The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in World War I by Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Random House, $55
In this provocative history of New Zealand society during World War I, Stevan Eldred-Grigg adopts a stance more judgmental than explicatory. Eldred-Grigg likes the role of historian-provocateur. The historical landscape depicted in books such as The Southern Gentry, The Pleasures of the Flesh, and Diggers, Hatters and Whores is peopled with opium addicts, ne'er-do-wells, scrubbers, snobs and drunkards as well as the those who stalk the pages of more conventional histories. New Zealand history has been the richer and more entertaining for his work.
Not all the material presented here is new, or surprising. While no one has attempted a comprehensive home front history before, New Zealanders' war experiences have attracted some fine historians. Writers like Paul Baker, Nicholas Boyack, Sandy Callister, John Crawford, Glyn Harper, Ian McGibbon, Jock Phillips, Chris Pugsley and Anna Roger - to name just a few - have presented nuanced and thought-provoking accounts of parts of this story (though, irritatingly, the extent to which Eldred-Grigg relies on others' work and just who he is agreeing or disagreeing with at any particular time involves downloading notes which by rights should have been published with the book).
The appalling treatment of conscientious objectors has become as much a part of our war history as the landings on Anzac Cove. The high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among the troops have long been known, and the fact that many soldiers liked the booze and the broads sits comfortably with our stereotypes of beer-sodden 20th century masculinity (sometimes at the expense of remembering the significant number of young men who took their pledges of sobriety and sexual restraint seriously).
Eldred-Grigg set himself the task of pulling all this into a coherent narrative, organising the material chronologically with chapters on each year of the war bracketed by chapters on the eve of war, its outbreak and aftermath. Random House has assisted him by allowing him a generous number of colour illustrations, and printing the book on high quality paper - though, in my opinion, the decorative double page preceding each chapter and the ridiculously wide centre margins could have been cut in preference to the supporting reference material.
What holds it all together, apart from the sturdy hard cover, is the author's insistence that participation in this war was not a national tragedy or a national rite of passage but a national blunder of monumental proportions. We have been put on trial and found wanting. We went to war for the wrong reasons and did bad things in war's name.
This, he argues, was not a war forced upon us by self-interest or imperial loyalty, nor should it be remembered as a great adventure undertaken in a spirit of national innocence. It was, the back cover announces, "wholly avoidable", "wholly unnecessary and almost wholly disastrous". It was a "wrong" war because conservative sections within society used it to further their class and colonial interests, dividing rather than uniting New Zealand.
If it built a sense of nationhood, and Eldred-Grigg is not convinced it did, it did so only by marching the boots of the Dominion's troops "across the soil of a subject nation", and by bringing home the reality that "New Zealanders were merely one kind of Briton".
The cost of the war needs to be counted, not just in lives lost and money spent, but also in broken hearts, abrogated civil liberties and distorted politics.
This is a fascinating period and many people will be interested in reading more about it. Some, myself included, will find the strident, badgering tone of the analytical sections annoying overkill. Eldred-Grigg has over-egged his pudding and under-estimated his readers.
Deborah Montgomerie is an Auckland historian.