Lamenting the sadness of war, and of New Zealand’s war historians

Flags are at half mast today across New Zealand to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937
A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

Over 100,000 young Kiwi men were drawn into that conflict over a four year span. Of these, more than 58,000 became casualties, 16,500 of them dead. For a country of just on a million souls it was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

New Zealand, of course, was far from alone.

That human cost was multiplied by the fact that survivors came back damaged; this was the war that introduced ‘shell shock’ – post traumatic stress disorder – to the world on the largest scale. During the 1920s, broken men tried to pick up the shattered threads of their lives as best they could. There was often little help. An experience wonderfully described in J L Carr’s A Month In The Country.

Today the overwhelming impression of the war – certainly the way that New Zealand historiography and popular recollection has been shaped – is of unrelenting tragedy. A senseless war of senseless slaughter in which stupid generals didn’t know what to do, other than send innocent men walking very slowly towards machine guns.

Call it the ‘Blackadder’ interpretation.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585
World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

This has been the overwhelming tenor of the key interpretations of the war, shaping even academic history. From the military viewpoint it’s not true. Despite the appalling casualty lists and human cost, the tactical reality on the ground was a good deal more sophisticated than historians usually allow. And there is a good deal else that has yet to be discussed – lost, until now, amidst the overwhelming power of human sorrow. The war’s beginning has been portrayed, narrative-style, as a mechanistic result of nationalist pride and inflexible European alliance systems. In fact, there were choices; but the underlying motives for the decision to fight have barely been discussed by historians.  Could it be that, from the viewpoint of British and French politicians in 1914, it was necessary – even essential – to make a stand? A lot was said at the time about German ‘frightfulness’. Was this propaganda or a fair assessment? How far can the underlying trends and issues be validly traced?

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427
A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

As yet, these debates have barely begun. They are being raised in Britain – I keep getting invited to contribute papers to symposia and conferences there, via the Royal Historical Society of which I am a Fellow.

Whether I can do anything about exploring the same ideas in New Zealand is moot. I write and publish on my own merits. Alas, New Zealand’s local public- and university-funded military historical crowd – all of whom prosper on full-time salaries at my expense as taxpayer – have rewarded my independent commercial work in their field by treating me like a war criminal. I know these strangers only through their public worth-denials of my scholarship and the commercial work I do to complement their taxpayer-funded activities. They do not respond to my correspondence, I cannot get added to mailing lists, and I have been unable to join their symposia even as audience – I only found out about the latest by accident. All from strangers who have felt unable to approach me directly in the first instance, but have been happy enough to go behind my back to attack me in public and then cowered behind silence when approached over their conduct. However, I’ve been told their status is such that I have no grounds to criticise them.

westernTo me the study of history – as with all human endeavour – is all about positively working together with good will, generous spirit and kindness. Grow the pie, and everybody benefits. But I appear to be a lone voice. And the experience makes me ask why I am paying the salaries, travel expenses and subsidising the publications of this little group through my taxes. There is a LOT of public money sloshing around the First World War centenary in New Zealand. Should it all be accumulated to a few public servants and academics who flourish at taxpayer expense and whose response to commercial authors seeking to work with them is to publicly attack and exclude the interloper?

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe practical outcome is there seems little chance of my getting support for what I want to do. I’d like to look at New Zealand’s First World War from a different perspective – not to dislodge the ‘Blackadder’ view, but to add to it. There are many questions, including issues to do with New Zealand’s national identity – something I touched, briefly, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin, 2010). But I can’t see myself being in a position to take that further.

But enough about the schreklichkeit of New Zealand’s military-historical academics. Instead, let’s take a moment to pause and think about the realities of the world a century ago – a world when, for a few brief weeks at least, the notion of a new war seemed somehow adventurous. It would, most of those who flocked to enlist were certain, be over by Christmas 1914.

Of course it wasn’t. As always, the enthusiastic young men, the hopeful patriots, the eager populations of 1914 did not know their future.

More on this soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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