A blinkered view of New Zealand's role in WW1

Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Random, $55, hbk

Fascination with the drama and horror of World War 1 nearly a century on shows no sign of fading.

The latest look at it comes from a well-known New Zealand novelist and social historian, Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

But its title gives it away. This is not an even-handed history. The author despises New Zealand's reasons for joining in the war and despises its leaders as an elite who fought for their own selfish reasons.

He lectures his readers on virtually every page. This hectoring and sneering really grates, in spite of the readable style.

One paragraph may stand for all: "Wellington went to war, not wisely but mindlessly," he writes.

"They [the leaders in Parliament] were not shrewd leaders balancing profit and loss. They were quivering bundles of emotion, swept by passion, behaving childishly when they made up their minds to send away a murderous army."

Readers now know that any opinion they may form should have to conform to this. Eldred-Grigg has a long record as an advocate for a particular interpretation of history. He is a believer in the New Zealand of 100 years ago as being a class-ridden society. Yet this interpretation, which is not without justification or without backers, is far too restricted a view of society as it was.

So he is unable (or unwilling) to consider the other social factors extant. He has drunk at the font of revisionist history that appeared soon after the war ended.

This was promoted first by the Germans to explain their loss in 1918, and led to the notorious "stab in the back" explanation, which the Nazis and Hitler later adopted to denounce left-wing radicals, social democrats and Jewish businessmen. It eventually covered most of Europe in a wave of unbridled sadism.

This revisionism was adopted in the 1920s by some British, American and French historians to berate their military and political leaders for the 1914-18 bloodbath and find scapegoats close to home. It lingers on with Eldred-Grigg.

The Germans had reason to avoid responsibility. It is only a very recent phenomenon that the victors in war did not punish the losers savagely. The Germans were required to accept war guilt in the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty. They signed this under duress and repudiated it as soon as they could.

Eldred-Grigg blames France, Britain and Russia (particularly) for starting the war. There is no acknowledgement of the role of Austria-Hungary or its encouragement by the rulers of Germany. Their roles are now acknowledged almost universally, but not by Eldred-Grigg.

Nor does he acknowledge that the Allied governments and most of their citizens (including the vast majority of New Zealanders) believed they were fighting for their lives. Germany was one of the countries that had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium; when Belgium objected to its territory being used as a pathway for German troops into France, Germany invaded anyway.

It would have been very hard for the British Liberal government to have justified war with Germany without German troops actually marching through Belgium.

Historically, Britain for centuries has objected to the Low Countries being in the hands of a potential enemy. If Germany did not know that its leaders ought to have known, and of course they did.

If Eldred-Grigg is in any doubt what German victory in 1918 would have meant for Britain and France, he needs only read the terms imposed on newly communist and neutral Russia in 1919 by the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Plainly he has not read them or he would not be so pro-German.

There is some terrific research in The Great Wrong War, but it is not balanced research. There are literally hundreds of examples and details of his research into how anti-war New Zealand society was, and hardly any the other way. Yet the literature and anecdotes from the time are strongly pro-war.

Only rarely does the author acknowledge the emotional and family ties most New Zealanders felt to Britain. That was the main influence in New Zealand rallying behind Britain.

There were other less creditable reasons. For example, the politicians of the day wanted to grab Pacific Islands as war loot, and eventually gained the German colony of Western Samoa. The author does not overlook this or other reasons.

All histories of World War 1 can be relied upon to emphasise the horrors involved. Eldred-Grigg is good on this.

My own great-uncle lost his ears when he was gassed at Passchendaele in 1917, and suffered for the rest of his life. A great-aunt was a nurse at Cairo Base Hospital in 1915 and saw the most dreadful things. All families back in New Zealand had horror stories to tell, apart from the impact of the 20,000-odd fatalities on a population of just over a million.

One thing most Great War histories have is too many black-and-white photographs. It is a strength of this book that the author avoids it. There are some wonderful war cartoons, caricatures and posters - as fine a collection as I have ever seen.

But there is no appendix explaining the hundreds of notes in the text. Instead there is a paragraph just in front of the index that suggests "to view endnotes please go to www.randomhouse.co.nz/thegreatwrongwar."

Do readers of weighty war books really sit in front of their computers so they can refer to websites? I don't. The publishers have let down their author and their readers.

In spite of its strengths - and it is very attractively presented - this book is not so much a war history as a tract.

Oliver Riddell is a Wellington writer

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