New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign
Efforts to explain and/or convey WWI’s Western Front have endured for a century. Libraries could be stocked with military histories investigating the operation of armies, the performance of commanders and the fortunes (often the misfortunes) of this critical centre of the war. Social and cultural studies contemplating subjects ranging from soldiers’ experiences, interpretations rendered in memoirs and monuments, and the wider legacies etched on belligerent societies, have flourished as avenues of inquiry. Popular cultural representations have likewise worked in establishing and transmitting a sense of the subject – the humour within Blackadder’s irreverent summation (“the mud, the noise, the endless … poetry”), for example, hinges on evoking accepted and shared touchstones with the audience.
All of these efforts are tested by the Western Front’s size, complexities, controversies and myths. This certainly rings true for New Zealand’s experience. Though often overshadowed by Gallipoli, the Western Front campaign represents New Zealand’s most significant contribution to the major front of the war and its largest, and most costly, military effort – fighting on the Western Front accounts for near 70 per cent of the country’s fatalities in WWI and near 41 per cent of its military deaths in the 20th century. Those approaching the subject do so with various issues of historical debate and popular conception looming over them. The shortlist of these includes questions around national identity, the performance of military leadership, involvement in “other people’s wars”, the ethos and attitudes of the New Zealand soldier, the achievements of the New Zealand Division, accountability for the events of Passchendaele, the treatment of conscientious objectors and the execution of New Zealand soldiers by firing squads. A writer grappling with such considerations under the ambitions of the centenary project faces an additional concern. New Zealand’s first efforts at writing official histories of the war appeared in the 1920s and have experienced a rather unflattering reception. A general consensus notes their “inadequacy” and “turgid prose”, and contemporary centenary efforts would appear to be an opportunity to rectify such shortcomings.
All of this means that Ian McGibbon’s New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign is stepping up to a tall task. McGibbon approaches the undertaking with a publishing record peppered with major contributions to New Zealand’s military and diplomatic history, characterised by meticulous research and an encyclopaedic style. His latest endeavour continues this pattern, and the insights of this weighty volume are well complemented by excellent production values; of particular mention is the superb array of images sourced from numerous institutions’ collections, including Alexander Turnbull Library, Archives New Zealand, Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Imperial War Museum.
Most of the book’s 24 chapters revolve around charting the major proceedings of New Zealand’s campaign, from the early involvement of some New Zealanders through 1914-1915, to the New Zealand Division deployment in France post-Gallipoli, to occupation duties in parts of Germany after the Armistice. These chapters do a fine job in documenting the course of events and providing a sense of sequence and development for a subject too often popularly perceived as a series of interchangeable battles devoid of context. Chapters 11 to 17 depart from this flow of events to flesh out some of the broader aspects of the campaign. Foremost among these are the imperial structures, political contexts, and factors of coalition warfare which shaped the campaign’s parameters. This intermission also covers various specialist roles including the efforts of tunnellers, airmen, railwaymen and medical personnel.
The interpretation synthesises the positions of the current literature and debates, offering an up-to-date assessment of the proceedings and development of warfare on the Western Front and New Zealand’s place within this history. Furthermore, besides effectively impressing the staggering complexity and logistical challenge of feeding, clothing, training, transporting, entertaining and generally managing and maintaining the New Zealand Division, New Zealand’s effort is well contextualised within the wider war. The New Zealand Division was, as the text reminds us, merely one of more than 50 British Divisions eventually deployed in France (beyond this, the French ultimately mobilised more than 100 divisions). This awareness underwrites a tempered assessment of notions of national decisiveness and, while paying heed to the New Zealand Division’s reputation, achievements and contribution, McGibbon also soberly impresses the limits of New Zealand’s efforts in a war on this scale: “It was not possible, in the context of the Western Front, for a single division to make a decisive contribution to the outcome of the campaign.”
Commendably, the detached bird’s-eye-view of decisions made, armies manoeuvred and battles fought, is skilfully fused with an on-the-ground perspective. An impressive array of diaries, letters, sketches and oral records are evident and are used both to chart the campaign’s proceedings as well as to consider the experiences and attitudes of participants as subjects in their own right. The effect is often impressive, and two examples are worth reproducing here. The first is Rifleman Allan Shackleton’s recollection of an incident preceding an assault in which an officer confronted a soldier exhibiting combat stress:
His nerves were in a bad way before this strain and when we came to move off he rolled in the trench screaming, “I won’t go. I won’t go!” and he was foaming and dribbling from his mouth. An officer came along and threatened to shoot him if he did not move off. He was fiddling with his revolver holster when he realised he was looking down the spouts of several rifles with grim looking men with their fingers on the triggers.
The second is one padre, stationed with the occupation force at the end of the war, who assessed Cologne as a “damned, rotten, filthy, immoral, degraded, debauched, earthy, sensual, devilish place” which was “playing havoc” on the New Zealand soldiers “who have not strength enough to stand up to the iniquity of it all.”
Crafting such a worm’s-eye-view carries a risk of mining sources for particular points or agendas, leading to what John Keegan spurned as “The Historian as Copy-typist” accounts. While McGibbon handles this challenge skilfully, it is interesting to contrast his conclusions with the assertions of other social histories on the subject. Whereas some – quoted by Jock Phillips in “The Quiet Western Front: The First World War and New Zealand Memory” – have claimed New Zealand soldier’s attitudes were characterised by “a deep vein of irony and cynicism”, “growing contempt for things British” and “growing pacifism”, McGibbon asserts that “New Zealanders’ morale and belief in their cause generally remained strong”. While he presents strong evidence for this contention, no direct challenge is presented to these alternative assessments, and it is going to take further work to evaluate these competing claims against one another.
The volume concludes with a consideration of many of the campaign’s legacies, including repatriation efforts, arrangements for battlefield cemeteries, national memorialisation, impacts on national identity, and cultural representations of the campaign. There is much of interest here, and it marks an obvious way to close the work. However, it also moves the volume onto less certain terrain, with claims that left me unconvinced. For example, McGibbon asserts that “Negative perceptions of the campaign are giving way to recognition of the achievement of the Allies in winning a great victory, and of New Zealand’s small part in that outcome.” How far such perceptions extend beyond specialist scholars is effectively unknown and quite questionable – this claim would also appear to mark a shift from McGibbon’s 2007 assessment that “a steady diet of Western Front horror stories, have left many looking askance at New Zealand’s involvement in British imperial ventures.” The consistent strength of the text is a demonstrated ability to synthesise masses of research, and I suspect that the uncertainties here indicate that this is an area where there simply has not been the foundational work and received wisdom to absorb.
In a final sense, the volume represents a major contribution to the country’s historiography and an excellent demonstration in tackling a complex and sometimes controversial subject. Besides setting a high standard in its own right, it is a strong validation of the centenary efforts to shine better light on New Zealand’s wartime experiences.
Steven Loveridge is an historian based at the Stout Research Centre. His latest writings on the Great War are contained within the edited collection New Zealand Society at War, 1914-1918.