted a Division of the Royal Navy in 1921, it did not become renamed as our national navy until 1941, despite having been so in effect for many years. But the strategic reach of maritime forces tends to favour integrated coalition operations in war rather than single national efforts. So before the ascendancy of the United States Navy during World War Two, the identification of our largely British-manned ships with those of the Royal Navy made strategic sense.

In many New Zealanders’ eyes, the Royal New Zealand Navy only really came into its own when HMS Achilles, a New Zealand Division light cruiser with a largely New Zealand crew, performed so well at the Battle of the River Plate. As with the other two armed services, there was a reverse flow of New Zealanders into the Royal Navy where again some, such as Admiral Tait, achieved high rank.


Perhaps most uncomfortable, and more implied than stated in the Companion, was the growing distrust that characterised the relationship between New Zealand’s and Britain’s armies up to the mid-20th century, but which recovered back to mutual respect by the century’s close. During the 19th century the British Army dominated New Zealand’s military thinking, fought the Land Wars, although often with indifferent skill, and dictated the nature of our army. New Zealand’s enthusiastic response to the Boer War was inevitable given the political and social climate, as was our ready participation in World War One.

Well-written entries such as those on Gallipoli, the Western Front, discipline and shell-shock indicate the impact of World War One. The poor, if unfair, reputation General Godley earned as the British officer commanding the New Zealanders in France, the futile attritional fighting and the British training and discipline methods greatly undermined British Army credibility. On the outbreak of World War Two, New Zealand wisely decided not to again “make forces available for use as determined by the imperial authorities” but instead gave General Freyberg a special charter as commander of a separate national force. The New Zealand Army grew in independence and self-confidence during World War Two, despite initial reverses, and almost entirely shook off its feelings of subordination to the British Army.

Entries on Korea, the Malayan Emergency, Confrontation, the Rhodesian Monitoring Force and Bosnia-Herzegovina show the developing of a different relationship between the British and New Zealand armies. A relationship of professional equals, comfortable with their traditions and able to work in harmony.

The Companion also reminds us of just how surprisingly wide has been the reach of New Zealand’s military involvement around the world. Not generally known is that New Zealanders were at Baku in Russia in 1918, in Malta and Yugoslavia in World War Two, and in some 60 countries since.

One is struck also by the great role played in our military history from the earliest times by New Zealand volunteer and territorial forces. These dominate the entries at the junior rank levels and have a clear stranglehold on gallantry awards. Especially during World War Two, it was the territorial officer who assumed most of the lower and middle-level command appointments, usually with distinction. The Companion notes how the New Zealand Army Territorial Force, along with its navy and air force counterparts, has been allowed to wither away over recent decades. The deployment to East Timor and the strain on the regular army has again brought territorial volunteers back to the fore. Our military history would suggest that this valuable resource should be fostered.


The Companion is inclusive and honest; in some places painfully honest and in others honest by understatement. Brigadier Leslie Andrews, for instance, whose decision to abandon Hill 107 decided the issue on Crete, had “difficulty in adjusting to the novel conditions that arose”. Descriptions of Major-General Sir George Whitmore as “never encumbering his mind with considerations for his men” and “impaired in his usefulness by incurable egotism” will not enhance the reputation of a soldier widely regarded as the father of our army. The accounts of the Surafend massacre by New Zealand troops in Palestine in 1918, and the Featherston Incident in 1943 are deservedly frank and concise. The description of Private John Stark (“Starkie”), as “violent and ill-disciplined” and at one point in a “state of berserk fury”, underscores a complex and savage individual capable of murdering prisoners, yet also of risking his own life to rescue John Coates, a later prime minister, on the battlefield.

In a work of this kind, it is almost inevitable that there will be some quibbling from military historians over minor inaccuracies and whether the emphasis is correct in all cases. Thus, while applauding the recognition of the Maori Battalion’s efforts, I found myself somewhat uneasy at the lack of similar recognition for the many other New Zealand battalions with equally impressive, or even superior, records of performance in the same battles. However, while such emphasis, or lack of it, may be noted, it is in accord with the themes and the point in time from which the entries are written.

I note also that some suppositions appear to have become facts: Maori wounded were as a matter of “fact” bayoneted at Orakau in 1864, and Lieutenant Colonel Malone, commanding the Wellington Battalion in the ill-fated taking of Chunuk Bair, is now definitely killed by his “own side’s artillery”. But such matters are slight compared with the vast trove of solid fact and serious analysis the book contains. Overall I can find very few small inaccuracies, and in all they appear insignificant enough to allow me to describe the volume as truly comprehensive.

The Companion is a quality production. It is clearly laid out and well typeset for easy reading with excellent cross-referencing. Maps and diagrams, so essential for reading about campaigns and battles, are plentiful and simple, but remarkably clear in their inclusion of important detail. The photographs and illustrations are soundly selected, of good quality and well located. This book has been well thought through and in some ways is superior to its Australian counterpart.

This is a work that does what it set out to do. It provides a concise, but comprehensive overview of the battles, campaigns, personalities and associated factors that make up our military history and have influenced our society. I have no doubt that the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History is already being selected, deservedly, as the standard reference work on our military history both in New Zealand and abroad.


Piers Reid is a lecturer in Defence Studies at Massey University in Palmerston North, and a former Chief of the New Zealand Army.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category