Making sense of World War One

Contrary to notions of a meaningless conflict, the First World War has, from its outbreak, had an abundance of meanings layered upon it. In this talk, historian Steven Loveridge sketches some of these meanings and the sentimental equipment that lay behind the huge commitment New Zealand made to the war.

This talk was part of the 2015 series on conflict jointly presented by the National Library and Victoria University of Wellington.

Steven Loveridge holds a PhD in history from Victoria University and has published and taught on various aspects of the First World War. His book Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War was published by Victoria University Press in 2014.

Steven Loveridge is not an employee of the National Library, and as such his ideas and opinions are his own.

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The Padre of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade operating a makeshift wayside canteen for soldiers in the front line. Shows him handing a cake to a soldier. Stretchers are prominent in the right foreground.A New Zealand padre with his wayside canteen on the Western Front, 1918. Ref: 1/2-013091-G.


The physical enormity of the First World War in material terms is something that remains graspable in the contemporary mind. New Zealand’s experience can illustrate this.

Consider the massive financial investment the war entailed. The government had determined to pay its own way through the war, an action that resulted in the doubling of government debt and a 60 per cent rise in expenditure over the course of the war. Taxes and duties were established on many goods, imports and services for the purpose of revenue gathering. Strains on shipping drove up import prices and increased manufacturing expenses, and the cost of living rose by 39.35 per cent between July 1914 and July 1918. Consequently, the latter half of the war was marked by increasing industrial unrest as wages fell behind prices.

In 1921 the monetary cost of New Zealand’s war was calculated as £81.5 million (over 7 billion in 2014 terms). To give that figure some context, by 1881 the Public Works development scheme of the Vogel era had borrowed some £21 million ($3.5 billion in 2014 terms) to develop the country’s transportation and communication networks, modernise economic infrastructure and entice migration. Hypothetically, the money poured into the war effort could have afforded two Vogel sized investments, in economic modernisation and social amenities perhaps, whilst leaving a few 100 million dollars in change. Private fundraising provided another major avenue of revenue and activity. By the war’s end patriotic societies had raised approximately £5.5 million ($550 million in 2014 dollars).

However, New Zealand’s major contribution, in terms of military contribution and significance to modern memory, was men. By the end of the war some 124,211 New Zealand men had been enlisted for service out of a total population of 243,376 individuals deemed eligible by virtue of their sex and age. Of these men 100,444 embarked; the war ended before the remainder completed their processing and training. Those mobilised represented near 10 per cent of the total New Zealand population, or 19.4 per cent of the male population, or near 51 per cent of the eligible male population. If male and between 20 and 45, you might toss a coin to see whether or not he would have served; if the reader is not within that category they might toss for a loved one who is. The 58 per cent casualty rate could warrant another toss to illustrate the potential impact upon life and limb.

Such measurements give some indication of the scale of war effort, yet fall short of capturing the full meaning of it. As well as immense physical resources, wars on this scale command, and require, enormous emotional resources.

In a widely read novel of the 1920s, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night gives some idea of how emotional touchstones were mobilised and poured into the war. The passage begins with a veteran returning to a former battlefield and explaining a mindset necessary to accept the costs of the western-front

See that little stream – we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it – a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind... This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time... This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes... You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember... You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers... This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle — there was a century of middle-class love spent here... All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.

In my time tonight I sketch some of the meanings, the sentimental equipment, layered on the war in New Zealand society.

  • Ideas invested into New Zealand’s commitment to the war
  • Ideas mobilised to oppose the war
  • After 1918

Commitment (meanings)

New Zealand offers a good illustration of Hew Strachan’s point that war for Europe (in 1914) meant war for the world. In the last decades of the nineteenth century New Zealand increasingly tightened its links with Great Britain and many historians have studied the sinews of this arrangement in trade, defence arrangements and media transfer.

More recently others have emphasised the cultural bonds of this tightened orientation towards Britain which presented New Zealand a co-owner of the British world – its heritage, achievements and prestige – and advanced the sense of New Zealanders as a unique bred within a global British family. Such sentimental equipment was a regular feature within mass culture and mass politics and the evidence suggests that a broad social consensus deemed this a legitimate and desirable arrangement. This type of British connection is not a uniquely New Zealand feature, comparable examples can be witnessed in Canada, Australia and, more problematically, in South Africa and Ireland. However, New Zealand has been tagged as ‘the extreme case’. Comprehension of this connection is essential for comprehending how New Zealander’s understood the war at the time and in subsequent decades. Legally speaking New Zealand was automatically at war from the British declaration on 4 August. This status didn’t force any particular action – in theory the country could have cheered from the sidelines. In practice there was a broad commitment to stand by Britain in confronting the German invasion of Western Europe.

Indeed reactions to German conduct and atrocities provided more sentimental equipment for making sense of the war. Beyond sensationalist propaganda of babies on bayonets, the invasion and occupation of Belgium and Northern France featured disturbingly common massacring of civilians partly the result of official policies to intimidate the locals into submission. Roughly 6,500 Belgian and French civilians are estimated to have been executed during the initial invasion; the equivalent of 15 My Lai Massacres or 6 Amritsar massacres in the space of six weeks. The German armies which invaded Western Europe actually behaved better in 1940 than in 1914. This was followed by a predatory occupation which created conditions responsible for the deaths of roughly 250,000 more civilians. Occupied industries were plundered with assets relocated to Germany (of the 260,000 Belgian firms in operation on the eve of the war only 3 thousand survived till 1918). The introduction of forced labour saw more than 100,000 workers herded into cattle cars and transported to German factories. In order to constrict the movement of people, a barbed and electrified fence was erected along the 300 kilometre Dutch/Belgium border. It is estimated that 300-500 people were killed in the attempt to flee Europe’s first iron curtain. Likewise the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage cemented ideas of barbarian invaders who had to be resisted. Consider Louvain’s University Library which irreplaceable collections of Medieval, Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts. Reports of its deliberate destruction helped galvanise populations entering the war. For middle-class Edwardians united around understandings of the sanctity of home, property, heritage and knowledge the reaction to the destruction was taken as evidence that Germany was operating outside civilised norms – some compared it to an army destroying Oxford or Cambridge.

The genuine outrage these atrocities caused was rendered with established ideas in presenting enemies as alien powers outside the western tradition. Pre-war New Zealand had largely directed this gaze towards Asia. Defence, a magazine calling for military reform, is one example predicting a coming war with the east, and noting a natural affinity between the British and German peoples. While the outbreak of war fragmented the balance of power, in its peculiar way, an underlying concept of ‘the enemy’ proved resistant to drastic amendments and provided some measure of continuity. Indeed many representations of Germany began to employ many of the qualities pre-war material stereotypically ascribed to Asia.

This is a dynamic I catalogue in my book, but let me give you a few examples. One commentator noted that ‘Chinese and Prussians certainly have much in common, far more in common than would be expected from mere coincidence’. These points of commonality are noted as including an instinct for industriousness, cultural chauvinism, a lack of diplomatic scruples, a willingness to break treaties, a latent capacity for cruelty, a lack of sense for democracy and an instinctive submission to autocracy. One anthropologist went further noting that Germans were not racially Aryan or ‘even’ European. This was demonstrated through the round shape of the German head compared to ‘the long heads of the British and Scandinavian peoples’. Linguistic analysis likewise revealed that the name ‘Ger-man’ or ‘Alle-man’ derived from its original meaning, ‘wolf-man’. Finally, symbolic investigation showed that the double-headed German imperial eagle was in fact ‘merely the conjoined pair of corpse-feeding ravens of Odin’. From this analysis it was concluded that Germans were of the same stock as the Huns and Turks and were a misplaced people who had taken on ‘a veneer of European civilisation’ that was now flaking away. This was the scholarly version of the common designation of Germans as Huns.

Let me cover one final avenue of sentimental equipment used to layer meaning on the war. In contributing to Britain’s responses to Germany, New Zealand mobilised idealised ideas of gender conventions. Much of this turned on the pre-war boom of chivalric conceptions which has been described as a Return to Camelot. The image of the soldier who embodied noble ideals, would fight for justice, display martial valour and, if necessary, sacrifice himself had gained an iconic status by 1914. Wartime visions of soldiers and shirkers bloomed from this comprehension. Pre-war ideas of New Zealander’s being fine material for soldiers and concerns that the next generation was at risk of becoming physically, mentally and morally flabby continued in wartime debates around the ANZACs and conscientious objectors.

Likewise, in relation to masculine chivalry, the conventions taught that a lady should aspire to be a worthy recipient of masculine gallantry – she should inspire bravery, sustain spirits and provide that classic object of the chivalric narrative: something worth dying for. This ideal also extended into war work to support soldiers, encourage enlistment and shape masculine behaviour through encouragement and shame. The giving of white feathers represents a particularly spiteful (and controversial) manifestation of the philosophy.


We have an alternative demonstration of how contemporaries made sense of the war in how critics and opponents of the war effort engaged in their own mobilisations of an eclectic range of sentimental equipment. Certain theists concluded that adherence to Christian doctrine meant an adherence to pacifism. Some supporters of Irish republicanism cited political or ethnic grounds for their opposition to a ‘British war’. Some conscientious objectors wielded an array of ethical, philosophical and political ideas. In the interests of time I’m going to focus on three examples which highlight the same phenomena of established ideas being used to make sense of circumstances.

The varying responses Maoridom gave regarding the war provide an example. Some iwi, notably Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou and Arawa, actively sought involvement. Various commentators, Maori and non-Maori, cast the 2,227 volunteers of the Maori Pioneer Battalion (bolstered by a further 500 Cook Islanders and 149 Niueans) as representing Maori martial excellence and the sense that Maori and Pakeha had converged or were converging into a united people.

Conversely apathy and dissent from other iwi saw Maori enlistment stand at proportionally half that of the Pakeha population and a quarter of Maori balloted refused service or remained unlocated. This disengagement was underwritten by physical isolation, the enduring authority of tribal institutions and, notably in Taranaki, the King Country, Waikato and the Urewera, enduring bitterness concerning land confiscation and the legacies of the New Zealand Wars. In the Waikato, Princess Te Puea responded to conventional understanding with her own perspective of the war. ‘They tell us to fight for king and Country, well that’s all right. We’ve got a king [the Maori King]. But we haven’t got a country. That’s been taken off us. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it again.’ As with commitment we see established ideas being cited to make sense of the conflict. In the Urewera, the prophet Rua Kenana took this further, voicing a series of epochal visions that the war would see a German victory, the restoration of Maori rule in New Zealand and that he would be crowned King. Both leaders used their positions, mana and sentimental equipment to discourage military service and in Rua’s case this resulted in a sedition charge and an arrest in 1916.

The war had divided the labour movement on both cause and conduct. In terms of cause, some saw the need to resist German militarism as going beyond class lines. Others looking through the lens of class conflict, tagged the war as one between capitalists/imperialists that was opposed to working classes interests. This approach often provided its own epochal narrative similar to what we have already seen. Socialists had long predicted a crisis of capitalism to be followed by a socialist dawn. Some, like Harry Holland, cast the war as fulfilling this prophesy and tagged the Bolshevik revolution in Russia as representing the future. Again the use of established sentimental equipment was used to give meaning to events. More divisions emerged around conduct. Some criticised government management of the war effort calling for better pay for soldiers and the mobilisation of wealth. The introduction of conscription saw the emergence of an anti-conscription movement and indeed the modern Labour Party largely crystallised on opposition to conscription. Sedition charges against those calling for the repeal of conscription saw Labour MPs and a future Prime Minister arrested.

Lastly a particular strand of the peace movement offers a curious counter to the earlier allusion to feminine duty to support the cause. While continuing to cite feminine credentials these activists reached a very different conclusion; that female domestic/natal instincts made women biologically opposed to militarism. The movement’s backbone has been described as constituted by a few dedicated and determined individuals and ‘a small minority of New Zealand women’. The core philosophy that gender determined political/social stances is readily apparent. As a spokeswoman for a deputation of 30 women presenting a petition against conscription explained, ‘as mothers of the nation we object against bringing lives into the world to be used, when reaching manhood, in the interests of a class which does not represent our interests’.

There is probably no better example of how those linking feminism and activism reached different conclusions than the Pankhursts. Mother Emmeline and daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela had all been prominently involved in the British suffragette movement including its more militant side and the arson campaigns. With the outbreak of war Emmeline and Christabel called an immediate halt to suffrage activism, urged women to aid industrial production, encouraged young men to fight, became prominent figures in the white feather movement and called for the introduction of conscription. They considered that the threat posed by Germany was a danger to all humanity and that German militarism represented unfettered masculinity that needed to be made accountable. Sylvia and Adela, both of whom opposed the war, were horrified. Adela arrived in New Zealand in 1916 to speak on the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom platform.


This gives some idea of how ideas were laid on the war. However, the effort to make sense of 1914-1918 continued long after the guns fell silent. It is probably unsurprising that those who experienced the war and lived in the world that emerged out of it continued to dwell on it. The continuance of this behaviour in subsequent decades and generations is perhaps more surprising. Most events happen, are turned into memories which, over the years, fade and are forgotten by nearly all but historians; most live in the present not the past. In regards to WW1 societies have been regularly dragged back to reconsider the war. Indeed since the 1980s the war seems to be gaining attention in inverse relation to the passage of time. It wasn’t too long ago that the end of ANZAC was predicted.

However, a sustained connection with the war has marched beside shifting conceptions. The war has been reinterpreted over time because perspectives are not static. For example...

  • Anti-war groups – horrors of war
  • During the Cold War – arms races
  • The conception of the war as illustrating New Zealand’s Identity and Place in the world remains – though the line now is that the war forged an independent national identity and a bond with Australia rather than loyalty to Britain and place within the British Empire

As this suggests meanings were revisited and reconsidered to fit with new circumstances. This cannot simply be tagged or dismissed as a process of fabrication. Many of these interpretations have origins in sentiments expressed at the time and as I’ve noted even during 1914-1918, the war’s meaning was never fixed and was understood in different and sometimes contested ways. Distortion might be the better term, if that conveys a basis in reality and changing contexts.

Given factors of time I’m going to focus on how the interwar years reflect this ongoing effort of making sense of the war. Before I cover change it’s worth noting that many continued to assert the wartime conviction that the conflict had been one of necessary self-defence. As one correspondent claimed:

When the war broke out on the Continent we had to decide whether to fight or not, and took the only course consistent with honour and self-preservation... And if those who follow us have again to make the fateful decision to fight or perish, what will their answer be?

Some would continue to assert this sense of the war for the remainder of their lives. Five decades after fighting at Gallipoli, Cecil Malthus began his retrospective of the campaign with the assertion that Britain’s intervention in Europe was ‘profoundly right’ for its effort to stop the German domination of Europe.

However, towards the 1930s the sense of the war as representing a necessary and/or noble sacrifice had come into some dispute. Many of these reconsiderations reflect the often volatile circumstances of the interwar years which saw radicalisation of global politics (witnessed in communism and fascism); the uncertainty worked by economic turbulence and the worst depression in history; the failure of societies to live up to the heroism of wartime rhetoric; and a darkening geopolitical scene that insinuated and then confirmed that if the war purpose had been to end war then it had failed.

Consider the following...

  • At a 1932 political rally, Labour politician Paddy Webb claimed that the Great Depression revealed the hollowness of the war and as vindicating the wisdom that wars are not in the interest of the working class; ‘What did the men get who were compelled to go away in 1914 to fight for democracy and liberty? What are they facing today? They have no say whatsoever, and yet in 1914 they were called away to this mad bloodbath. And we will find before long that we too will be asked to participate in another blood bath and that will be a war against Soviet Russia.’
  • Surveying the war from April 1933, Veteran Frank Norman Robson also condemned the war; ‘I say that the German people were fooled into that war... just as we were fooled with the slogan that we were fighting to end war. And both of us were fooled from the same source’ – International Jewish finance. ‘This is the enemy within her gates that Hitler and his Nazis are determined to clean out.’
  • New support for pacifism, disarmament and international co-operation grew in the interwar years and voiced some of the most direct and passionate commentary on the subject with pacifists proclaiming that the war’s ultimate lesson was that it had been a mistake which must never be repeated. As one man spoke we must ‘paint war in such a way that our children will not make the same mistake that their fathers did. War is not a noble thing, let us strip it of all its glamour and show it to our youth in its horrible reality so that they will come to regard it as something to be prevented at any cost.’

The post-war life of the veteran Ormond Burton provides a dramatic demonstration of how assessments could shift. The man who argued in 1916 that the war was ‘saving the soul of the twentieth century world’ and crafting ‘a great era of noble idealism and of splendid self-sacrificing devotion’ came to talk about the war in very different terms. In 1935, his war history, The Silent Division, argued that the war was ‘the major insanity and the most profoundly immoral act of our time’. Curiously, the same sentimental equipment – adherence to religious principles and promotion of self-sacrifice for a greater good – expressed in his often idealistic commitment to the First World War came to underwrite his dedication to Christian pacifism during the interwar years and his conscientious objection during the Second World War.

Today, we look back with near a century of perspective. However, a sustained connection with the war has marched beside shifting conceptions. In a sense this is unsurprising, many of the pieces of sentimental equipment I’ve cited tonight are now the products of a different age. Since 1918 the geopolitics that shaped New Zealand’s place in the world have dramatically shifted, there have been revolutions in social mores, codes around propriety and shame have been reworked, the balance between the individual and public life has altered. All of this means that the New Zealand society that fought the Great War – with its deference to Britain; its Victorian views on race, gender, patriotism and propriety; and its stiff sensibilities around courage, cowardice and self-sacrifice – can seem very distant and can be difficult for modern eyes to recognise. I hope this might add some context to the manner in which New Zealand society, then and now, has sought to make sense of 1914-1918.

By Steven Loveridge

Steven Loveridge has published and taught on various aspects of the First World War, including his recent book Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War.

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morgan wade June 1st at 1:42PM

this is inspiring for me because i need a this for my test

Harry Sampson October 14th at 7:11AM

Thanks for this very interesting and enlightening work. I was brought up in a family home of people who all served (including my mother) in one or even in one case two world wars.
I have vivid memories of my grandfather and a few of his war comrades using our home as a second RSA. I honestly believed at the time (as did most of my peers) that I would one day have to "do my duty" to the Queen/King and country. I believed this right up to the time that I joined the NZ army in 1969. Thankfully, my children and grand children do not have this thinking. They do however, "remember" the events by attending ANZAC day ceremonies.