Mike Houlahan reviews Our First Foreign War


Mike Houlahan reviews Our First Foreign War for Otago Daily Times, 19 June 2021.

‘In the introduction to this excellent book, Nigel Robson sets out his defence to the criticism he obviously expects will come his way.

Our First Foreign War does not contain a blow-by-blow account of the battles New Zealanders fought in South Africa between 1899–1902, nor indeed does it contain a general history of the wider war itself.

What fascinates Dr Robson, and what he robustly emphasises he has focused on, are the political, social and economic impacts of the war on the fledgling colony.

Few readers will disagree with him after reading this richly researched and engagingly told book.

As Dr Robson says, what was once called the Boer War is much overlooked today and few have a working knowledge of its intricacies, let alone have ready access to an excellent one-volume history of the war such as that by Thomas Pakenham.

This book would have been so much more use to the general reader had it had a brief overview of the war included, maybe in the appendices, and a map of where it was fought.

That, however, is the only criticism of an otherwise admirable and eye-opening account.

Dr Robson succeeds in bringing its combatants to life through judicious use of newspapers, letters and diaries.

While the chapters have broad themes, each contains multiple mini-biographies of those who lived in these turbulent times through which Dr Robson puts a human face on a war which few today, as well as many then, fully understand.

He is also acutely aware of the geopolitical ambitions of the leaders who sent the New Zealand contingents overseas, and his account of the racial aspects of the war foreshadow similar debates to come in 1914–18.

Dunedin and Otago were of greater prominence in New Zealand then than they are now, hence frequent references of interest to local readers who may have looked at war memorials at the Oval or Port Chalmers and wondered about their provenance.’

— courtesy of Otago Daily Times.