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NZSN Second Biennial Conference: ‘New Zealand in the First World War’

Grateful thanks to Archives NZ for permission to use George Edmund Butler, ‘Menin Road and Chateau Wood with Ypres in the distance’ (Ref. AAA 898, NCWA)

Grateful thanks to Archives NZ for permission to use George Edmund Butler, ‘Menin Road and Chateau Wood with Ypres in the distance’ (Ref. AAA 898, NCWA)

This conference was designed to focus on the wider social and cultural context of New Zealand’s role in the First World War rather than on the fighting itself.  What was the impact of war on the home front?  What did it mean for the country to have large numbers of young men and some young women living and fighting on the other side for the world for four years?  In what ways was New Zealand’s self-image, and its image in the eyes of others, changed by the experience of the war?  How did the war affect race and gender relations at home?  What forms of cultural and artistic expression did the war give rise to?

As the conference took shape an unforeseen significance in holding it in London became apparent.  The many different forms of remembering the First World War in Britain during the first half of 2014 have typically rendered the conflict as one between Britain and Germany.  The role of others – colonial forces and the large number of conscripted men from India, for example – was underplayed or ignored.  Holding a conference about New Zealand and the First World War in London therefore took on added point and meaning, raising questions about how the war was being framed and memorialised, and the politics of its representation.

The opening keynote lecture by Charlotte Macdonald – ‘World War One and the Making of Colonial Memory - was particularly apposite in this respect, raising a similar question about the politics of how New Zealand itself is commemorating the conflict.  Reflecting on the coincidence of the World War One centenary with the 150th commemoration of the 1863-4 wars fought in New Zealand between Maori and government troops, she argued that whereas modern memory projected remembrance of the former into an ongoing future – the promise ‘never to forget’ – colonial memory sealed remembrance of the latter into a past that closed off time.  Not only did her paper highlight the absence of official commemoration of New Zealand’s earlier colonial war, but, for me, implied the impossibility of doing so in anything like the homogenising terms in which the First World War is currently being remembered.

Charlotte’s paper raised further questions of Maori and Pakeha participation and resistance in the First World War that were taken up by Murray Edmond in his paper on three First World War poems / waiata by Maori.  As he said, ‘for Maori the “War” played out more battles than those fought in Gallipoi and France.’  Paraire Heenare Tomoana’s ‘Pookarekare ana’, although composed before the War, became transformed into a war song and has become a kind of unofficial national anthem.  Tomoana’s ‘E Pari Ra’, was a lament written in response to the death of a Maori soldier, Whakamoto Ellison, in France.  Te Puea Heerangi’s ‘E noho, a Rata’, a response to the government’s imposition of conscription on Waikato Maori, was explicitly a poem about the home front, voicing its resistance to conscription by remembering the disinheritance of Waikato Maori after the wars of the 1860s, bringing together modern and colonial memory, to use Charlotte Macdonald’s terms, in a manner that our current memorialisation of the First World War ignores.

Harry Ricketts’ paper dealt with a very different kind of war poetry, the work of Donald H Lea and Alfred Clark, poets who have slipped the net of anthologised poetry of the First World War.  Lea’s poetry used Scots dialect and Cockney idiom to capture the experience of the rank and file.  Clark’s volume My Erratic Pal treated the war through figure of a solitary bohemian figure.  Consideration of their work nicely illustrated the aim of the conference to come at the War from a variety of different, often lesser-known perspectives.

The immediately following sessions looked more closely at specific theatres of war in which New Zealand was involved.   Sandra Barkhof addressed New Zealand’s occupation of Samoa in 1914, concentrating on the transport of German men from Samoa to prisoner of war camps in Auckland and Wellington.  Candan Kirisci offered an unusual perspective on Gallipoli, looking at the treatment of that defining engagement, and the image of the New Zealand soldier, in Turkish works of literature.  Janet Wilson examined Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair, in terms of its treatment of masculine heroism and the ANZAC myth, and asked whether or not it convincingly represents the idea that Gallipoli symbolised the moment of New Zealand’s severance from Britain.  And Clare Ashton spoke about the ANZAC nurse sisters at Gallipoli, focusing on the open-air hospital on the island of Lemnos where they treated the casualties from Gallipoli.

The final session of the first day looked at the art and music produced by New Zealanders during the First World War.  Caroline Lord’s paper considered the appointment of a small group of official war artists late in the War, showed illustrations of some of their work, and outlined the post-war neglect that resulted in the failure of these commissioned paintings as an intended commemorative project.  Paul Turner spoke about the Masterton composer and song-writer Jane Morison and examined her contribution to the musical legacy of the First World War.  We heard examples of this music, and the influence of Maori music, words and phrases in her compositions.

The second day of the conference opened with Felicity Barnes speaking on the significance of London as a second home front for New Zealanders during the War.  Full of fascinating material about New Zealanders’ reverse colonisation of the metropolitan centre during these years, her paper also questioned the idea that the experience of the War forged a distinct and separate national identity.  One of the strongest recurring themes to emerge from the conference was the extent to which new relationships between New Zealand and the United Kingdom were forged at this time.

Rod Edmond spoke about New Zealand’s most renowned conscientious objector, Archibald Baxter.  He looked closely at We Will Not Cease, Baxter’s account of the tortures he underwent as a result of his refusal to serve, placed this work in the context of other writing about the War that appeared in the late 1920s and 30s, and asked why in two world wars New Zealand remained so intolerant of dissent.

Alex Calder and Sarah Shieff offered a complementary pair of papers on the war memoir of Alexander Aitken, mathematician extraordinaire, From Gallipoli to the Somme.  Together they addressed the problem of how to express the horror and trauma of war.  Alex considered Aitken’s use of mathematical ideas in trying to describe the indescribable; Sarah, his recourse to music as a further means of bearing witness to such extreme experience.

The concluding session turned to prose fiction.  Ivane Pautler spoke about the influence on Janet Frame’s work of her father’s war-time memories, and of how the outbreak of the Second World War revived for her those memories and the cultural myths about the First World War she had grown up with.  Julia Lenders explored similar themes in her paper on Robin Hyde’s 1936 novel A Passport to Hell, examining Hyde’s depiction of Douglas Stark (‘Starkie’) as epitomising New Zealand masculinity, and the War as a forcing ground for an emergent national identity.

A distinctive feature of this conference was that it brought together speakers from a number of different countries, not just from New Zealand or the United Kingdom, but also from Germany, France and Turkey.  As with our inaugural conference in 2012, the significance of New Zealand history, arts and politics was shown to have spread beyond the former defining limits of the old colonial relationship.  Holding conferences in London about New Zealand facilitates this wider participation and offers a distinctive perspective on questions, both past and present, concerning the national culture.

A selection of papers from the conference is planned for an upcoming issue of the Journal of New Literature.