Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Bill Massey's Tourists in the Big Smoke: Rethinking the First World War's Role in New Zealand's National Identity

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Bill Massey's Tourists in the Big Smoke: Rethinking the First World War's Role in New Zealand's National Identity

Article excerpt

In July 1919, a young soldier captured an unexpected image of New Zealand's First World War experience. Herbert Green had volunteered for service in December 1916 at age 23, and like so many other New Zealanders, he served on the Western Front. But by 1919, the fighting was long over. So his photograph is not of the battlefields, trenches, and camps that have come to comprise the conventional visual catalogue of New Zealand at war. Nor was it taken in Egypt, or at Gallipoli, or on the Western Front, the accustomed locales for that war. Instead, Green's photograph was taken in London: in Piccadilly Circus, to be exact.

London is rarely included in our histories of war, but for the soldiers who fought it, the city was central. Early in 1916, the focus of New Zealand's war shifted, from Egypt and the Dardanelles, to Europe. There, the shock of Gallipoli was to pass into the unrelieved attrition of trench warfare on the Western Front, and this is where the majority of New Zealand troops would serve. Consequently London became the base for operations and infrastructure. Military headquarters and hospitals were based in the city and environs, while the main New Zealand camp, Sling, was just 74 miles away from London on the Salisbury Plains. This concentration of infrastructure, and the war's insatiable demand for more and more troops, combined to create a unique cultural phenomenon. In one four-year period, tens of thousands of New Zealand soldiers, most of whom had never been overseas before, found themselves in the imperial capital. They arrived in the Big Smoke as fresh recruits, on draft leave from Sling; as seasoned soldiers, on leave from the front; and as hospital cases, the mixed blessing of a 'Blighty' wound being their ticket out of the trenches. Exactly how many arrived is unknown, but the New Zealand Soldiers' Club, in the heart of London, served a quarter of a million meals and recorded 67,483 bed nights in 1918 alone.1 Nor was this phenomenon unacknowledged at the time: in a sardonic salute to the prime minister of the time, the members of New Zealand's largest-ever travelling party referred to themselves as 'Bill Massey's tourists'.

Herbert Green, one of those soldier-tourists, found his way to London three times during his war. He had his first taste of Home, as Britain was then often called in New Zealand, when he arrived at Sling Camp in 1917. After being sent to fight in France, he was given leave in 1918, which he spent in London, and he returned again early in 1919, this time as a patient in the Walton-on-Thames hospital. On his release, Green stayed in London, joining the New Zealand Military's Records Office, where he put to use the skills from his former life, as professional photographer for the Lyttelton Times.2 Off duty, he also took pictures. Some of these were photographs of exotic locales and military activities, but Herbert Green's war, like that of so many others, included the metropolis and his images captured some of its attractions: busy streets, historic sights, famous parks.3 His background as a photographer is evident in the quality of his pictures, but the experiences that he captured on film were otherwise not exceptional. Other soldiers recorded them in diaries, shared them in letters, and purchased postcards and books of views as keepsakes. Most of all, though, they were kept as memories, and as stories from the war that could be told.

Yet these experiences, and their impact on New Zealand's culture and identity, have not been typical in our histories. War, especially the First World War, has become almost inextricably linked with narratives of an independent national identity. In numerous histories, the deadly shores of Gallipoli and the mud of the Western Front are not only scenes of staggering mortality but also of a kind of redemptive rebirth. Away from home, and amongst the British, it has been claimed, soldiers found themselves to be something distinct: they had become New Zealanders. …

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