The battlecruiser New Zealand – a gift to Empire

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.

The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand in Lyttelton Harbour, 2 September 1919, during Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s mission to advise Britain’s main Dominions on naval policy. The cabin built to house him is visible on the starboard side. Ref: 1/2-072638-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22759208

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


16 thoughts on “The battlecruiser New Zealand – a gift to Empire

  1. Congratulations, Matthew! This is an exciting reveal. 🙂 The thing I find interesting is the warmth of your description of Jellicoe, even in this short post. You sound the same when writing about John Savage. Given that both books have a strong focus on character, I need to ask, as a /writer/, does your personal reaction to the historical figure colour the history you writer about him/them? i.e. is it easier to write about someone you like vs someone you don’t like?

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    1. I tend to call people as I see them – trying to keep that sense of dispassionate judgement in my writing. It’s easier to write about nice people but I’ve also written about nasty types. A few years back I wrote a biography of the NZ colonial-age land buyer Donald McLean, which Penguin published and then somehow managed to pulp after only 8 months. McLean was not a nice individual – mean-spirited, a control freak, demanding and unforgiving; and my focus there was on trying to figure out why. I concluded a miserable upbringing by a tyrannical uncle was a large part of it. (Incidentally, a friend dared me to include a reference in the book to the OTHER Don McLean and ‘American Pie’. I managed it.)

      In regard to John Jellicoe, my wife’s grandmother actually worked for him when he was Governor-General of New Zealand in the early 1920s, so we have direct family accounts of his character – which reflect and confirm the historical accounts. He was a really nice guy, thoughtful, quiet, self-effacing, considerate and popular. The stories are consistent. It speaks volumes that, as Commander in Chief of Britain’s Grand Fleet through the first half of WW1, he used to routinely walk alone through his flagship HMS Iron Duke – and was welcomed by the sailors. Whereas his 2nd in charge, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, routinely went below with marine guards.

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      1. lol lol lol! I remember that song with a great deal of fondness. 😀
        I’m not a military buff so I have to assume that Vice-Admiral Beatty was not well liked by the crew?

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        1. Beatty was a complex character who presented as a dashing cavalry-style commander, distinguishing himself with such touches as only six buttons on his uniform monkey jacket and always wearing his cap tipped to a rakish angle. He had high public profile in part on the back of his role as C in C of the Battlecruiser Fleet (subsidiary to Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet) but also because he was married to an American divorcee (scandalous, at the time), which made him independently wealthy and circulating in high social circles on the back of that. He wasn’t entirely happy with the adulation. There is also no doubt that he made basic mistakes while in command of fleets at sea, in part because he did tend to dash into battle, leaving everything else behind. Arguably – given his political connections – he was better off at the Admiralty, where he served after the war as First Sea Lord. The contrast with the quiet, studious and deeply professional Jellicoe was significant. Enthusiast history often devolves to portraying Britain’s First World War at sea as ‘Jellicoe vs Beatty’, but that’s facile and misleading.

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  2. Sounds epic, I’ll have a gander at this. Great that years of effort have now paid off. This scale of historical writing is always very impressive. I should imagine it was even more time-consuming in the pre-internet days.

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    1. Thanks – hope you enjoy the book. Much of it, indeed, was begun back in pre-internet days! And the research was not merely time-consuming, but it was incredibly difficult to get hold of the range of material now available. Even when you did, searching through it was a manual-intensive task that – again – can be achieved in milliseconds now by computer and keyword. (Of course, it means actually typing meaningful keywords and not things like ‘beer recipes’, but maybe that’s just me…)

      To me the advent of this cornucopia of data (quite possibly including beer recipes) has thrown the onus back on the historian to try and make sense of it – in effect, throwing the weight back on the analytical side of the field. It’s funny, though. Another long-gestation book I wrote was a biography of Sir Donald McLean (not the guy who wrote the song, the Scots landbuyer in nineteenth century NZ). I started researching that by manually going through his papers, held in New Zealand’s National Library. There are a LOT of them. The book was then held up for some years. By the time I got back to it, all McLean’s papers had been digitised and were online. This made accessing the material much easier, but didn’t reduce the difficulty of disentangling them, or the volume of them, or of being able to work out patterns and meanings from the content.

      This issue is usually recognised by the profession, and one reviewer of the book made particular mention of the way I’d obviously spent much time delving into the complex tangle of McLean’s papers. But it didn’t stop another reviewer – who has a track record of defaming me – having a crack on the basis that the digitisation of McLean’s papers basically meant I hadn’t had to do any ‘real’ research (as in, spending endless hours sitting in library reading rooms) and therefore rendered the book worthless. Apparently only reading-room research was valid, proving I was a shallow and stupid dilettante who lazily just used the internet. Sigh…

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      1. Hmmm good point, it’s much easier to access the records. But you still have to pick through them and decide what to include.

        Or perhaps you’re missing a trick? Head straight to Wikipedia and paraphrase like there’s no tomorrow! Much easier! Although you may get accused of being lazy.

        Anyway, I shall check this book out once I’m back from Ukraine. I’m there with work. I will actually try to visit Chernobyl whilst I’m there. Eek.

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        1. The problem with Wikipedia is it’s incredibly accurate, except when it deals with anything I actually know about, in which case it’s rubbish.

          Have fun at Chernobyl. Apparently the ‘Elephant’s Foot’ is well worth a visit, although tourists do tend to lose all their hair straight afterwards and develop leukemia a bit later.

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