The Hun HogSeptember 10th, 2015 By Peter Attwell
The old newspapers viewable on the Library’s most popular web site Papers Past provide a fascinating window on to attitudes in New Zealand during the First World War. Searching through the pages of newspapers of the era one often comes across interesting stories quite unrelated to the original search. It was in this manner that I became aware of the story of Lt Alexander Hugh Grierson and the Women’s Anti-German League.
What the newspapers revealed
A hundred years after the event it is hard for us to comprehend the depth of anti-German feeling in New Zealand that had developed in the second year of the war. Since the outbreak of war in August 1914 the actions of the German forces (and a good deal of Allied propaganda as reported in the press) resulted in a hardening of public attitudes towards Germans or Austrians, even if they were naturalised or had lived in New Zealand for many years as responsible citizens.
The reality of the war hit home in May of 1915 as the casualty lists from the campaign in the Dardanelles (which came to be known as Gallipoli) began appearing in the local newspapers, with ever increasing numbers of our troops reported killed, wounded or missing. In addition, by the middle of the month the news had spread around the world that a German U-boat had torpedoed the Cunard trans-Atlantic liner Lusitania, which quickly sank off the south coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives.
How did people react?
Around New Zealand this feeling against those who were seen as German or having German sympathies (or merely German sounding names) was wide-spread. Wanganui saw one of the worst outbreaks of this anti-German sentiment, with Hallenstein Brothers and a number of other shops also attacked in what the Wanganui Chronicle called ‘mob law’ and ‘unparalleled scenes of violence’. Mrs Ruge of the Premier Sweet Shop felt fearful enough to put a public notice in the local papers (scroll down) stating that she was born in England of English parents, had resided in the colony for 45 years, and neither her or her family had German sympathies.
The situation became so bad for some that a couple of months later a German born immigrant deliberately broke a plate glass window to gain attention to his plight, pleading in court to be sent to Soames Island (sic) where more than 400 ‘enemy aliens’ were interred during the four years of the war. “Everybody seems to be down on me and won’t give me employment” was his plaintive cry because he could not gain work. He had taken to drink and this was no doubt a factor in his being sentenced to 21 days hard labour.
At Victoria University College Professor George von Zedlitz, was pressured into resigning because of his German name and his admitted affection for German culture. Staff and students at the college did not want him to go, but there was political pressure on the Victoria College Council and he became a high profile victim of the anti-German hysteria.
A league is formed
The anti-German feeling reached a peak in the following year, when the war on the Western Front had become a stalemate and the casualty lists continued to grow at a rate no-one had anticipated. An extreme example of this suspicion towards anyone with a German connection, however tenuous, was the case of Lt Alexander Hugh Grierson whose enthusiasm for things German caused him to become the subject of nothing less than a Royal Commission of Inquiry.
Just how and why Lt Grierson was chosen by the Government to be investigated is unclear, but he was certainly a target for the Women’s Anti-German League. This was an organisation formed in January 1916 at Gamble and Creeds tea rooms with Lady Anna Stout as its first president. It soon grew to have 2,000 members and there were leagues created in Auckland, Hawkes Bay and Wanganui. ‘The hand of Germany is gripping New Zealand in its iron grasp... to be truly British we must be anti-German’ was one expression of their concern.
The league’s Vice-President, the formidable social figure Madam Ida Boeufve, wife of the Resident Minister for France in South America, became the driving force behind the League, even at one stage visiting the boarding house where Grierson was staying and in his absence gaining permission from the keeper to search Grierson’s boxes for compromising documents. None were found, but Madam Boeufve was not disheartened, for she had some powerful allies amongst Members of Parliament who were also urging the Government to take greater action against the German menace in the country. Lists of New Zealand soldiers were being scanned to detect German sounding names. NZ Truth called it ‘Rooting out the Hun Hog’.
It may be that Government ministers were tired of the constant criticisms from the League and others that it was not doing enough to weed out enemy aliens, German sympathisers and spies. Perhaps they knew that the inquiry they set up, to be carried out by A D Thomson, Assistant Public Service commissioner, would show how baseless some of the hysteria was.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry held its first session on 23 March 1916 and the proceedings were followed by great public interest. It soon became clear that the case against Grierson was very weak. Evidence given by the boarding housekeeper was that Grierson, who was educated in England and later Germany, was referred to as The ‘German’ by the other boarders, and before the outbreak of war had briefly worked at the German Consul’s Office. One witness gave evidence that on one occasion at the French Club he had heard Grierson confess German sympathies, although under cross- examination he could not remember details of the conversation. The boarding house keeper gave the damning evidence that when Grierson left her lodgings he owed six pound for board and twelve shillings for laundry! Some German phrases written in a note book were thought to be some kind of code.
It was evident that Grierson admired the German people and culture: one witness said that he used to ‘rub it in’ what clever people the Germans were. Perhaps he believed they would win the war, but it had not stopped him enlisting in the New Zealand Army before the inquiry began. It transpired that Madam Boeufvre had a son who was in the Trentham Army Camp at the same time as Grierson in early 1916 and had some brief conversations in German with him. It seems likely that he reported Grierson’s admiration for German people and their culture to his mother, who lodged a complaint with the authorities, supported by Mr John Payne, MP for Grey Lynn and commercial advisor to the League.
The Commissioner found that the charges were without foundation. Grierson had no German or Austrian blood (it had been said that his mother was a ‘full blooded German’) but had made some ‘boastful or foolish statements’ which were interpreted by others as indicating German sympathies.
The inquiry was a failure as far as the League was concerned, but it continued with its hunt for those called ‘enemy aliens’, at one time claiming there were 21,000 of them at work in all levels of New Zealand society. No German spies were ever caught and it seems doubtful there ever was any operating in New Zealand.
Grierson retained his commission and left with the 12th reinforcements on a troopship for the war in Europe. His war service was mainly time spent in hospitals suffering from a variety of symptoms called ‘neurasthenia’ a term used then to describe a range of nervous disorders. He returned to New Zealand in April 1918 and, after discharge from the army as a Lieutenant in the reserve, applied for one year’s leave, married and returned to his family in England in April 1919.
The League was wound up at a farewell afternoon tea in the Pioneer Club Rooms on 20 March 1919. Its main success through the war years had been to encourage and maintain anti-German feeling amongst some of the population, but its claims were often so far-fetched that they had the opposite effect to what was intended, with the members being seen as silly women making mischief as long as the war lasted.