By Stevan Eldred-Grigg. (Random House NZ)
Future generations of New Zealanders may well thank Stevan Eldred-Grigg for setting the record straight about many aspects of WW1 crucial to understanding its true nature and its adverse impact on NZ society. His book proves beyond reasonable doubt that New Zealanders were misled into the war in both senses of the word “misled”. (i) The chauvinistic leadership of the country by the Reform/Liberal coalition government was irresponsibly inept in that it failed in its duty to rationally consider the consequences of NZ’s involvement, and (ii) it misled our citizens about its real reasons for involving them at all. Above all he exposes the big lie that the war was fought to defend freedom, justice and democracy. It is better described as an aggressive war of imperialist expansion in which any properly informed and genuinely freedom loving populace would be ashamed to participate.
Amongst the relevant historical facts of which this reader was hitherto unaware, and for which he is grateful to Eldred-Grigg for having brought to his attention are that even while British propaganda was fabricating stories of German atrocities in Belgium British troops were massacring peaceful protesters in Nigeria; while Britain supposedly went to war because it was bound by treaty to defend Belgium’s neutrality. a similar treaty supposedly guaranteeing the neutrality of African colonies was also violated- not by Germany, but by Britain. And had German or Turkish occupying armies treated civilians in the way that New Zealand occupiers treated Egyptians and Palestinians, the Entente’s propaganda machine would certainly have accused them of barbarism.
That such facts have not hitherto been widely known is undoubtedly due to their having been suppressed because they nullify the state’s claim to be fighting in defence of freedom, democracy and civilisation against unfreedom and barbarity.
At the outset of the war the claim to be defending freedom and democracy was suspect to the class-conscious workers on account of the alliance with the Tsarist autocracy in Russia. (It was already suspect to most Maori who had experienced colonialist “justice” in the Land Wars and their aftermath.) Eldred-Grigg shows that after the fiasco in Gallipoli became exposed-not by any candid admission of defeat by the government, but by the undeniable facts of the numbers of horribly mutilated troops returning from the campaign. The wider working class became increasingly sceptical and derisive of government war propaganda, and increasingly reluctant to volunteer for the armed forces. Having no popular mandate to wage war and unable to meet its commitments with volunteers the government imposed conscription in 1916. Opposition to the war thereafter manifested itself mainly in protests resistance to conscription, and politically in increasing support for the Labour Party, which in its youth was socialist and internationalist in outlook. The Federation of Labour also opposed conscription.
Eldred-Grigg relates many instances of resistance to the draft by individuals and anti-conscription leagues, and the severe penalties imposed, both on the draft dodgers and those who assisted them with practical acts of solidarity.
Eldred-Grigg says there is no way to accurately estimate the extent of opposition. However with general elections suspended until after victory, the only elections held were by-elections, and theses were all won by anti-conscription candidates.
Beyond being grossly wasteful of life and limb, which has long been widely acknowledged, the war had a corrosive effect on free thought and democratic institutions. With the co-option of the parliamentary opposition the war “in defence of democracy’’ increasingly became an assault on democracy within, with the criminalisation of dissent, the censorship of the press, the passage of laws restricting freedom of speech and movement, the introduction of passports, the spying on citizens, and the indefinite postponement of elections. Had Eldred-Grigg’s book been written under Massey’s government it would have been banned and its author charged with sedition and sentenced to years of hard labour.
The demand for wool and meat to clothe and feed the armies at the front meant the after the initial dislocation of world trade farmers and merchants prospered greatly during the war.
Although wages also nominally also rose, the inflation caused by government requisitions and borrowing and its printing of money far exceeded wage rises, and the families of unskilled workers and disabled returned soldiers suffered considerable hardship. The government financed its war effort by internal and external borrowing from the middle class. It is a measure of the magnitude of the surplus extracted from the working class that it was able to do so. The effect of this policy was to place a burden on the working class for years to come.
According to Eldred-Grigg, before the war a large and increasing share of NZ’s wool exports were going to Germany and German shipping lines were poised to enter the trade with NZ. But for the war NZ could have become a global trader sixty years before the UK joined the EEC. Instead it became totally dependent on the British market and at the mercy of the British shipping monopoly.
Other aspects of the war that Eldred-Grigg covers comprehensively are the connections of the 'elite' with the UK, the class composition of the officer corps, the annexation of Samoa and Nauru ,the persecution of “aliens” and the transformation of women’s role from domestic to industrial worker. Also the global influenza epidemic that was incubated in the front lines of the Western Front and devastated NZ and its newly acquired colonies.
Far from forging New Zealand's nationhood WW1 intensified New Zealand’s colonial dependency both economically and psychologically. Far from being a war to defend freedom and democracy it was an aggressive war of imperialist expansion which extended the territories coming under the colonial yoke, and New Zealanders were active in the conquest. Far from being the source of pride New Zealanders’ participation in the war should be a source of profound regret, insofar as which it was coerced, and of deep shame insofar as it was voluntary.
Eldred is to be congratulated for a book which so effectively demolishes the pervasive and longstanding myths about New Zealand’s participation in Great Imperialist War.