Centenary News reports on the New Zealand perspective of the First World War and national identity

Posted on centenarynews.com on 10 March 2013
Share |

Centenary News volunteer writer Svar Barrington considers New Zealand’s experience in the First World War.

The First World War remains the most traumatic event in New Zealand’s (NZ) history. Casualties numbered nearly 60,000, including more than 18,000 deaths. At the time, New Zealanders totalled little more than one million. 

These figures represent a loss (as a percentage of total population) second only to the United Kingdom (UK) within the British Empire, and the greatest for a nation outside Europe and the Middle East. 

New Zealand’s reason for participation in such a catastrophic war is often described in simple terms – the country was an enthusiastic and loyal subject of the British Empire. While this is indeed a major factor, the motivations behind NZ’s large contribution to the First World War were multiple and began more than a decade before war was declared.

At the turn of the 20th century, NZ was a fledgling nation on the edge of the British Empire. Little more than 60 years had passed since its annexation by the British Crown and New Zealanders had much to be proud of: functioning political and legal systems based on Westminster models; thriving agricultural industries that served a significant market in the UK; compulsory universal primary education; and social initiatives such as being the first nation to grant female suffrage, an industrial arbitration system and pensions for the elderly. It was because of such progress that NZ became known as the ‘social laboratory of the world’.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897 created a surge of patriotism and nostalgia for all things British. Indeed, most New Zealanders considered themselves first and foremost British subjects. 

When British interests were threatened in South Africa in 1899, New Zealand was the first colony to offer a contingent, even before war was officially declared. For many, this was the opportunity for which they had been waiting: to demonstrate their steadfast loyalty to ‘Mother Britain’, and show that NZ could punch above its weight in defence of the Empire. 

Being a young nation of pioneers and settlers, the spirit of rugged individualism had already been ingrained in their psyche. So volunteers were undeterred by the need to provide their own horse and pay £25 for their equipment as they rushed to enlist. The first 200 troops were dispatched 10 days after the declaration. Over the course of the three-year South African War, NZ dispatched a total of nine contingents. 

New Zealanders established a reputation for distinguished performance in combat. One such combatant, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred William Robin, became the public hero of the war. As Michael King writes in his book, The History of New Zealand: ‘At 39, he became the first colonial anywhere to command a unit in defence of the British Empire.’ Robin performed with great ability and became a symbol of NZ’s pride for its contribution to the war.

The importance of the South African War in NZ’s military narrative and the forging of a national identity cannot be overstated. It set a precedent that NZ would participate in conflict, not of its making and often far from its shores, to defend British sovereignty and the security of the Empire, rather than just immediate national interests. 

The decade following the end of the South African War was characterised by rampant nationalism. NZ had relished its participation in the war as a member of the British Empire and this cultivated a sharper interest in broad questions of national and imperial defence. 

Indeed, King writes that NZ pursued military and naval policies ‘with a gusto that embarrassed some of the other colonies’.

One thing was clear: NZ wanted to play an important role in the planning and conduct of future international conflict.  

A major outcome of NZ’s eagerness to be prepared and involved was the Defence Act 1909, which precipitated the creation of a territorial force recruited from compulsory military training. This allowed for the rapid mobilisation in the event of a defence emergency. By 1911, the force was 30,000 strong. 

Although it is not likely that many New Zealanders understood the sequence of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War, most were jubilant that another opportunity had arisen to put their planning of the past decade into practice.

When King George V of England declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, NZ had no doubts about the need to be involved. While legally ‘at war’ with Germany, NZ had been granted dominion status within the British Empire in 1908 and as such, was free to decide the extent of its own contribution. 

However ‘war-fever’ had already gripped the nation and the response was swift. NZ offered an Expeditionary Force on 5 August. The British accepted on 12 August and the first contingent sailed for German-occupied Samoa on 15 August.

The New Zealanders accepted a German surrender on 29 August and NZ has often boasted that it was first to occupy German territory in the war. However three days earlier on 26 August Allied Forces had subjugated the German colony of Togoland in West Africa.

The remainder of the Force departed NZ on 16 October 1914 for Australia where they joined the Australian Imperial Force. Together the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZACs as they became known, set out across the Indian Ocean. 

Initially the ANZACs were to join the British in France, however after the Ottoman Empire entered the war, they were re-routed to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal, a crucial imperial asset. They were then drawn into new plans for a major offensive to capture the Dardanelles Strait. Eventually they would land at Gallipoli. 

NZ soldiers who had ‘cut their teeth’ in South Africa, were given senior rankings. Lieutenant-Colonel Robin, the hero of the South African War, became the Chief of General Staff in NZ and the Commander of Home Forces.

While imperial sentiment was the driving force behind the enthusiasm of individual volunteers, the NZ public was perhaps less conscious of the national interest and security concerns that weighed heavy on the policy and lawmakers in Wellington. 

Trade with Britain was vital to NZ’s prosperity.  Established British markets for 70% of NZ’s wool, dairy and meat were the main source of national income. This rendered NZ particularly vulnerable to the interruption of sea trade routes. 

Security was a persistent concern for NZ. As a small, relatively defenceless colony in the South Pacific, the country had always been reliant on the might of the Royal Navy for protection. 

Fortunately that reliance was never put to the test, but in this bold new world of major conflict, NZ was acutely aware of the dangers of defeat. Not only would it destroy the economy and potentially the NZ way of life, but there was also a very real possibility the country, as one of the Empire’s colonies, could have been a concession in any peace settlements that followed. 

An important development in the make-up of NZ troops was that Maori were allowed to enlist. Much to their disappointment in the South African War, the British authorities refused Maori soldiers because ‘blacks were not to be deployed against whites.’ 

Initially that was to be the case again, however once it became clear that Indian troops would participate, a Maori battalion followed the main Expeditionary Force, first to Malta then on to Gallipoli. A total of 2,227 Maori served in the war.

Eager volunteers filled the demand for reinforcements for the remainder of 1914 and throughout 1915.  By 1916, however, news of the horrors of Gallipoli and the trenches in Belgium and France began to splinter the romantic image of the ‘glorious adventure’ that so many New Zealanders had anticipated when war broke out.  

In all, more than 100,000 men and women were deployed overseas during the First World War. Nearly one in five did not return. Those who did were often maimed or suffered the effects of shellshock for the rest of their lives. 

Although proud of their contribution and achievements, the visible and invisible scars remained and New Zealanders would never again enlist for war with the same zeal and fervour as they had in 1914.

By: Svar Barrington

Image: Dedication of the National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington, New Zealand, in 1932. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author