Our First Foreign War reviewed by Peter Wood for the New Zealand Journal of History


Peter Wood has reviewed Our First Foreign War: The impact of the South African War 1899–1902 on New Zealand for the New Zealand Journal of History. He says of Nigel Robson’s book:

‘Nigel Robson’s Our First Foreign War is an engaging read. It does not pretend to be a military history of the campaign or a comprehensive analysis of New Zealand’s combat role in it. However, the book more than lives up to its subheading by assembling and placing on record the widespread effects that the 1899–1902 South African War had within New Zealand. This is quite an achievement, and long overdue.

Robson’s analysis is wide-ranging and thorough. It includes large sections devoted to New Zealand’s domestic reaction to the war, how our soldiers performed and behaved in the field, the extent of and impediments to Māori participation, the substantial impact the war had on soldiers and their families, and even the largely positive economic benefits, especially for South Island farmers.

To piece this mosaic together, Robson has undertaken a significant amount of research, and not just from the official sources largely found within archives. The sheer number of newspaper articles (the author benefitting hugely from the extensive and digitized Papers Past collection), letters, diaries, school magazines, journals and parliamentary records is evident by the heavily end-noted chapters. As a result, South African War-related activities and impacts are recorded throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand, and across a broad range of society, whether by individuals or groups who were for or against the war, directly involved, had family serving or just gained or lost financially. What did surprise was just how much of a nationalistic feeling and intense interest this first foreign war generated, something one newspaper dubbed “khaki fever”.

Some of the accounts are heart rending, with veterans, widows and families likely to face bureaucratic inertia or plain parsimony over pension payments, even when clearly suffering hardship directly attributable to war service. For example, one severely injured veteran hospitalized with paralysis for six years — was denied a pension on the grounds there was only £5 left in the veteran’s pension fund! The Defence Department also asked the police to investigate the circumstances of some casualties’ families, without their knowledge, to inform pension decisions. Even then, there were discrepancies in the amounts paid out, sometimes in favour of officers.

The book highlights the sheer number of individuals who applied to serve in the New Zealand contingents. Some managed to enlist despite being underage. If they were unsuccessful in this, they might then stow away aboard the transport ships in the hope of enlisting in South Africa. Many New Zealanders elected to travel to South Africa themselves and enlist in foreign units, such as the Rhodesian Field Force or Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts. Many women supported the war from New Zealand through fund-raising, whilst others opted to serve in South Africa as nurses.

Another unexpected item Robson records was a suggestion by the imperial authorities, which Prime Minister Seddon rejected, that Boer prisoners of war might be incarcerated on Rakiura Stewart Island. An alternate suggestion was to send them to Wharekauri Chatham Islands, and whilst Seddon blocked this as well, it did have the backing of a New Zealand MP (for Lyttelton) and a supporting delegation of Wharekauri residents.

The book contains many images, some in colour, many in black and white, from a range of institutions, but also from private collections and some of Robson’s own. A significant number of the images have not been published previously.

A minor criticism is that some chapters have almost too much information and too many similar examples, relative to analysis, with some of the latter left to the reader. The volume of detail does have an advantage, though, in relation to the emerging history curriculum for schools, in that most regions of New Zealand will be able to find local examples of how the war impacted on their population. This should provide food for thought on how people can become energized or polarized around a particular issue and demonstrate that the impacts of war are not solely felt offshore in the combat zone, or just for the duration of the conflict.

These criticisms do little to diminish the scholarship or value of Our First Foreign War. From it, the reader will gain a thorough understanding of the domestic impacts of a foreign war, many aspects of which resonate with World War I and World War II experiences, and in other conflicts since then.’