The Great Wrong War : New Zealand Society in WWI by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Random House, ISBN 9781869792633, RRP $55, Available now.
The Great Wrong War is a true writing achievement for Eldred-Grigg – a very obvious large amount of research, thought and time has gone into this book and it shows. As a history, The Great Wrong War investigates all aspects of the lead-up in New Zealand to World War 1 and what it was like for New Zealanders to live through it – from the politics, the struggles between the classes, the cultural and societal effects right down to actual day to day living and thoughts of individuals involved. These are some of the most enjoyable parts of the book – the quotes from letters, diaries and interviews.
Because this is a history of how important yet under-thought decisions, made miles away in both geography and mindset, can have such a devastating effect on those who are asked to bear the consequences.
In some ways this is a polemical history, and to be honest I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with so much polemic in my history. On the other hand it was a very enjoyable read, so perhaps that’s just my old-fashioned self clashing with my newfangled self.
Eldred-Grigg is very firmly and obviously against the New Zealand participation in WW1 and argues that New Zealand had a choice, even as a British colony, on that participation. And, as he clearly states, blithely buying into the imperalist rhetoric and sacrificing our citizens and our economy to the war was a very bad decision.
He also firmly puts paid to the gallant Kiwi digger myth with stories of bad behaviour in both Samoa and Egypt – especially in the Egyptian sex trade. The bad behaviour extended to our political leaders also, who clearly saw the war as an opportunity to begin our own little slice of Pacific colonialism by annexing the German colonies that would become available was Britain to win. (We had designs on Hawaii also apparently, but those damn yankees got there first). And it’s a mind-opener to read about the truly appalling treatment of New Zealanders with German ancestry, conscientious objectors, and the ordinary men who were corralled into uniforms and divisions, and sent off to do the bidding of an officer class that often had no clue what it was doing.
The Great Wrong War has brought up a lot of questions for me about the present – the growing nationalist fervour around Anzac Day, the pervasive myth that we were fighting a “just” war in WW1, the ideas of “sacrifice” and the encroachment upon civil and individual rights in the name of political expediency in a crisis. Packed with illustrations, it’s also a beautiful object of a book.
In the main, this is an absorbing read and also rather crushing – crushing in that just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it does. WW1 was bloody awful. Bloody awful for those who had to fight, bloody awful for those who had to say goodbye to those going to fight, bloody awful for those living near the battlefields, bloody awful for ordinary citizens at home, bloody awful for the “losers”, etc.
It was slightly less bloody awful for upper class Britishers and New Zealanders but in the end the reality was no-one won this war. 9 million + military personnel died. When it was over, another estimated 50 million people died from the subsequent spread of what was termed Spanish influenza.