The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing, edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean (Penguin Random House, 2015), 602 pp., $65; Calls to Arms: New Zealand society and commitment to the Great War by Steven Loveridge (Victoria University Press, 2014), 336 pp., $40; How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War, edited by Charles Ferrall and Harry Ricketts (Victoria University Press, 2014), 289 pp., $40; The Anzacs: An inside view of New Zealanders at Gallipoli: Photographs from the Auckland War Museum, with essays by Damien Fenton and Shaun Higgins (Penguin Random House, 2015), 244 pp., $45; The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington: Dissent and conformity in Wartime New Zealand by John Pratt (Otago University Press, 2016), 204 pp., $39.95
Our overfamiliarity with the bromides – war is futile, war is hell, every war is like every other war, no soldier returns the same from the battlefield – means it’s difficult for the genre of war literature to make it new, or to be pertinent as literature to anyone beyond the specialist or the obsessive. The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing is an anthology that gets around this to a certain extent by concentrating on one particular truism and using that as a thematic thread: namely, war is the forge of national identity. The selections, chosen by literary historian Harry Ricketts and cultural historian Gavin McLean, are mostly crisply edited and tightly focused. Theirs is a hefty tome: a semi-chronological echo chamber of war stories, reportage, reminiscences, documentation and latter-day analysis covering nearly 400 years. It is a book aimed at the general reader, with brief endnotes, a basic bibliography and a serviceable index.
With the current regular succession of centenaries commemorating the events of World War I, books about war from a New Zealand perspective are being published at a prodigious rate, and this plethora can mean books serve to illuminate one another in telling ways.
Steven Loveridge’s Call to Arms: New Zealand society and commitment to the Great War teases out the colonial basis for our idealisation of the soldier and the establishment of the Anzac ethos. How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War is a collection of essays from diverse authors: some seek to demystify or challenge the myth-making surrounding the unknown soldier, the fallen soldier, the returned soldier; others wish to mark kinship, nationhood, home fires burning; and some probe for the neglected, the censored, the ignored. By contrast, the verisimilitude of the enlarged photographs in The Anzacs: An inside view of New Zealanders at Gallipoli: Photographs from the Auckland War Museum has an irrefutable and visceral directness and immediacy. John Pratt’s The Prison Diary of A.C.Barrington: Dissent and conformity in wartime New Zealand, by focusing on a specific case history, bears witness to the strong counter-tradition to militarism of pacifism and the way this has highlighted tensions, contradictions and paradoxes in New Zealand’s social order.
The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing is generously wide-ranging, as if its mandate is the nation’s collective memory. It is a catalogue of bloodshed, tragedy, sacrifice, vengeance, retribution, bereavement and grief, interspersed with episodes of grisly comedy, nightmarish horror and rueful reflection, and finally it is reminiscent of nothing so much as bloody tales from the Old Testament, given a Kiwi tang and drawl – along with ritual nods towards the baleful visage of Tūmatauenga, the Māori god of war. Inevitably there are surprising omissions, a notable one being anything from the historical fiction of Alan Duff.
The ‘war writing’ begins as it means to go on, with cultural collision leading to misunderstandings and conflict. As Anne Salmond chronicles in Two Worlds: First meetings between Māori and Europeans 1642–1772, initial contact took the form of Abel Tasman’s sailors ceremoniously firing a ship’s cannon which caused consternation amongst Māori paddling nearby in waka, and lead to their reply of a haka, ‘the ritual blast of their shell trumpets’, and eventually an attack with ‘short hand-clubs’, killing four sailors and causing the Dutch explorers to hoist anchor and make a speedy departure from ‘Murderers Bay’.
The saga of colonial conflict – ‘the Land Wars’ – is retailed in turn by James Cowan, Maurice Shadbolt, James Belich and Witi Ihimaera. All provide episodes with principal heroes – or villains, depending on your point of view – around whom the action revolves: Kimble Bent (the American deserter from the British Army who fought with Titokowaru against the colonists), the sabre-waving, moustache-twirling Gustavus von Tempsky, the strategist Te Rauparaha, the avenging prophet Arikirangi Te Kooti. And the first inklings of Pākehā protest poetry about suppression of Māori civil rights are to be found in Jessie Mackay’s Tennysonian poem about British Imperialist troops storming the pacifist Parihaka community, much as the English had stormed the homeland of Mackay’s Scottish ancestors.
War versus pacificism is also sounded out in Steven Loveridge’s book as he traces the phenomenon of rapid militarist expansion, which occurred in New Zealand around the beginning of the twentieth century, and which took as its inspiration the colony’s immediate pioneering past: ‘There is warrior blood in the veins of pioneer settlers.’ As New Zealand suddenly turned more jingoistic, so martial spectacle and parade-ground pageantry became highly fashionable. Even popular advertising used military motifs. Military training became compulsory in high schools. In reflex response, an avowedly anti-militarist alliance of Labour, church, feminist and pacifist groups sprang up.
Other writers in the various books under review – in particular James Belich and Jock Philips – also explore this bellicose mood of the time and point out that it was occurring globally as various European powers manoeuvred to assert Imperialist and territorial claims. In Europe, some opinion-makers and commentators began to write of war as a form of ‘moral hygiene’, serving to purify and cleanse, and this was related to notions of racial purity. In New Zealand, Frederic Truby King, the medical superintendent of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, established the Plunket Society to promote baby care, employing the rhetoric of eugenics, and idealising women as mothers of the nation.
Military training was promoted as a prescriptive panacea: soldiering and rugby were the socially approved ways for men to assert their masculinity. In turn, this contributed to the vision of a Greater Britain, with the New Zealanders promoted as better Britons than the British. One English journalist wrote, ‘The colonials are great big-limbed athletes of amazing physique. No European nation possesses anything to compare to them.’ And so the uncouth youth of the land were drilled and square-bashed and prepared for war and defence of Empire.
A high-flown language extolling the necessity of sacrifice was the official line both before and after World War I, its vocabulary and tone intended to guide and direct public sentiment. Former Prime Minister Joseph Ward declared after the Great War was over that it had been ‘the greatest educator and regenerator the Empire had ever known, solidifying Empire like nothing before it’.
But if the lead-up to the war was about Imperial brinkmanship and the diplomatic art of bluff, counterbluff and double-bluff, the conflict itself was a war of attrition: it was intended to make the other side sink to its knees first, under the weight of the body count, and surrender. Those who fought were expendable, doomed to a sacrificial assignation. In the Penguin anthology, Jane Tolerton’s interviews with rank and file survivors of the Great War, conducted in the late 1980s, elicit anecdotes that downplay any heroics but that nevertheless vividly evoke the rueful feelings of the interviewees, who lived on while their comrades were shot by snipers, mowed down by machine gun fire or blown to smithereens – and not always by the other side.
In her essay in How We Remember, Jane Hurley investigates what happened to those New Zealand soldiers who were taken prisoner by the Turks at Gallipoli. Once again, their fates were arbitrary – some were well treated, while others died from maltreatment or mysteriously disappeared into the Turkish prison system.
The Gallipoli Campaign, which had been a military failure, a catastrophe born of muddled decision-making, in the long aftermath gradually became reclaimed as an emblem of stoic endurance and plucky heroism persisting in the jaws of defeat. The carnage was grotesque in its enormity, beginning with the death toll from the dawn landings on the beach at Anzac Cove on April 25, when the sea turned blood red. All victories remained provisional up to the final withdrawal a few months later, although graffiti left behind included one address to Johnny Turk: ‘Remember, you didn’t drive us off, we just decided to go.’
Christopher Pugsley’s Gallipoli: The New Zealand story, published in 1984, was the first book to provide a populist account, one that exactly fitted the neo-nationalist mood of the time, asserting the event as a proving ground for national identity, one based on heroic initiative and self-confidence. Likewise, Maurice Shadbolt bolstered this assertion of the Gallipoli Campaign as an anvil for forging nationhood with his play Once on Chunuk Bair, an excerpt of which is included in the Penguin anthology.
In How We Remember, however, essayist Charles Ferrall argues, ‘Shadbolt’s Gallipoli is neither historically accurate nor necessary.’ Shadbolt’s narrative here and in his accompanying book of edited interviews, Voices of Gallipoli, is ‘about a fall from innocence, a realisation of British military incompetence from which emerges a sense of a separate New Zealand identity’. Ferrall claims this is more than misleading, it is duplicitous, as is Shadbolt’s depiction of New Zealanders as superior to other soldiers: ‘Tell [the general] God damn it! that New Zealand has taken Chunuk Bair …’ etc. Here, anger, contempt, bravado and caricature are writ distortingly large.
The Anzacs: An inside view of New Zealanders at Gallipoli: Photographs from the Auckland War Museum offers visual images that have their own eloquence and resonance. In these you can read unmistakable emotion glistening in men’s eyes as they gaze from dugouts strafed by machine-gun fire or sniper fire. They are registering that they may have only minutes or moments to live, or that they will soon be going over the top and into battle. These photographs are mostly enlargements of small black and white prints taken with personal folding pocket Kodak cameras ‘about the size of a modern smartphone’.
This is documentation beyond the official record, and was actually illicit as private cameras were officially banned. Other photographs – such as those taken from a British seaplane flying above the trench lines – were obviously part of military intelligence. This is a book that zooms in on things. In one photograph we see barbed wire entanglements cradling a body; in another, ‘a mule train transporting captured Turkish rifles’. But these images also clearly acknowledge something not always obvious from the written accounts: the omnipresence of French, Indian and Nepalese soldiers. An Indian soldier calmly smokes a hookah with a beatific expression; a French artilleryman stands next to his field cannon with cotton wool wadded in his ears and a look of pop-eyed surprise. There are snaps of canvas-shrouded corpses being buried at sea, and of soldiers crouched in makeshift shelters hunting for lice in their clothing as the sun beats down.
A war can go on killing people for a long time after it’s over, and the sepulchral reverberations of the Great War continued into peacetime. Many returned servicemen felt like misfits; they had survived, but they were suffering from shellshock, or were mutilated, or nursed injuries that failed to heal. Many were haunted by the ghosts of dead comrades. This disillusionment – the experience of war as an infernal machine for making mincemeat of men; the struggle to reintegrate into ordinary society – was paralleled by the experience of women who worked as nurses tending to damaged soldiers, or whose husbands were now invalids, as well as those who had to reconcile themselves to the shortage of eligible young bachelors.
Something of this emotional climate is captured in the Penguin anthology, recorded in the post-war writing of Robin Hyde and John A. Lee and others, while James Courage and Maurice Gee effectively convey through fiction a sense of how, on the home front in wartime, the pitch of patriotic fervour could turn those with repressed anxieties into rabble-rousing and vigilante mobs.
In How We Remember, journalist Redmer Yska lucidly explains how Truth, the Australian-owned weekly newspaper with the largest circulation in the Dominion, balanced its anti-militarist and anti-conscription principles (which effectively influenced opinion in Australia) with the necessity to endorse the ‘more British than the British’ belligerence of the New Zealand government, by advocating on behalf of troops for better pay, better conditions, and better treatment for the sick and wounded (‘Sick Soldier Treated Worse than a Dog’). Truth kept the public alert to abuses of working-class rights, while also fighting against excessive censorship of the progress of military campaigns overseas.
By the end of the Great War, Truth also reflected the growing public disenchantment with the whole ‘awfully big adventure’. Its publication of a letter detailing the crucifixion-punishment in France of the conscientious objector Archibald Baxter served not just to establish him as a martyr, but also to confirm a growing revulsion.
How We Remember insists that we define ourselves morally and culturally as a people by what we remember of the past. Bullets, bayonets, helmets and similar items brought home as souvenirs, as raw evidence of traumatic experiences, gradually underwent a shift in meaning, exemplified by those items that ended up in museum collections as war memorabilia for the nation: emblems of powerful myths.
The essayists in How We Remember explore, variously, heritage culture and battlefield pilgrimage trails, representational artworks, familial participation in war events, orthodoxies imposed by bullying cliques, and the sheer quirkiness of the era’s beliefs, shibboleths and conventions. Simon During, Dave Armstrong, John Horrocks and C.K. Stead, among others, write vividly about various ancestor figures; while David Grant provides a gripping account of the principled resistance of the conscientious objector Mark Briggs. Briggs, subjected to prolonged torture by the New Zealand military, displayed, like Archibald Baxter, ‘the humility, idealism, self-sacrifice and strength of character’ that New Zealanders under other circumstances prized. Grant goes on to compare Briggs to Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, the Māori pacifist leader at Parihaka, but is at pains to point out this is not to denigrate the beliefs or bravery of the soldiers who died for king and country.
Another central figure in New Zealand’s pacifist tradition is Ormond Burton, who first served as an Ambulance Corps stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli, then fought as a soldier on the Western Front, where he was twice decorated for outstanding valour. As he later wrote, he took up arms to defend the idea of the British Empire and the ideals it espoused, but after the war he became one of the disillusioned – and a committed pacifist.
Burton was an exemplary prose stylist, and an excerpt from his officially commissioned history The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front 1914–1919 is included in the Penguin anthology. (The New Zealand Expeditionary Force was dubbed ‘the Silent Division’ because it rarely broke into song as it stoically marched towards the trenches, unlike the soldiers of other nations.)
In 1936 Burton, a devoted Christian, together with fellow Methodist Archie Barrington, formed the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society. Both became prominent war dissenters or, as the mayor of Wellington dismissively termed them, ‘peace-mongers’. Burton and Barrington served time in Wellington’s Mount Crawford prison as conscientious objectors. An extract from Burton’s prison memoir is included in the Penguin anthology.
The recent publication of The Prison Diary of A.C. Barrington: Dissent and conformity in wartime New Zealand, edited by Wellington-based academic criminologist John Pratt, who also provides a lengthy linking commentary, is to be welcomed as a telling and useful addition to the growing body of pacifist writing in this country.
From Pratt we learn that prominent war dissenters such as Burton and Barrington had a certain fame and notoriety among the public and were regarded with admiration by sections of the community. They were regularly visited in prison by a wide range of supporters. Barrington’s fellow-inmates included Basil Dowling, also incarcerated for his pacifist views. Dowling’s anti-war poem ‘Bomber Command’ (‘His business is to raid, wreck, burn, demolish …’) is included in the Penguin anthology.
The imprisoned pacifists were generally regarded with respect by prison authorities because of their commitment to their principles, their strong work ethic and their good behaviour. As Ormond Burton noted: ‘Hard and willing work enables a man to keep his self-respect in a place that is largely designed to kill self-respect.’ Pratt explains that during World War II the Labour government under Peter Fraser was unsympathetic and punitive towards ‘shirkers’, and goes on to point out that this stigma remained after the war ended, as it had more emphatically after World War I when conscientious objectors were deprived of their civil rights for ten years.
The Returned Services Association in particular was determined to penalise pacifists. It unanimously passed a motion that ‘all defaulters should be deprived of civil rights for ten years and not released from prison until twelve months after all the men from overseas have returned.’ That the government did not act on this was mainly because of intercessions from Britain where pacifists, beginning in the 1930s, were treated far less harshly.
David Grant has pointed out that in the mid-twentieth century and later, New Zealand society was ‘egalitarian, insular, suspicious’. Pratt amplifies this: after World War II an atmosphere of rigid authoritarianism and an almost fawning loyalty towards Britain prevailed. ‘People who did not conform were harshly treated … In a society where egalitarianism had largely replaced class distinction … one would be judged … on the extent to which one fitted in … This brought about a strange narrowness … [that] seemed anchored to the very depths of the New Zealand soul … Friendliness, informality and openness … also made critical debate and intellectual argument difficult and awkward.’
Pacifist-themed literature continued after World War II, most notably in poetry, where James K. Baxter relentlessly satirised the negative and destructive aspects of New Zealand society dressed up in the trappings of martial glory. The scorn and ridicule contained in his poems about New Zealand’s involvement in the Korean War and later the Vietnam War are, in a way, a response to his father Archibald Baxter’s World War I experiences.
Along with poems by Baxter, the Penguin anthology includes an anti-Vietnam War poem – that is, a poem about war atrocities – by David Mitchell. Hone Tuwhare’s protest poem about the apocalyptic menace of nuclear weapons testing by the Americans in the Pacific is also included: ‘This is no gallant monsoon’s flash, / no dashing trade wind’s blast …’ (‘No Ordinary Sun’).
And of course the anthology includes the New Zealand soldier-poets, among them John Mulgan, Denis Glover and James Bertram. Dan Davin delivers a mesmerising account of a New Zealand soldier playing dead in order to survive in Crete; while Jim Henderson provides a bitter-sweet description of being badly wounded in North Africa, taken prisoner by the Germans, and having his damaged leg amputated by an attentive and humane German doctor who effectively saves his life.
‘You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,’ the American soldier-turned-novelist Tim O’Brien has written, and by this measure M.K. Joseph’s harrowing A Soldier’s Tale, a chunk of which is included in the Penguin anthology, rings true. It is certainly true enough to elicit a resounding response in the form of poet Allen Curnow’s scathing masterpiece ‘Dichtung und Warheit’, also included.
The maniacal, the nightmarish, the fever-haunted mode is taken up by Rod Eder in one of New Zealand’s most remarkable boots-on-the-ground war novels – the blackly comic Deep Jay. Set in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, it portrays New Zealand troops attempting to come to grips with the Vietcong, a slippery enemy, a ghost-like guerrilla force, whose elusiveness creates an extraordinary hallucinatory atmosphere and bonds the New Zealanders into a cult of death, where hunting the enemy is about ritual slaughter, a pact sealed in blood. The extract in the Penguin anthology offers a glimpse into its heart of darkness.
The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing is indeed a rich anthology, one that rewards both close reading as well as just fossicking around. There’s John McLeod’s dry account of the aftermath of his role as a Kiwi peacekeeper in Angola, and Nicky Hager writing about a New Zealand army contingent integrated into British forces in southern Iraq. And much more.
Essentially the collection’s a perspective from the periphery, in that New Zealand begins as a colonial outpost, and nowadays, certainly overseas, is never an instigator of international crises but always appears in a support role, and latterly in a more pronounced role as a peacekeeper nation. War is always with us, in one form or another, even in years of peace, and so you will always find in some far-off land New Zealand soldiers deployed in some capacity, in search of resolution.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.