Visions of New Zealand’s great war adventure

The centenary of the First World War – WW100, it’s dubbed in twenty-first century parlance – resonates on all sorts of levels for New Zealand. It’s a time to remember, a time to share family stories of the day; a time for sadness, and a time to recognise just how profoundly that war shaped New Zealand’s sense of itself.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli.  Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Anzac beach, Gallipoli. Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Still, there’s a difference between how we see those events now and the way they were seen at the time.

That’s where historians come in. Although there’s a popular notion that anyone can ‘become’ a historian by assigning themselves the label and then copying data from archives, the reality is that it’s a learned profession like any other – and one of the key skills is how to evaluate the material. That includes being able to recognise the ‘lenses’ that come between us and the original events, and how to understand the way people at the time saw things.

After all, they were products of their own past too. And they didn’t know their future, any more than we do.

Needless to say, no two historians agree on how to do that. We know what happened – the data is clear – but the why is usually debatable. That’s because we’re dealing with the fuzziness of societies. And so history, as an intellectual discipline, goes through cycles of interpretation – typically generationally.

My own stuff, incidentally, has been labelled ‘post-revisionist’ because the angle I’ve taken in both my popular work and my technical studies – including peer-reviewed papers – does not accept the ‘revisionist’ view adopted in New Zealand’s universities in the 1980s.

So – how do we view the First World War? A century on, we’ve lived through the Second World War and through the Cold War; and all of these have created new lenses through which society has viewed and re-viewed the events of 1914-18. The post-Vietnam anti-war view, in particular, had a profound effect on the way the First World War was seen in the 1980s.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxTo my mind, a major history project launched back then – in which the words of New Zealand’s surviving First World War veterans were ‘captured’ before they were lost forever – was heavily slanted by post-Vietnam pop-intellectual sentiment. This framework led to a style of questioning that – to my mind – also led the interviewers down particular tracks. They never got to grips with how these people thought at the time.

More soon. Meanwhile, I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “Visions of New Zealand’s great war adventure

  1. I think the most striking difference I found between kinds of historians was a couple years ago when I read a book about the history of the Voyager space program, the probes sent to Jupiter and Saturn and (for Voyager 2) Uranus and Neptune. The ordinary space history is a pretty straightforward chronological bit tracing a project from its earliest discernible traces to a definite setting of goals, of funding problems, of technological problems, launch day, unexpected problems, scientific reward, and so on.

    This book, though — Stephen Pyne’s Voyager: Exploration, Space, and the Third Great Age of Discovery made its difference clear just in its subtitle, as it talked about, yes, all that normal mundane space-history stuff, but also looked at the history of scientific exploration, and how it’s been done for centuries and for what motives, and how the Voyager project reflected those motives and how it reflected changing priorities. The result was just a magnificent book that didn’t just inform me but made me notice new things to notice, which is just the sort of thing a superior history should do.

    1. Yes it is. Context is everything for history. So, in my opinion, is cross-disciplinary understanding. It’s curious. I was brought up with the sciences – physics – and then switched to the arts with a bit of a softer science (anthropology) mixed on. I never could fathom the logic used by my fellow arts students. It seemed far too removed from a proper interplay of concepts in the way I had previously been taught. A science (astronomy) book that blends the products of the ‘science’ approach (the Voyager probes) with the priorities of history sounds like just the ticket. I must look out for that one.

  2. Very interesting. I remember when I was studying WWI at Massey, and there was a book I read that was a collection of how soldiers’ experiences affected their religiosity. The editor wrote of one contribution that the author’s opinion couldn’t be trusted because he was an atheist, and he was writing about soldiers who became atheists, so he would want to put that in a positive light. The same comment wasn’t made of Christians authors who wrote about soldiers becoming religious.

    1. Sometimes an author’s lens (and agenda) isn’t very well hidden! Subtle – and sometimes unsubtle – framing and re-framing of sources and events can cast the past in a multitude of lights.

      Incidentally, how did you find Massey? Were you in the Military Studies dept?

      1. I loved Massey, but I hated the Palmerston North weather – I’m originally from Gisborne. I was a history major, mainly focusing on medieval stuff. I finished my degree extramurally though, which was a bonus weather-wise!

  3. Interesting insights into how “post-Vietnam pop-intellectual sentiment” (what a great way of putting it) impacted the way the First World War was viewed during that critical time when there were still a handful of veterans around.

    In my opinion we recently entered an interesting period where for the first time in human history we have an excellent photographic record along with a strong supporting oral history record and reasonable moving film record of events for which there are no longer any living eyewitnesses. It is far from perfect and there are many holes, but it is something.

    The series of filmed interviews with NZ’s last Gallipoli veterans in the 1980s are an incredible record. Just imagine if the technology was around to allow for similar interviews to be conducted with eyewitnesses to historical events hundreds of years ago! I envy those in the future who will have such a unique way of exploring the past!

    1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview key figures from the past. Or even (as our descendants wlll, about today) have interview material on record. I suspect it would not reduce the degree to which historians argue over it, somehow… :-). I have to wonder, actually, about how history will view the nature of the information we gather today. A change of kind from earlier forms.

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