Johnny, get your gun

by The Listener / 13 August, 2015
In World War I, Kiwi soldiers had a growing sense of their national identity.
Scene from World War I: Kiwi soldiers taking a breather from trench digging on Gallipoli. Photo/Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-18, by Glyn Harper.

During World War I, more than 100,000 Kiwis headed overseas for military service and over half became casualties. Massey University professor of war studies Glyn Harper explains the thinking behind his new book on soldiers’ experiences.

You’ve coined a nickname for the New Zealand soldier, Johnny Enzed, following the way Rudyard Kipling’s original term “Tommy” gained currency as a nickname for the British soldier. Don’t nicknames of this kind grow from social trend of the day rather than being suggested a century later?

The term “Tommy” as slang for a soldier in the British Army was well established in the 19th century. Some historians date its origins to a War Office publication of 1815 showing how a soldier’s pocket book should be filled out. Others have suggested the term’s usage is older than this. Kipling’s poem Tommy, published in 1896, reflected the common usage of the term and his nation’s ambivalent attitude towards its soldiers.

Richard Holmes’s brilliant account of the British soldier on the Western Front used the term “Tommy” as its main title. I modelled my study of the New Zealand soldier in World War I on this book. Like Holmes, I wanted to use terms the New Zealand soldier used to describe himself. Surprisingly, they seldom used the term “Kiwi”. “Johnny” had been around for at least 60 years prior to World War I and was used to mean “fellow” or person.

NZ World War I
Johnny Enzeds fed up with Egypt. Photo/Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-18, by Glyn Harper.

Did any characteristic of the Kiwi soldier’s experience stand out for you, in contrast to, say, that of the Australians or the British?

There certainly were, although many were also shared by Australians, too. Some of these include New Zealanders’ approach to military discipline, the language they used, the importance of communal singing and, at times, almost an obsession with the quality of food they were being given. It surprised me to learn that at one stage the New Zealand Division had five concert parties putting on shows close to the front line. Something unique to the New Zealanders, though, was a growing sense of their national identity and that they were different. Anyone who doubts this should read the sections where wounded men finally made it to a New Zealand hospital. It made a world of difference to them to be receiving medical treatment from New Zealanders. The New Zealand medical personnel also felt this strong connection.

You are perhaps best known of late for your children’s books. Johnny Enzed is clearly pitched at adults. Were there challenges in doing this?

Writing for adults and writing for children requires different skills. I enjoy writing for both. You can be a bit more creative in children’s stories and writing history requires use of evidence and checking of facts. The aim with the series is to make the volumes both scholarly and accessible.

There are some gripping passages, particularly your account of the attack on Messines. Is there any part of the experience you think should be inspiring to New Zealanders today?

I am hoping most of this book will inspire New Zealanders today, although some of it deals with times our soldiers behaved badly. But most of it looks at those ordinary men placed in the most extra­ordinary of circumstances and records how well they performed. This was confirmed by all who came into contact with them: senior British generals, their allies and their enemies. The conclusion notes that many also lived through the worst pandemic of modern times, a Great Depression and another world war. If they weren’t our “greatest generation”, they were certainly its most resilient.

To what extent did the relatively high pay of New Zealand’s private soldiers shape the social experience of their first world war?

New Zealanders were well paid compared with their “Tommy” contemporaries. This enabled them to supplement their rations on the Western Front and in Sinai-Palestine. They always seemed to be hungry. It also made them very attractive potential customers for ladies of the night, which helps account for our high rate of venereal infection. Unfortunately for British “Tommys”, food vendors and prostitutes tended to jack up their prices whenever New Zealanders (and Australians) were nearby. It did create some resentment.

Our army of the day was a “Citizen Army”. Did you find any truth in the old adage that New Zealanders were “natural” soldiers?

I think the Galli­poli ­campaign showed quite clearly what happens when you commit partially trained soldiers into action against a reasonably experienced enemy. What transformed Johnny Enzed into an effective soldier was a solid training regime, good leadership, skilled combined arms weaponry, strong small-group cohesion and his ability to learn on the job. Courage and some bush skills were never enough in this war.

Johnny EnzedAbout half the men aged 19-45 in 1916 fought in our first world war. There can be little historical doubt that their experience shaped New Zealand society for their generation.

New Zealand’s war effort was massive. There were few able-bodied men of military age who did not serve. This effort had a profound effect on society, especially when the men returned home. This period of adjustment was never easy for these men and their families. Not all could adjust, either. This, however, should be the subject of another volume.


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