Kiwi take on a life-and-death struggle

By Andrew Stone

A sense of humour helped New Zealand soldiers survive the Western Front. The reference to cannibals pokes fun at German propaganda, which claimed Kiwi troops had a taste for human flesh.
A sense of humour helped New Zealand soldiers survive the Western Front. The reference to cannibals pokes fun at German propaganda, which claimed Kiwi troops had a taste for human flesh.

NZ and the First World War in Photographs

Glyn Harper and the National Army Museum (HarperCollinsPublishers, $99.99)


They left for war full of hope and enthusiasm. At the docks, thousands gathered as the men, fit from weeks at training camps around the country, clambered on to troopships and embarked to join a conflict on the other side of the world. Unquestionable loyalty had been pledged to Britain. New Zealand, the Government declared, was ready to make any sacrifice to defend "the highest traditions of the great race and Empire to which we belong".

The sacrifice was immense. From a population of a little over 1 million, the nation sent 102,438 New Zealanders to World War I.

Thousands never returned. Many who did were ruined, physically and mentally. But its soldiers also earned a reputation for their courage and skill in battle. The war stirred a sense of identity, and a New Zealand nationalism.

Historian Glyn Harper says both these elements - the traumatic cost for a small country, and the self-worth forged from the heat of battle - help shape a full view of New Zealand's war experience.

Gallipoli VC winner Cyril Bassett enjoys breakfast on the Western Front in August 1918.
Gallipoli VC winner Cyril Bassett enjoys breakfast on the Western Front in August 1918.

The two strands run through a hefty collection of black and white photographs of New Zealand and the First World War, which Harper, professor of war studies at Massey University, assembled with staff from the National Army Museum in Waiouru.

From 30,000 images, Harper made an initial selection of 1200 prints and settled on 800. The book first appeared in paperback in 2008.

This hardback edition, which signals that a wave of projects hinged on next year's centenary of the Great War is building, is printed on glossy paper and in large format. And it includes photographs the families of veterans supplied after an appeal from the authors.

Harper says many more would be in family albums and he expects the new book will prompt another flow of images unseen beyond veterans and their descendants.

To qualify for inclusion, images needed details written on the back or confirmed from other sources to provide caption material. Rare action photographs rose to the top of the pile, and staged photographs and obvious propaganda got the chop. Harper says he wanted to reflect "the sorrow and the pride" of New Zealand's involvement.

The 400-page book flows chronologically and through the great campaigns - Gallipoli, the grim years in France, Belgium and the Western Front, the little-covered Sinai-Palestine offensive. Many of the later images were taken by H.E. Sanders, New Zealand's official war photographer. But a number were captured by troops armed with a sturdy pocket camera called "the soldier's Kodak".

Sir Joseph Ward (left) and Prime Minister William Massey hear out a soldier on the Western Front.
Sir Joseph Ward (left) and Prime Minister William Massey hear out a soldier on the Western Front.

The war, says Harper, coincided with changing camera technology, and Kodak's unit proved compact, reliable and, most of all, affordable.

The author includes dozens of images of life away from the frontline, which reflect a sense of mateship and camaraderie.

"Right from the start these young men needed to bond," says Harper. "Small group cohesion helped them survive the horrific experiences that lay ahead of them."

The politics of war emerges in shots of Prime Minister William Massey and his deputy, Sir Joseph Ward, on the Western Front. The wartime leaders went twice, and got to hear first-hand grievances of the troops. Harper says the politicians insisted on getting as close to the frontline as possible.

"There are accounts of the troops treating them with disdain and heckling them from the audience, but there are others too of those who admired their courage in standing up and making themselves available to soldiers while being on the receiving end of barbs."

Harper's book closes with a collection of distressing images of wounded soldiers in an epilogue called "The Cost".

Harper says the final photographs, while upsetting, could not be left out of any book that dealt honestly with the reality of war. He quotes Ernest Hemingway: "Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."

- NZ Herald

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