Introduction

By Edmond, Rod | Journal of New Zealand Literature, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Edmond, Rod, Journal of New Zealand Literature


On Anzac Day 2015 I was in Westminster Abbey for 'A Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to Mark the Centenary of the Anzac Landings.' Opposite me across the choir stalls were the British Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg, and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed. Miliband. It was only a fortnight before the May 7 general election. Efforts had been made to ensure the service was even-handed. Just along from the British party leaders were the Turkish Ambassador and officers of their armed forces. Among the readings was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's generous poem about Gallipoli: 'There is no difference between the Johnnies / and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side / here in this country of ours'. The music played before the service included a didgeridoo performance sounding wonderful in the expansive acoustics of the Abbey, as well as an organ solo of a Bach Prelude and Fugue. The New Zealand National Anthem was sung in Maori and English (only Clegg among the politicians attempted 'E Ihowa Atua'). Yet for all this it seemed an imperial occasion. We were reminded, for example, that Britain had suffered heavier losses at Gallipoli than any other country. The impressive setting of the Abbey and the presence of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Britain's political leaders added to the imperial feel. The Anzacs, loyal servants of Empire, had come when called and willingly given their lives for King and Country. But which country, I wondered, and why?

Quite possibly I'd brought these feelings with me to the Abbey. Since the commemoration of the First World War had started the previous year, I'd been irritated by the highly selective narratives that were being offered. The BBC's headline four-parter written and presented by the doyen of media politics and popular history Jeremy Paxman (in spite of his name no friend of conscientious objectors as the programme made clear) had represented the First World War almost exclusively as a conflict between Britain and Germany. The Eastern Front was ignored as was the colonial contribution. A fascinating corrective, David Olusoga's 'The World's War', was given much less prominence and for all its merits took no account, for example, of Maori and Pacific Island involvement. What did I want remembered and commemorated? That New Zealand's losses had been, proportionately, so very heavy? That Kiwis were great fighters? That they were the most loyal of the loyal when it came to defending the mother country? What was the story I felt they were being written out of, and what kind of story did I think it should be?

The second biennial conference of the New Zealand Studies Network (UK and Ireland), 'New Zealand in the First World War', held at Birkbeck, University of London, in July 2014, from which the extended and revised essays in this issue have been selected, was not directly concerned with the causes or the rights and wrongs of the conflict but with these more general questions. It focused on the social and cultural context and consequences of New Zealand's participation in the War rather than on the fighting itself, a conference for cultural rather than military historians. The speakers addressed a wide range of related questions: What was the impact of war on the home front? What did it mean for the country to have large numbers of young (and not so young) men and some women serving on the other side of the world for four years? How was New Zealand's self-image, and its image in the eyes of others, changed by the experience of war? Did the experience of war really forge a distinct and separate national identity or did it, rather, strengthen relationships between New Zealand and the United Kingdom? How did the war affect race and gender relations in New Zealand? And what forms of cultural and artistic expression did it give rise to?

Underlying and surrounding these questions were the pressing contemporary ones of how the First World War was being framed and memorialised, the kinds of stories that were being narrated, and the politics of its various representations. …

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