Soldiering on on the home front

by Matthew Wright / 28 May, 2015
As Kiwis gave up their lives on WWI’s battlefields, the war was also being fought back here.
Help from home: the Maheno, a hospital ship paid for by public donations, saw service at Gallipoli and the Somme. Art/Alexander Turnbull Library

As the dust settles from the ­Gallipoli centenary and we wait for the Western Front anniversaries to roll around, it’s timely to contemplate the other side of our World War I, the home front. That has always been the poor cousin of our overseas adventures. But the local experience was no less important, and that comes out in Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge’s New Zealand’s First World War Heritage. It’s one of a series produced by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to mark 100 years since the Great War.

When I was growing up, New Zealand apparently didn’t have a history. Schoolchildren were forced to memorise lists of British monarchs instead of being allowed to enjoy the stories available on our own doorstep. This flowed from our love affair with Britain, an unrequited obsession that dominated the first half of the 20th century and added a social imperative to our drive to help Britain in wars from Europe to North Africa and beyond.

Of course, we did have a history – a rich and multicultural one. It was all around us, if we knew how to look. And when it comes to World War I, Bargas and Shoebridge show us, taking us on a journey through the 1914-18 experience at home.

The backdrop still forms part of our lives today, as often as not. It’s there in our hospitals; it’s there in buildings and warehouses. It’s there in stately homes such as Orua Wharo in Hawke’s Bay where, Bargas and Shoebridge tell us, the Territorials held their annual national camps, and where William Malone invented the iconic “lemon squeezer” hat.

That range of buildings, parks and places – from long-forsaken military camps to buildings that still feature in everyday life – drives home just how involving World War I was for all New Zealanders, how enduring it was and is.

One of the book’s great strengths is the way Bargas and Shoebridge have eschewed geography, hanging the book instead around themes. They take us on a journey through all aspects of the war experience at home, covering training camps, repatriation, hospitals, the soldiers’ return and the way our industries – such as milk-powder producer Glaxo, shoemaker Hannahs and woollen mills – turned to war production. There is a chapter on coast defences – places we can visit today, such as North Head in Auckland’s Devonport, now preserved as a historic park.

It’s a wonderful technique, because it gives a social dimension to our war history in ways a bland geographical listing or a simple archival copy-exercise would not.

NewHeritageThe authors, in short, make us think. And that’s what makes this book such a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of World War I. My only gripe is with the writing style, which at times is slightly plodding, reading more like an official report than popular history.

However, that doesn’t lessen the importance of this book. It’s a powerful work, engaging us in ways we can immediately experience. The message is clear: World War I is not distant history. The illustrations, ephemera, maps and “fat captions” underscore just how we can see, touch and feel the world of a century ago.

New Zealand’s First World War Heritage, by Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge (Exisle, $49.99).

Matthew Wright has written extensively on New Zealand’s military and social history, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

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