As a First World War historian, I have had people remark to me lately, “You’ll be glad to see the end of the war”, by which they mean that in November this year, when the doors close on the big exhibitions and the politicians lose interest, the pressure will be off. But the problem with being a First World War historian is I know the war in no way ended on November 11 100 years ago, and if anything we could do with another few years to get our heads around the really difficult stuff of post-war rebuilding — rebuilding towns and cities, people and their relationships, bodies and minds.
Once the major battles are behind us, we could have exhibitions and events that explore just how all-consuming the war had been for New Zealand civilians. After four years of war, many thousands of men and women were overseas working for the war effort in a surprising array of occupations. Physicists and chemists had left their posts at universities and mines and travelled to the UK where they worked in the Ministry of Munitions, including probably Victoria University of Wellington’s own Ernest Marsden. Universities in the colonies taught applied physics and chemistry — they knew how to blow things up — and as such were much in demand by the munitions industry. Other talented scholars, such as mathematician and headmistress of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School Blanche Butler, were also in London. Miss Butler worked at the Woolwich Arsenal calculating shell trajectories.
More peacefully, New Zealanders worked in Europe addressing the civilian health crisis that afflicted countries where up to 90 percent of doctors were in military service. Civilians, who continued to fall ill, break bones and give birth during the war, were in desperate need of healthcare and Australian and New Zealand doctors worked from Britain to the Balkans with a wide range of organisations. They were joined by ambulance drivers, nurses and volunteers of all sorts who worked in services from the British and French Red Cross to the Scottish Women’s Hospital.
Ngāpuhi woman Margaret Scott and her English husband, Bill, despite being parents of three young children, opened their house in a London suburb as a convalescent home for Māori soldiers. Canterbury woman Maud Wilder had gone to England in 1915 when she found out the report of both her sons being killed on Gallipoli was an error and that one was still alive. She nursed him, and when he returned to his unit she stayed in England for the duration of the war, opening the Aotearoa Club, a tea room and canteen near New Zealand’s 3rd General Hospital in Codford.
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is so etched in our minds as the moment the guns fell silent that we are often at risk of forgetting or ignoring what that actually meant.
Men too, especially those a little old for the military, joined the YMCA or went to the UK to work for the Red Cross. Robert Gilkison had joined the YMCA and when his son was “dangerously wounded in the chest”, he was able to transfer to France to be with him. In October 1918, he wrote to his daughter Norah from a British Red Cross hostel in France, “It is really a great thing that we parents are allowed to come over and stay like this. Poor old Robbie still has his ups and downs, and I was warned at the first it would take a long time to effect a cure.”
Gilkison’s letter, written within just a few weeks of the Armistice, was prescient in his warning that it would “take a long time to effect a cure”. It is a useful way to think about the end of the war, and not just for those men wounded and family members who had to care for them, perhaps for the rest of their lives. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is so etched in our minds as the moment the guns fell silent that we are often at risk of forgetting or ignoring what that actually meant. Staff nurse Fanny Speedy was resting at the New Zealand Army Nursing Service Convalescent Home in the English seaside town of Brighton when she heard the church bells all over the town ringing out at 11am. “The streets are thronged here and flags and bunting in all directions,” she wrote in her diary. “The whole thing seems too big to realise and too sad to understand.”
If one of my imagined exhibitions is on civilian war work, my next would be on refugees. By late 1918, it is estimated, 10 million people had been displaced by the war. Nearly two million people had fled the German invasion of Belgium and then of France, some to the UK but most stayed on the continent in countries utterly unprepared to care for them. They were streams and rivers of moving people, who the New Zealand soldiers encountered throughout their war, and they were added to after November 11 by prisoners of war — tattered, thin and dirty men liberated when the gates were thrown open or the guards simply vanished overnight.
Wairarapa solicitor Herbert Hart, who served the whole of the war except for one brief period when he was wounded on Gallipoli, kept a vivid diary. On November 22 in northern France, he remarked, “Civilians are returning daily from the Germans and many prisoners are drifting back by every road … They are all pinched and pale in appearance, and are clad in every possible variety of clothes, uniforms only in their disrepair.” And again a week later he wrote, “Civilians and prisoners still coming back constantly. Walking and lorry-hopping, or pushing prams, barrows, handcarts, anything to carry a mattress and a change of clothes. The lucky ones may have hooked in a dog, donkey (usually very small), and old bony horse, a cow, or sometimes a cow and a donkey yoked up together.”
The Armistice reversed the flow of refugees, desperate to return home, but their villages and towns had largely been destroyed, often in the wake of the German retreat. Soldiers wrote of the luxury — and rarity — of arriving in a village where the glass windows and doors were still intact, especially as winter was well on its way. In retreating, the Germans destroyed as much infrastructure as possible. Crucially, railway lines and railway stock were destroyed, and roads were shelled to make vehicle traffic as difficult as possible; cruelly, retreating troops planted shells with time-delay mechanisms that would detonate anytime from two days to seven weeks after being set. This slowed significantly the advances of the military and of civilians anxious to go home.
Soldiers’ writings during this period are filled with a mixture of hatred for the German army and pity for German civilians. Advancing toward Germany on a 280km march through Belgium, New Zealanders witnessed the destruction of battle and retreat, came upon populations who had endured the occupation, and heard the stories of POWs.
War creates humanitarian crises of all sorts, and the emotional turmoil of grief, trauma, anxiety and separation were not wiped away with signatures on a treaty.
Occupation stories varied wildly: in some areas, life seemed to have gone on much as usual, the shops were open and towns were tidy. In other places, great violence had been perpetrated against civilians. Prisoners, too, might have been safe from the shelling, but even in the best of camps food had been short. As the war had become more desperate, conditions deteriorated and Herbert Hart recorded, “The English prisoners captured since March have been cruelly treated. Starved, exposed to all weathers and to shelling and bombing, beaten, neglected and insulted.” I am always taken aback when I read diaries and letters like these, because we have become very used to the idea that war is the enemy; that all combatants regardless of which side they were on, were victims. That is not how it looked to the men on the ground at the time.
My third imagined commemoration as the centenary of the Armistice passes would be of the next worldwide crisis — the terrifying spread of a lethal strain of influenza that threw New Zealand communities into fresh turmoil. Alongside the lists of war casualties that continued to be published in the press after the truce had been declared were lists of sisters, parents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, daughters and sons who had succumbed to the virus. One newspaper warned, “While we celebrate the allies’ victories and the downfall of a ruthless enemy, let us remember that there is a serious danger keen and ready to spoil the freedom so hardly won.” Public gatherings, including Armistice events, were abandoned in many places in an effort to halt the disease; schools and cinemas closed and the streets were quiet. But still the flu spread, resulting in a national death toll of 8600 New Zealanders.
It is almost impossible to untangle the war dead and influenza victims when one considers the role of the war in spreading the disease through worldwide shipping, and of war-exhaustion and the effects of long-term anxiety in making it more deadly.
The Wishaw family of Featherston give us a glimpse of just how cruel the influenza pandemic was. The eldest son, Harry, survived twice being wounded but was killed in action at Armentieres in 1916. Harry’s brother, Bernard, and their sister, Mabel, also served: Bernard, the youngest child of the family, enlisted in November 1915 but died of disease in Cairo in October 1918. Mabel served with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service at Featherston Military Camp, where she was the night sister for three years. She remained responsible for their ageing mother, Kate, which prevented her from volunteering for overseas service. This did not protect her, however, and she died of pleurisy and pneumonia brought on by exhaustion in late November 1918. Three war deaths in one family.
The signing of the Armistice was not simply the end of the war. It moved the focus from the immediacy of survival to being able to take a broader view and counting the cost. The ambivalence of nearly everyone at the time signals to us that, while relief was a powerful emotion, very quickly people began to take account of what had been lost.
The demobilisation of soldiers and nurses still overseas took more than a year, with many medical personnel staying on to work because their expertise was needed. The civilians took even longer to come home, and many didn’t, choosing instead to stay on and work in the enormous humanitarian effort now required in Europe and the Middle East.
Even though November 2018 will bring about the close of centenary exhibitions, the end of projects and certainly the funding of WWI remembrance, I hope it doesn’t erase the aftermath from people’s consciousness. War creates humanitarian crises of all sorts, and the emotional turmoil of grief, trauma, anxiety and separation were not wiped away with signatures on a treaty.
This is an adapted version of an Anzac Day talk to the Karori branch of the RSA in Wellington.
Sources include Jane Tolerton’s Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand Women Overseas in World War One (2017); Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross’s Holding onto Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War (2014); and the John Crawford-edited The Devil’s Own War: The First World War Diary of Brigadier-General Herbert Hart (2008).