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Book review: New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919

New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919 by Damien Fenton (Penguin, in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, $75)

Review by John Ringer

As most men did before going into action, 2nd Lt. George Black, formerly of Poverty Bay, wrote to his mother from a trench on the Somme on the evening of July 13 1916. “My Company has been picked to make a raid on the German trenches… we are going across before daylight in the morning. Our artillery will prepare the way by smashing up their wire entanglements and bombarding their trenches, so it should be fairly easy for us to get in and come back.”

The raid was a disaster, and George Black did not survive it. His younger brother Dick, also serving on the Western Front, wrote another letter ten days later, assuring his family that George had died, “as the noble old soul had lived, thinking always of others”. Despite the unimaginable scale of the slaughter, (“There are but few of my old brother officers left”), Dick Black remained convinced of the war’s purpose and eventual outcome. “We will have to go on paying until Germany, the enemy of all that is good, is down, and down for ever.”

Both letters, in facsimile form that preserves their urgent handwriting, are contained in a packet attached to the entry on trench warfare in this elaborately produced centenary history. Its researchers and designers have gone to unusual lengths to produce a book for the Internet age, and for readers accustomed to clicking on links rather than turning pages. In that objective, they have amply succeeded.

New Zealand and the First World War come packaged in a sturdy slipcase and bound between hard covers that carry no words at all, but rely purely on full-bleed battlefield photographs to convey their contents. The heavy favouring of visual over textual information is maintained throughout. The book is constructed as a series of full-colour double-page spreads, each carrying a terse few hundred words on a specific subject (‘Recruiting and conscription’, ‘New Zealand Women at War’, ‘The War in the Air’), but adorned with a superb selection of images – not only contemporary photographs but also maps, cartoons, postcards and assorted militaria. The overall effect reminded me of the handsomely illustrated but content-light Time-Life educational books of my childhood, with a dash of the Boys Own Annual.

The inspired inclusion of envelopes and paper packets containing facsimile documents from the war – personal letters like those quoted above, posters, leave passes and a delightfully prudish pamphlet on sexual health – gives this already substantial volume the added and atavistic appeal of childhood scrapbooks and stamp albums. Extracting and unfolding these intensely evocative paper objects offers a tactile satisfaction and engagement with the raw material of history that no website can hope to provide.

However, even as I handled and admired these replica dispatches, I felt increasingly uneasy at this book’s hearty and largely uncritical voice. It is published, in association with Penguin, by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage as a cornerstone of the government’s WW1 centennial commemorations, and can therefore claim to represent the full spectrum of the nation’s response to that war. Yet it reads more like a combined effort by the RSA and the Ministry of Defence. As a war history, even one aimed squarely at a general and book-averse public, it is remarkably conservative and selective in its account of the war’s impact on New Zealanders. The widespread opposition to conscription resulted in the jailing of future prime minister Peter Fraser for the whole of 1917, but you will not learn this from Dr Fenton’s cursory coverage of pacifist, radical, Māori and other opponents of the national war effort. Official treatment of the most determined war resisters, such as Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs, was exceptionally brutal and far worse than that dealt out in comparable Allied countries, but is passed over in a paragraph which does not mention their names.

Instead, Fenton dwells, with a trainspotter’s dedication, on weaponry, uniforms, battlefield heroics and military tactics. Home front activity and the role of women is covered briskly and, in the main, from the standpoint of patriots rather than pacifists. This is not nearly good enough given that the war’s catastrophic impacts and acknowledged futility scarred subsequent generations. Notably absent from the brief bibliography of further reading are critical voices such as Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WW1, let alone Archibald Baxter’s autobiographical We Will Not Cease, perhaps this country’s most significant literary response to the war.

It’s a stout and impressively presented volume, without a doubt, but its content seems to take little account of the valuable rethinking, by historians and others, that has enriched other recent studies of the First World War. Its constricted, spit-and-polish approach does not do justice to the sacrifice of New Zealanders such as George Black, and indeed perpetuates the hidebound misapprehensions of his brother.

*************

John Ringer is an Auckland designer and bibliophile.

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