Telling the Home Front story

<p>Steven Loveridge, co-author of <em>The Home Front</em></p>

Steven Loveridge, co-author of The Home Front

This text is adapted from a speech given by Steven Loveridge at the launch of The Home Front at Palmerston North City Library on 20 November 2019.


Setting the scene

I thought I would use this time to lay out some thoughts on how we might think about New Zealand society during the First World War, cut with some of the ideas that informed my, and my co-authors’, approach to writing The Home Front.

The First World War was fought out over 52 months and over a vast spread of terrain. Armies clashed on Flanders’ fields, in what is now Poland and the Ukraine and on the European continent’s, not so soft, underbelly – in the Italian Alps and in the Balkan peninsular. There were clashes in the Middle East, in Africa, in the South Atlantic, in the North Sea and, closer to home, in the Pacific. This fighting mobilised millions of people who originated from countries spread across the surface of the earth. Some 9-11 million of those people were killed in the war’s battles; estimates of non-combatant deaths are noted as ‘hazardous in the extreme’ but a figure of 6.5 million people is conventional. Adding those killed in circumstances and conditions linked to the conflict raises estimates still higher.

The war’s consequences altered the map of Europe, terminated historic dynasties and shattered century-old empires. And with much less fuss and fanfare it profoundly marked, and so often diminished, the lives of millions of ordinary men, women and children. The war disrupted many of the trends of the nineteenth century and launched or accelerated many of the developments that would play out in the twentieth. We cannot fully explain, for example, the rise of the United States as a superpower, the history of the Soviet Union, or the origins of the Second World War without mention or appreciation of the course and consequences of 1914-1918.

So far this makes the case for the Great War as a pivotal event in global history, but what about the position of a small country, at the uttermost ends of the earth when measured relative to the European centre of this World War. Certainly, New Zealand’s physical commitment to the war is undeniable, as so much was poured into it. In 1921 the monetary cost of New Zealand’s war was calculated as 81.5 million pounds ($7.2 billion in contemporary dollars). Even this fortune though does not capture the untold hours of unpaid labour evident in, for example, the 64,000 knitted and sewn items received by the Red Cross in one six-month period. And of course, by the end of the war some 124,000 New Zealand men had been enlisted for service out of a total population of 243,000 individuals deemed eligible by virtue of their sex and age. Of these men near 100,000 embarked; the war ended before the remainder completed their processing and training. Those mobilised represented near 10 per cent of the total New Zealand population, or 19.4 per cent of the male population, or near 51 per cent of the eligible male population. If you are male and between 20 and 45, you might flip a coin to see whether or not you might have served; if you’re not within that category you might flip one with someone who is in mind. Lastly, the 58 per cent casualty rate the New Zealand Expeditionary Force endured could warrant another coin toss to illustrate the potential impact upon life and limb.

In studying New Zealand’s experiences of the war, this country has had the good fortune of possessing the efforts of some excellent military historians who have elucidated New Zealand’s battlefield roles and experiences ‘over there’. The war ‘over here’, however, has been less considered, though there have been positive signs in recent times. This is a problem in that a total war cannot be fully understood without recognising wider society; besides an ongoing military effort, war on this scale demanded an ongoing social commitment and enormous emotional resources alongside physical ones. Moreover, commitment was never universal or unconditional and dissent to the war is part of the history.

Certainly, New Zealand’s home front has its war stories and the war years contain episodes’ indicative of exceptional circumstances, seminal events in our history or happenings that are just bizarre to our sensibilities. A reverend, known for fevered warnings of Catholic conspiracies, is publically whipped outside his Mount Eden home while onlookers cheer on his assailants; a Maori prophet deep in the Urewera claims to be the brother of Jesus Christ and is rumoured to be prophesising a German victory in the war; a Gisborne butchery, operated by a long-time resident, is attacked and looted by a mob; three Maori attempt to move a metal sphere washed up on beach near Woodleigh, thinking it would make a good water trough, when this German mine, laid by a raider as part of a formidable global voyage, detonates, killing them and three horses; a social reformer with a shining record in campaigning for the female franchise, education, freethinking and charity work becomes the President of the women’s anti-German League and calls for German elements to be purged from New Zealand life; men defaulting from conscription take exceptional measures to avoid military service with cases including a man living in a boat in Waitemata Harbour and another who joined the circus.

At a time when designations deemed Germanic were being renamed across the country, Wellington’s Tainui Terrace (a duplicated street) became Freyberg Street, as the City Council sought to commemorate local war heroes. A Minister of Defence receives word that his son has been killed in action at Gallipoli (a campaign he privately deems as ‘[s]o ill-conceived and mad a proposition it is difficult to believe it could have come from British brains’) and responds to the news by burying himself in drafting a war pension bill. An official system to open and read hundreds of thousands of private letters sent through the country’s postal service is instituted and the information acquired was used to inform various state operations; it is described as ‘the largest state intrusion into private life in New Zealand history.’

The Labour Party is founded, partly in response to wartime circumstances, in a smoky backroom in Wellington (on Abel Smith Street) and, a century later, stands as our oldest political party to date; Peter Fraser, a relatively new arrival in the country, a future Prime Minister and a founding member of that Labour Party, is imprisoned on a sedition charge in late 1916. Less than a year after his release this man, denounced as a Bolshevik by much of the press, is elected to Parliament; a young soldier writes an article for a 1917 troopship magazine candidly noting his and his comrades’ expectations of ‘mutilation’, ‘disease’ and ‘the Great Price’ but earnestly notes these as sacrifices in a necessary war; a German POW engineers a great escape from Motuihe Island by stealing the commandants’ motor boat and manages to pose for a picture while departing. A Christchurch crowd, observed as predominantly female, finds itself in a street battle with authorities; one skirmish sees a policeman, trying to detain an ‘unduly obstreperous youth in knickerbockers’, attacked by a woman armed with an umbrella.

William Massey, a man who had travelled to New Zealand at 14 year of age to work on a farm, and who fell short of many of the age’s heights of gentlemanly refinement serves as Prime Minister and represents the country in top-level diplomacy. At Versailles he is observed lecturing a sitting US president on matters of history and curtly questioning the President’s ideas of collective security to be provided by a League of Nations – adding to this altercation, recall that the US President this New Zealand farmer turned Prime Minister is lecturing, is Woodrow Wilson, a former President of Princeton University and history professor.


How should this history be approached?

There are then certainly stories to tell about how this society went to war and what effects war had on this society. War stories though should be subjected to careful investigation, if nothing else then to put them into a larger history.

But how should the history of the home front be told? A century of reflection has given us some precedents. Within New Zealand the first generation of official histories, mostly written in the 1920s, wrote with an awareness of posterity and ultimately presented the war effort as an exemplary lesson for public spirit and service: Major Fred Waite’s volume on the Gallipoli Campaign, for example, concludes ‘One and all made their willing sacrifices for the common good. And that is the message of Anzac to the people of New Zealand: Place the interests of the community before the interests of self, follow in the footsteps of the early pioneers, and make New Zealand a sweeter place for the little children.’ Very much in contrast, another tradition has generally emphasised the war as having no lesson beyond its senselessness and the illegitimacy of the systems that allowed it and perpetuated it. The difference within these approaches reflect how, as a 2007 assessment notes, ‘To this day the First World War remains contested territory: people still care passionately about it and hotly dispute its causes, its character, and its legacies.’

That was the space James and I were stepping into in writing The Home Front and in thinking about such issues a series of guiding mantras for the book emerged. First and foremost: Speak for the dead and let the living make their own assessments. In this regard I entirely concur with a point made by the Australian historian Joan Beaumont in 2013:

If we owe anything to the generation that fought and died in World War I – and the rhetoric of the centenary anniversaries will almost certainly suggest that we do – it is to try and remember the war as they saw it. In particular, we must acknowledge – if not condone – the values for which they were prepared to fight.

In this regard we aimed to present the people of 1914-1918 as fully human and acting on their own interests, passions and values. The past is often said to be a foreign place where people do things differently, and that might be taken as a response to some of the aforementioned war stories. However, a century is an odd amount of time to divide their present from our own. The New Zealanders of 1914-1918 are not always so obviously different from ourselves and so often that foreign place is painfully familiar as the world we have inherited. Those I’ve shown the book to, and this is a credit to MUP’s work on the images, have readily sought, and often succeeded, in identifying familiar locations.

The second mantra was to embrace the multifaceted aspects of the history. There are various strands within a home front history that might be pursued. The major aspects include the political, the diplomatic, the social/cultural and the economic. Those can be further divided into more specific considerations; how did the war effect female employment patterns; did the war change religious observance; did various regions experience the war differently; how were Crown/Maori relationships reflected within the war effort; how successful was New Zealand at reintegrating its returned servicemen. Besides the want to include these considerations, and many more, in their own right, so often laying them out beside one another added to a greater whole as they reflected underlying dynamics.

A third, and final rule – be smart with structure. Chronologically the war spanned 52 months – investigating pre-war contexts and post-war consequences potentially widens this scope to decades – and as I’ve alluded to, there are numerous aspects of the home front to pursue. The rock and a hard place here is a risk of missing crucial details and experiences and overwhelming the reader and losing any sense of narrative. The solution, as we saw it, was to play the story forward, let the developing war set the pace and to impress that the people of 1914–1918 did not fight the war with knowledge of what was to come next.

What, hopefully, emerges from this approach is an altogether more complex world peopled by men and women as real as we are today, in which a sense of possibility is restored and what the labour historian E.P. Thompson once described as ‘The enormous condescension of posterity’ is avoided. You can of course buy the book to fully evaluate our thinking on this but for now let me offer a few snapshots of the evolving manner in which the New Zealand Home Front responded to the war across its duration.


July Crisis

Consider the public mood on 5 August 1914 as war was declared in New Zealand. By popular myth New Zealanders, as with so many other peoples, went to war expressing mass enthusiasm, indicative of an innocence or haunting naivety of what was to come – both complementing the sense of a war often defined by tragic irony. Historians and commentators have joined the act and have claimed ‘The war was never New Zealand’s … Even the causes of the conflict were not clear to us’ and ‘New Zealanders in 1914 did not investigate the causes of the conflict’.

This sense of things is only sustainable by degree. On 28 June 1914 the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Bosnian radicals aided by the Serbian military. In the following weeks, New Zealand media demonstrated an astute awareness of the developing crisis and that Austro-Serbian tensions might result in a regional war and that could escalate into a general European war and that this might compel a British involvement. ‘Historians of the future,’ noted the Nelson Evening Mail in late July, ‘will turn to the year 1914 as marking great changes in world affairs. What those changes will be it is impossible to say now. We stand on the threshold of great upheaval, and the fate of Empires hangs in the balance.’ In the final days of peace people recorded their impressions of the crisis in diaries, many rushed to stockpile goods and crowds gathered in public for reassurance and to hear the latest news. This was the context when, on 5 August 1914, some 12,000–15,000 Wellingtonians assembled outside Parliament in response to the news that the Governor would be making an announcement. This was revealed to be a statement that the British Empire (including New Zealand as a Dominion) was at war with Germany following the latter’s invasion of Belgium.

Furthermore, public reactions to the declaration are more complicated than popular mythology. Certainly, many people, mostly young and mostly male, spoke and acted as if the prospect of war would be a great adventure. However, reactions were more diverse and included horror at the prospect of war and a notable cohort who took the war as, less great adventure, and more terrible duty. According to one correspondent present during the Governor’s declaration, ‘behind the outward expressions of patriotism there was an evident feeling of anxiety’. ‘[h]ats and hands were raised in the air, but the face was one of strained emotion. Old men on the outskirts of the crowd were seen with tears tracing their cheeks and women with handkerchiefs to their eyes.’ Another correspondent remarked that the cheers ‘were rather feeble cheers at first, as the people appeared somewhat staggered, but after a slight pause they were followed by hearty cheers. There were many people in the crowd, however, who were visibly affected by the gravity of the announcement.’


Initial expectations

While the Governor’s declaration resolved questions over whether the crisis would bring a war and whether the Empire would be involved, major uncertainties remained over what would come next. Many expected that the conflict would be a short but bloody affair that would be determined by a decisive knockout blow. While expressions like ‘Over by Christmas’ come with an ironically-charged payload, stemming from our retrospective knowledge, the people of the time did not fight the war in retrospect and notions of a short war are indicative of people trying to make sense of the world as they understood it. Indeed, before the war a series of influential intellectuals had argued that what we would call globalisation had made a war between interdependent Great powers economically irrational, if not impossible, and that hard limits would force a short war. At the end of August one minister suggested that ‘it may last for a year’ and Prime Minister Massey soon declared, ‘I think it will last twelve months. I do not see how the food-supplies can be kept up for longer than that.’

Besides concerns over whether New Zealand was under threat from Germany’s East Asia Squadron stationed in Tsingtao, China or whether a British defeat could see New Zealand come under foreign control, rumours and ‘fake news’ were endemic in the early part of the war. In the first week of the war, the Southland Times complained of a great many inquiries by those wanting to verify hearsay: ‘We are asked whether it is true that the German North Sea fleet has been annihilated; whether it is true that the battle cruiser New Zealand has been sunk; whether it is true that there is a Japanese cruiser off the Bluff; whether it is true that the Germans have entered Paris.’ This situation was not helped by some businesses who exploited the avid appetite for war news by publicising rumours in their shop windows. On 25 August Gilbert Henry Price, tobacconist of Mercer Street in Wellington, was convicted of ‘knowingly propagat[ing] false war news to the alarm of His Majesty’s subjects’, by posting a notice carrying a report of a naval engagement in the North Sea in which ten German warships and five British had been sunk. Price claimed that a ship’s officer had told him that an intercepted radio message had carried the news. The police warned shopkeepers to remove such ‘skits’ or face prosecution.

What exactly New Zealand’s role would be in the evolving situation formed another point of debate. Shortly after the declaration was read, the Prime Minister noted his understanding that some 7000–8000 volunteers from amongst the territorials would serve ‘perhaps in India, perhaps in Egypt, perhaps on the Continent of Europe’, with ‘garrison duty’ likely but service at the front possible. One commentator theorised that New Zealand troops might attack German colonies in New Guinea or South-West Africa, noting ‘It was unlikely that the New Zealanders would be sent to the front, or Australians either. After all, it was a matter for very highly trained troops in the European battlefield’. Another editorial added ‘We fail to see how the action of the N.Z. Government in dispatching a mere handful of troops to a point not yet disclosed, but somewhere in Europe, which cannot be reached in under seven weeks, will in any measure affect the ultimate verdict.’


Changing mentalities

Perhaps the more general lesson should be that wars, and particularly wars on this scale, have immensely unpredictable qualities and the following years showcase this. The first brutal shift occurred from May 1915. In Europe, the bloody clashes of the war’s opening months had resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. While some New Zealand families had links to this carnage, by April 1915 the country had effectively been spared mass casualties and, nine months into the war, almost all the New Zealanders who would ultimately be killed during the conflict were still alive.

The start of the Gallipoli campaign and accompanying war deaths saw ideas of a short war fade, and notions of communal loss and sacrifice develop. On 2 May, following news of the Gallipoli landings but before news of casualties arrived, Christchurch woman Kate Commons wrote to her 19-year-old son Kenneth at Gallipoli: ‘how glad you would be to get ashore to have a go at the enemy it must have been hot work too’. After the casualty lists were posted, the tone of Kate’s letters notably altered. Part of a letter, dated 13 June, reads: ‘These are anxious times and we are so thankful as day after day passes and your name does not appear in the casualties … I pray unceasingly that you may be spared.’ Kenneth never read that letter, he had been reported killed on 8 May.

Such scenes of sickening anxiety and devastating loss played out within New Zealand families and communities for the rest of the war, most of them destined to be imperfectly known though snapshots have been captured. The writer Eric McCormick would later recall that ‘the mere sight of casualty lists in the paper brought tears to my mother’s eyes’; the MP for Taranaki, responded to news of the death of two of his three sons by saying ‘a higher Power had called them, and he was ready to submit’. However, a colleague remarked, ‘I saw the father’s great grief when news was handed him of the death of his second son. He never appeared to be the same after.’ A member of Auckland’s St Jude’s Anglican church recorded his impressions upon paying a visit to fellow congregationalist John Belcher, whose brother had been recently killed: ‘he sat in the room without coat or waistcoat in his stocking feet & his hands very dirty he repeated I knew it all along I knew he w[oul]d never come back, none of them will come back!! … It made one feel sad, it was altogether dreadful.

Beyond the immediately bereaved, any innocence or ignorance the general public held in regard to the realities of the war was brutally chipped away at. In July the first wounded troops returned to New Zealand and were transported to their homes and communities across the country, where they were met with sometimes lavish official receptions. These receptions and the witnessing of the more direly wounded clearly had an impact. As one reporter observed:

The exuberance of Auckland’s welcome yesterday to those of her sick and wounded soldiers who were passengers by the Red Cross train from Wellington was tempered by a sadness which would not be shaken off … The people cheered those men who were able to hobble to the motor-cars provided for them, but when the sick men on the stretchers were carried past, it was too sad. The cheering broke off suddenly, and in the absolute silence which followed, women sobbed openly, and men’s faces hardened in the effort of self-control.

Weeks later, a speech by the Labour MP John Payne praised:

[t]he men who are volunteering to-day’ who ‘know the hard and terrible phase this war has assumed; and while I do not wish to detract one iota from the spirit of those brave fellows who first volunteered, the men who volunteered to-day in the face of what we now know, with all the glamour of romance out of the situation, must be given credit for an ultra-bravery such as no ordinary situation could have called forth.



Escalating commitments

The changing nature of the war over 1915–1916 included a vast escalation in the country’s military commitments. This massive effort saw training facilities expanded, masses of military supplies produced, tens of thousands volunteer and fundraising efforts raise fortunes; 583 million (in contemporary values) was donated by the end of the war. It saw the war burrow into numerous aspects of life, a development George Orwell would later describe as the ‘moral pollution of war’. This includes familiar examples of newspaper editorials, propaganda posters and sermons. But this process extended into forms as banal as children’s toys and advertising for cereal. Lastly, from late 1915 conscription was increasingly demanded and a system of compulsion, to supplement volunteering, was introduced in mid-1916.

At the heart of this expanding war effort, however, was a paradox. While mobilisation rallied New Zealand, it was also an inherently destabilising process as it removed men from families, workers from the economy, changed the rhythms of trade and unleashed volatile politics around sacrifice. This would play out on various faultlines. Consider a scene at the end of August 1915 when James Allen, the Minister of Defence, gave a public speech upon his inspection of the men of the second Māori contingent. ‘Some of the Maoris, I understand, are holding back. I cannot realise why difficulties, and even the injustices of the past should stand in the way of their coming forward freely to join their Maori and pakeha brothers in upholding the flag which has done so much for them.’ A few days later, in a letter to the editor of the Otago Daily Times, one woman offered a response:

Shall I tell the Hon. James Allen their reasons for holding back[?] The Maori understands that England has gone to war for honour’s sake – that Germany violated a ‘scrap of paper’, which her representative had signed for the protection of a small country. So far so good. But the mere Maori mind cannot help asking, where is Britain’s honour? What about the ‘scrap of paper’ Britain signed for the protection of a small people, and the promises contained therein? Why has Britain allowed the New Zealand Government to violate that ‘scrap of paper’, called the Treaty of Waitangi? Did I hear the Minister say those injustices were past? No; they live to-day, and will live for ever, a blot on New Zealand’s history, and – shall I say it? – on Britain’s honour and her much-vaunted fairplay.

Or consider the tensions apparent in an April 1917 meeting called by the Canterbury branch of the Women’s National Reserve. A motion calling for women to influence their husbands to end a strike action brought a clash along class and patriotic divides and some high feelings. Speaking against conscription, Louisa Nuttall, mother of a conscientious objector, noted that women did not raise their boys to be soldiers. To this Jane Bean, a daughter of the late Prime Minister Richard Seddon, fired back, ‘I wonder what the women of Belgium brought their girls up for?’ The motion was ultimately carried ‘by a large majority’, though ‘the disaffected portion of the audience’ were noted as remaining seated during the final singing of the National Anthem.



This process of mobilisation and destabilisation was cumulative and the strains were well evident in July 1917. At this time the war had developed into something rather different from what was envisioned in August 1914. Rather than an 8000-strong Expeditionary Force, New Zealand had some 60,000 servicemen deployed. Against ideas of garrison duty (in Egypt or India), the major commitment was a combat role on the Western Front. Against ideas of a short bloody clash, was a war approaching its third anniversary and one in which casualty lists were a terrible regularity.

While a patriotic consensus loudly asserted a commitment to victory, an air of frustration over the conduct of the war thus far is well apparent. Major points in the case include the failure at Gallipoli, the Easter Rising and the horrific losses at the Somme. However, the message the New Zealand public were told, and were telling themselves, is that the worst had passed, the deadwood had been cleared out and the course to victory was clear. Several salient points were cited. For months Britain’s dynamic new Prime Minister David Lloyd George, had been promising a great reorganisation of the British Empire’s resources towards a full victory in 1917. The Tsarist government had collapsed in March with much commentary touting that the institution of a new democratic regime held out the hope for a Russian remobilisation on the Eastern Front. Moreover, the United States had entered the war in April and, besides impressing that Germany was now at war with all the world’s great powers, news coverage emphasised the sheer scale of American mobilisation as the US, which possessed an army smaller than Belgium’s at the start of 1917, built itself into military power. As the Evening Star’s San Francisco correspondent concluded, ‘Evidence accumulates to cause the German historian of the future to lament the day that America entered the war.’ It is against this background that some New Zealanders directed commendations to the United States consul-general A.A. Winslow on 4 July 1917, Independence Day. By no means an unintelligent man Winslow issued his thanks with sentiments that were common at this time:

I am quite certain that the peoples of the two great English-speaking races will stand firm and united until the object for which they entered the struggle is achieved and a victory won that will free the world of a hideous menace. From the news that is now coming to hand it looks as if Russia is with us, not only for democracy, but for a speedy victory … [i]t is my opinion that a final victory will be achieved before the close of 1917.


Decaying restraints

In one more example of the strange developing course of this war and the volatile rhythms within wartime society, the following months brought the muddy carnage at Passchendaele, in scenes that have arguably served as the definitive image of the war; this was followed by Russia’s October Revolution as the Bolsheviks engineered an armed coup and the Eastern Front ultimately collapsed. Finally, in early 1918 a renewed German offensive brought the German Army within sight of Paris. One consequence was a souring of the public mood, an erosion of restraints and while social commitment to the war ultimately endured it was clearly being frayed. It was within this context that, for example, the bells of a Christchurch church, rumoured to be cast from French cannons seized by the Prussians in 1870, were taken down and hammered into scrap with some commentators, who had previously called for restraint, voicing their approval of the action. This erosion of restraints and the upcoming application of conscription to the nation’s husbands and fathers (something everyone hoped to delay or avoid) also saw a series of measures attempting to enforce equity. Thus conscription was extended to Waikato Maori, a system of industrial conscription was applied to Dalmatian residents (who were exempt from military service) and harsher measures were employed in regards to balloted men who refused orders. Allegations of abuses were reported from a Wanganui facility attempting to reform such cases. For example, Thomas Moynihan was forced dressed into a uniform, had a rifle tied to him and was forced to undertake drill exercises. In his later testimony he recounted being punched, kicked, pulled by his hair, having his head pushed into a wall and struck by a rifle: ‘the sergeant banged the barrel of it against the side of my face saying “will you hold it?” I did not answer. He banged me several times till blood was streaming down the uniform.’


The end

The war’s end is probably as complex as its beginning, and probably as portentous in its consequences. From mid-1918, the tide began to dramatically turn on the Western Front as the German capacity to resist began to collapse. Over the following months Germany’s allies began to capitulate, German units were surrendering en masse, revolutionary turmoil was fermenting in the German home front and a deadly influenza pandemic was starting to take a deadly toll (globally but the German situation represented one more strain). German authorities privately acknowledged that the war had become utterly unwinnable and began to attempt to secure the best terms. This ultimately saw the German High Command bequeath responsibility for making peace to the Social Democratic Party. In November, an armistice was declared marking both the end to the fighting on the Western Front and a prelude to a formal peace conference.

Due to time differences and official decisions, New Zealanders began to hear of the news on the 12 November. Shortly before 9 am, every postal station in the country received a note reading ‘Armistice signed’. By 10.30 a crowd had gathered at Parliament grounds to hear the Governor formally announce the armistice from the spot where he had, years earlier, read the declaration of war. Parliament was adjourned and a national holiday was declared. Across the country anything that could make noise was employed and, despite the pandemic, crowds gathered in many civic centres. The atmosphere appears to have been a heady mix of a sense of deliverance, an exhilaration of victory, relief that a bloody and costly war was over and a hope that peace would bring a better world. The Stratford Evening Post sort to sum up the emotional mood:

The pent up feeling of years could not be expressed in words all at once. Perhaps it was the thought of a dear one forever gone, of the empty sleeve, maimed limb, or disfigured feature of a relative or close friend; maybe the thought of the Hell of the past four years welled up in the heart and made all else matter nothing for the time being. It almost seemed good to be sad for a moment, and then Joy won, and the rest of the day was spent with the spirit of thankfulness uppermost, and an exuberance of pleasure, tempered with the remembrance of the dignity of Victory.

In some regions the influenza epidemic stifled public celebration. The scene in Auckland was one of decorated buildings and empty streets; the city’s death toll peaked on 12 November, with 83 deaths, and Chief Medical Officer advised people not to congregate. Some Aucklanders marked their rejoicing in private and Auckland clerk Harrold Ennor’s diary entry for 12th reads, ‘The long looked for peace has come. May it be for all time.’



This quick tour is by no means the full story of how New Zealand reacted to the war and by no means did the story end with the Armistice. In the final chapter of the book James and I tried to demonstrate how the war resonated in varying ways in various parts of New Zealand’s political, social, cultural and economic life, alongside the life changing effects and highly personal impacts the war continued to have on so many post-war lives. Many of the war’s impacts seem paradoxical; the war brought out conservative and radical qualities, inspired idealism and disillusionment, it stirred national sentiments while strengthening imperial ties, it fostered communitarian aspects in public life as well as illiberal ones.

Arguably New Zealand’s response to the centenary demonstrates that the country’s ongoing engagement with 1914–1918 has endured into our own time. As during the conflict, this has reflected people, working within their own values and circumstances, attempting to make sense of and respond to the tragedies and upheavals of the war. But that, I think I’ll conclude, is another story.