I have a new book out next week. The battlecruiser New Zealand – a gift to Empire is being published in Britain by Seaforth, and in the United States by USNI Press. A little later this year it’s also being published in New Zealand by Oratia Books.
It’s a very special book to me because it’s been many years in the making. I first began investigating this ship and the politics around it when I was at university, decades ago. What’s emerged is a biography of a major warship that New Zealand gifted to Britain at the height of the pre-First World War naval race, which I’ve used to paint a picture of the world of that day – the thinking, the politics and the people. The gift embodied New Zealand’s concepts of Empire – and the mind-set of social militarism which had yet to be blown out of society by the horrors of the First World War. In that sense this book is a flip-side of an earlier book I wrote for Penguin on the way this war changed that social-militarist mind-set.
In Battlecruiser New Zealand, I’ve instead explored how social militarism engaged with the politics of Empire to produce one of the most extravagant gifts a child could give a parent. Along the way I’ve also busted many of the myths that wrap the origins and deployment of the ship, including the claim – widely repeated in enthusiast works – that she had been built for New Zealand service and the government belatedly realised they couldn’t support it. This is pure fantasy. The actual story is a lot juicier, involving colliding egoes, political grandstanding, and putting one over Australia.
One surprise as I explored the topic was the extent to which Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was involved. He was Britain’s primary seagoing commander in the First World War, a kind, thoughtful and sharply intelligent career officer who had been closely involved with the invention of HMS Dreadnought and many of the technologies of the day in the years leading up to the war. He was directly involved with HMS New Zealand, from guiding the technologies that went into her – such as new-formula armour – to organising contracts for her construction, to commanding the force of which the battlecruiser was ultimately a part – and finally, living aboard her for a year in 1919-20 during a mission to advise Britain’s main Dominions on naval policy. It was a remarkable connection, and I asked Jellicoe’s grandson, Nick Jellicoe, if he’d be good enough to write a foreword. Nick very kindly agreed.
What finally emerged is a story of Britain’s imperial age; a tale of pride, ego, ambition and people: everybody from the pompous and ambitous New Zealand Premier, Joseph Ward (Sir Joseph, after the ship was gifted), to the ship’s first captain, the very capable Lionel Halsey. It’s the story of the ship’s crew and officers – among them a number of New Zealanders – and, of course, threading through the whole we find John Jellicoe. It’s profusely illustrated, including photos never before published of life aboard the ship in 1919-20.
Check it out – The Battlecruiser New Zealand: a gift to Empire will be found in all good bookstores across the US, Britain, Ireland and New Zealand. And it’s available for pre-order from Amazon right now. Click through to buy.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021