Singing in the trenches

An NZEF military band playing close to the line near Ypres, France in 1917. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library
An NZEF military band playing close to the line near Ypres, France in 1917. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library
New Zealanders sang their hearts our during the war.

Chris Bourke
Auckland University Press


Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964 is the definitive history of its topic and Good-Bye Maoriland will almost certainly become the definitive history of New Zealand popular music between 1914 and 1918. Given the time-span, the story is one of war and, specifically, one of wartime music.

World War 1 was, at one level, four years of bombs, bullets and bayonets, and at another level, a marathon musical with hundreds of tunes being churned out in response to the demands of a public eager to commemorate success, encourage effort, denigrate the Hun, lament the lost, remember a lost idyllic world and anticipate a peaceful future one.

New Zealanders sang their hearts out during the war. From the spontaneous jingoism of God Save the King when war was announced on the steps of Parliament Buildings on August 5, 1914, to the heart-rending grief of Thoughts, a Dunedin composition of 1919 with words by city councillor (later mayor of the Depression years) Robert Black and music by Albert Banwell.

Thoughts was a dirge with lines such as, "then naught seems left to the sore-stricken soul/But a bed in the cold cold ground", and telling more of the story of the man who wrote the music illustrates the way war changed lives, even though it traverses material not mentioned in Good-Bye Maoriland. Bristol-born Albert Banwell joined up when war broke out and served two months at Gallipoli, reaching the rank of sergeant. Diagnosed with a nervous problem, he was sent home and worked as a commercial traveller in Dunedin and took part in patriotic concerts. He fathered a child and was taken to court for maintenance in December 1916. A drunkenness conviction came in 1917.

Britain Calls Again: the King of Patriotic Songs, by Horace and Harry Stewart
Britain Calls Again: the King of Patriotic Songs, by Horace and Harry Stewart, 1914. Horace was a piano tuner in Ponsonby before the war; Harry died in 1919. Photo: Music Heritage Trust NZ

In May 1918 an inquest decided that a child he had fathered had died as a result of inadequate attention. Banwell had offered to marry the mother but by the time the child died he was on the run. He had re-enlisted and, despite a medical board declaring him unfit for active service, was training at Trentham. In February 1918 he went AWOL and was not apprehended for two years. A year’s hard labour ended Banwell’s association with the army but the mournful music of his war composition fits his own experience of shell-shock, drink and woman problems back in civvy street and an unsuccessful attempt to escape it all by signing up again.

Almost every page of Good-Bye Maoriland offers a temptation to delve more deeply into New Zealand’s wartime experience. Let’s look at The Silent Division, the nick-name for the New Zealand Division. I have never believed it was widely-used during the war and Chris Bourke agrees.

"Contemporary accounts of New Zealanders at the front, and the soldiers’ recollections years later, provide enough evidence to say that the Silent Division idea is a myth."

There is more evidence in the book. Details of camp concerts, formal and informal concert parties, singing on the marches over the Rimutaka hill and the eager consumption of the latest hits from the London shows. The Diggers were certainly singers. Only at the end of the war does the relative "silence" of the New Zealand soldier call for comment. In fact, it was the subdued reception of the armistice news that first saw the phrase "The Silent Division" used in the New Zealand newspapers. Its use in the title of Ormond Burton’s 1935 history has given it a currency it does not deserve.

Even if the soldiers were a little less raucous than their Aussie cousins, the officially-encouraged concert parties were among the best. The autobiography by Dunedin’s Ernest McKinlay is an important source for the Kiwi Concert Party story and Pat Hanna was still touring with his Diggers concert party in the late 1920s.

The home front was alive with music and Bourke’s extensive research even includes a report from a fund-raising concert for the Belgian relief fund staged by the cricket club at Patearoa.

No great New Zealand song emerged from the Great War, although some Maori melodies have endured, but music was a crucial part of the war effort. That its story has been told in such a well-written, well-designed book is something to sing about.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Good-bye Maoriland, by Chris Bourke, to give away courtesy of Auckland University Press. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘Maoriland’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, October 31.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Munich, by Robert Harris, courtesy of Penguin Random House, are Laurence Bevin, Robin Gauld, Cathy Thomson and Barry Kan, of Dunedin, and Hamish McCallum, of Clinton.





Add a Comment