Imperial identities, Tim Cook

For King And Other Countries: The New Zealanders Who Fought In Other Services In The First World War
Glyn Harper
Massey University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780995102996

New Zealand, like Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland and South Africa, contributed enormous numbers of citizen soldiers to serve in response to the British Empire’s call to fight the Great War. Some 124,211 served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), drawn from a population of around one million. Forty-two per cent of the men eligible to enlist did so. And yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that even more New Zealanders served, possibly as many as 3,000, in other dominion or imperial forces. As this cleverly titled book indicates, this is the story of those other New Zealanders – now calculated at 12,000 – who served the King, but in other national armed forces. This significant re-evaluation of New Zealanders at war is quite remarkable, and this new figure has been drawn from research into census, newspaper, archival and genealogical sources.

Glyn Harper, Professor of War Studies at Massey University, is one of the leading experts of the New Zealand war experience and his deep knowledge of WWI and the NZEF adds much to this collective biography of previously unaccounted service personnel. The book is arranged according to where these New Zealanders served, with chapters on the British regular army, the wartime-raised British divisions of citizen-soldiers, medical units, the Indian army, the Australian Imperial Force, and then service in other armed forces, such as the French, Canadian, American and South African. There is a thematic chapter on discipline and even a discussion of three New Zealanders of German origin who left the country to serve the Kaiser.

Harper examines the many ways that New Zealanders found themselves in foreign forces. Often, they were civil servants, students and nurses in Britain, who easily made the transition into uniform. Sometimes, they were adventurers travelling the world, who sought to do their bit when war broke out. Many were underage adolescents and overage men, who were turned down in New Zealand and found more lenient standards (or became more convincing liars) in Australia or the United States. For some, there was “a certain glamour” to serving in Imperial units, with wealthy young men making the long voyage to England. The largest number of New Zealanders served with the British, although 5,000 served with the Australians, 400 with the Canadians, 40 with South African forces, and a handful with the Americans.

Harper skilfully uses letters, diaries and newspaper accounts to enliven the experiences and service of these men and women in uniform. “Life is cheap. Blood is spilt like water,” wrote Dr Arthur Martin, one of 16 New Zealanders who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps early in the war and who was mortally wounded on the Somme. Another New Zealander, James Glover, whose father was a member of parliament for Auckland Central from 1908 to 1919, enlisted a surprising eight times, often deserting or being discharged for inefficiency or crimes. There is significant attention paid to New Zealand nurses, who often served in many of the most difficult theatres, and at least 100 are identified. The Freyberg brothers, who were both commissioned into the Royal Naval Division, are also featured. Oscar was killed at Gallipoli in June 1915, while Bernard survived, was awarded the Victoria Cross, and had an illustrious military career. As Bernard was later to say: “War is a hard and an unpleasant business.”

Adding to the many biographies and stories in this beautifully produced book are rare images. Much value is added in reading about the service of a particular New Zealander with an accompanying image to visualise them. It is not easy to write a collective biography of thousands, but Harper skilfully weaves the individual stories into thematic groupings, with weight and space given to the brave and heroic, those with typical military service, as well as the larrikins and the villains. While there is an expected focus on the war years, Harper also often explores the postwar experience of service personnel returning home. Some used the war as a springboard to greatness, while others were never able to find their way out of the war’s long shadow. 

The book’s research and thesis resonate beyond the New Zealand story. Other national historians will be reminded of the fluid identities of people within the British Empire. While there were fierce nationalists and equally passionate imperialists, many New Zealanders (and Canadians, Australians, etc) could and did claim membership in more than one community. Now, more than 100 years later, there is often a desire to carve out the New Zealand experience from the British one, although this book shows us that those at the time were often very comfortable in being identified as both New Zealanders and members within the empire, and served as comfortably in the British or Indian army as the NZEF. Through this book, we are exposed to the core question of who is a New Zealander and how did they negotiate identity within the British empire?

Canadian, Australian, Newfoundland and South African historians will also benefit from the scholarship here and should be encouraged to think about how many of their citizens also served in empire forces. To take one example this reviewer knows best, in Canada there is no accepted figure for how many Canadians served in the British or American forces, or possibly other national formations. With some 620,000 having enlisted or been conscripted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force and another 10,000 in the small Royal Canadian Navy (from a country of fewer than eight million), the state tracked these Canadians. But no scholar has engaged in the same work as Harper, although the number of Canadians in other forces has been suggested to be as high as 50,000. If this book’s 10 per cent figure holds – the 12,000 out of roughly 124,000 – then the figure of 50,000 Canadians is a reasonable number.

Perhaps most importantly, For King And Other Countries has reclaimed thousands of forgotten New Zealanders who have been, in many cases, absent from this country’s record of service. The next of kin of the fallen often wrote desperate letters to the War Office or other national war departments seeking information about their loved one. There was a need to know the details of service, death, and burial. Now, thanks to Harper, we all know a little more about those New Zealanders who served in WWI.

Tim Cook is an historian at the Canadian War Museum.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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