10 Questions with Cliff Simons


Q1: The New Zealand Wars, the Land Wars, the Māori Wars — these nineteenth-century conflicts have had a few name changes, as well as changing ideas about their history. What do you think is the most controversial idea in your book?

I haven't set out to be deliberately controversial but I think that the approach of this book is quite different to others and it will give insights into the period that are new. I have discussed the nature of colonial warfare in some detail and pointed out just how different the Māori and the British forces were in the way that they waged war. Each side came from vastly different military traditions but they had to adapt their thinking and methods to confront a radically new enemy.


Q2: You have been researching, writing and talking about these battles for many years. Did you still discover new and surprising things during your research?

I have been researching and teaching about these wars for over thirty years but I still find new things all of the time. As with most aspects of life, the more that you learn, the more you realise that there is so much more to learn and understand. War is an extraordinarily complex thing and there are all of the technical aspects as well as the social and political environments within which they are fought, to understand. In the case of these wars, we had one of the economic and technological superpowers of the day, with all of the resources of the world's largest empire, against disparate tribal groups who attempted to come together in coalitions to resist it. It is a very complex story and each war or campaign during the New Zealand Wars period had its own unique characteristics.


Q3: Who is the most underrated military strategist, on either side, of the New Zealand Wars?

I’m not sure that I can say who is the most underrated, but two leaders stand out for me. The first is Governor George Grey in his first term in New Zealand. When he arrived in late 1845 the colony was in a dire situation with political chaos and war between the races. He quickly developed an understanding of the political and military situation and through the astute use of military power and very clever diplomacy, swiftly brought the war in the Bay of Islands to an end. The second leader who stands out is the Ngāti Hāuā chief Wiremu Tamihana. He was a remarkable man who led his people through desperate times. He always looked for ways to adopt concepts from the Pākehā world, such as Christianity, European-style education, new forms of agriculture, and even the concept of a king, that he felt would benefit Māori; but always with the goal of ensuring some form of Māori autonomy and self-determination.


Q4: There has been a resurgence in interest in the New Zealand Wars over the last few years and a number of new publications. What is the most important thing you want readers to take away with them after reading your book?

The subtitle of my book is ‘a military history of the New Zealand Wars 1845–1864’. Most books on the period have been written by people with little understanding of warfare. I would like my readers to develop an awareness of what actually happened in the campaigns and battles and why and how things were done, and why sometimes they were not. The main theme of the book is the role that military intelligence played in the wars and the influence that it had on the outcomes. When viewed through that lens — looking at what each side knew about the other’s plans and capabilities, their tactics, weapons and man-power, as well as the geography of the area and the socio-political climate — our understanding of this period of New Zealand’s history can be significantly enhanced.  


Q5: The book focuses on one period of the New Zealand Wars, what was behind your decision to do that?

I needed to put some boundaries around the project and so I decided to deal with the period that featured wars and campaigns that were relatively conventional in terms of colonial warfare. These are also the largest and most well known of the wars of the period; The War in the North 1845–46, The War in Wellington 1846, The First Taranaki War 1860–61, The Waikato War 1863–64 and the Tauranga Campaign 1864. The later period of wars between 1865 and 1872 became increasingly irregular (or guerrilla) in nature and almost impossible to adequately research from the perspective of military intelligence.


Q6: You take battlefield study tours for New Zealand Defence personnel and a range of other groups.What do people get from visiting the battle sites?

Military people get two main benefits from visiting the battle-sites. The first is the opportunity to walk the ground of actual battlefields and to learn about what happened. They can study the construction of fortifications, the siting of weapons and a whole range of other critical things that will help them think about the things that they may be required to do in the future. Secondly, as with everyone else, they learn about the issues from our colonial past that were so important at the time and that still impact us today. In this way, a study of the New Zealand Wars is an essential education for all New Zealanders.


Q7: What is the value of teaching about past military conflicts to today’s soldiers?

The study of past wars and campaigns has always been a valuable part of the education and training of military personnel, especially officers. It provides the opportunity to discuss all aspects of conflict including strategy and tactics and the decision making of the commanders. Such study helps prepare military personnel for future eventualities.


Q8: What is your favourite work of history, or do you have a favourite historian?

I don't have a favourite work of history or a favourite historian. Because I have spent so many years researching, I find myself taking a magpie approach and I tend to read parts of books rather than the whole thing, so I read quite widely. New Zealand has some very good historians and some very good military historians, but I don't want to highlight any one in particular. Now that this book is finished, I am looking forward to reading plenty of fiction for a change.


Q9: What more is there to say about the New Zealand Wars? Or what is your next area of research?

There is plenty more to say about the New Zealand Wars and with such a growing interest in them, I am sure that there will be many works on the subject over the coming years. Our nation still lives in their shadow and some of the race relations, social and political issues that confront us today had their genesis in the wars. I have one or two potential new projects in mind but I think I need a break for a while.


Q10: We are coming up to the second year of commemorations for the New Zealand Wars. What was the thinking around instituting these commemorations and what do you want for the future?

The first national commemorations were held on 28 October 2017. They have gone largely unnoticed by most New Zealanders so far, but I hope that they will become increasingly significant. I was heavily involved in the 2014 commemorations of the Tauranga Campaign and it was wonderful to see many people come together and learn about our past. These wars impacted New Zealand very heavily and they are as important to us modern New Zealanders as are World War One and World War Two, perhaps more so, because we still live with their consequences as a nation every day. In giving countless talks and lectures and conducting battlefield tours for over thirty years, my experience tells me there is widespread ignorance and misunderstanding about this fundamental part of our nation’s history.