Historiography of New Zealand's participation in World War One

Article by Michael Wynd

Unique amongst the Dominions and the Allied nations of the First World War, New Zealand did not produce an official history of its participation in the war. Unlike Australia, we did not have a kiwi Charles Bean who was the editor and author of a multi-volume edition.

There was an official historian appointed but it appears as if he did not in fact produce any work. The lack of an official history is perhaps why after the Second World War there was a explosion of official histories of that war well in excess of what was required.

There was no serious academic study undertaken in the decade after the Armistice. Unlike the comprehensive efforts of the Department of Internal Affairs War History Department after the end of the Second World War, an official history of the Great War seems not to have merited any government-directed effort perhaps due to a lack of funds. This is in stark contrast to the fifty volumes of Second World War History, including individual unit histories which were forced on the department by a government that had an excess of army welfare funds to expend.

In the 1920s there was a four volume popular history produced as a stop-gap measure before the appearance of the official history which never eventuated. James Allen, the Minister of Defence in The New Zealanders at Gallipoli wrote in the preface that these volumes were 'designed to present to the people of New Zealand the inspiring record of the work of our sons and daughters overseas.' He noted that:

[it] is recognised that the Official History would necessitate considerable research, would take a long time to write, and then must be largely a study of strategy and tactics; but something - that would be concise and interesting, not expensive, and available at once -- seemed desirable.

Four volumes were published:

  • Volume I The New Zealanders at Gallipoli was written by Major Fred Waite from the Engineers and who was a member of the Main Body.
  • Volume II The New Zealanders in France cover the Western Front and would be written by Colonel Hugh Stewart of the Canterbury Regiment.
  • Volume III The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine would cover the Mounted Rifle Brigade in those campaigns and would be written by Colonel Guy C. Powles with assistance from Major Wilkie of the Wellington Mounted Rifles.
  • Volume IV The War Effort of New Zealand was written by Lieutenant H. Drew as a catch-all for the other campaigns the New Zealanders featured in as well and a history of the bases, rear-area units, hospitals, and training. The authors were 'recognized by their comrades as authorities on the campaigns with which they deal.'

There is some confusion for historians because the wording 'official history' has been placed on the title page of some of the volumes. Because there has been no official history completed since they were published, they are still available in reprints. Thus historians researching the New Zealand Division are presented with a series of semi-official publications written by participants that has the immediacy of being a contemporary publication, but does not have the historical perspective and even-handedness that an official history demands. In particular the volume on the New Zealand Division suffered from two serious failings. It was very uncritical of the commanders of the Division's formations and understated the casualties suffered during the Division's operations on the Western Front.

Part of the reason is that the official war correspondent for New Zealand Malcolm Ross did not have the same ability to convert his journalistic talent into the writing of an official history. His contemporaries Bean and Sir Max Aitken from Canada both expressed the military prowess of Australia and Canada as outworkings of the respective countries inherent character traits.

Ron Palenski in his 2008 article on Ross goes as far to term Ross as 'A New Zealand Failure in the Great War.' In the same decade regimental histories were written on the various formations that had made up the New Zealand Division and the Mounted Rifle Brigade. While these have value for historical research they are limited by their very nature. Digitisation of First World War publications has certainly made the contemporary popular and regimental histories more accessible than they were a decade ago.

Since then there has been no attempt by the Government or responsible ministries to produce a set of official histories. As a result, New Zealand's part in the First World War is badly recorded and misunderstood. Certainly any effort to write an official history was handicapped when in 1930 a large amount of archives from the New Zealand Division were dumped. Into this gap there have been a series of secondary publications that have appeared over the years. While some have focused on campaigns, personal history, or formations there has never been an overview of the New Zealand war effort. These have ranged from the very good to the appalling Great Wrong War published recently. Technical publications have been very limited although in 2012 a guide to the 1NZEF was published which is a good general book on uniforms, equipment, and organisation.

As we approach the Centenary it is expected that there may be a flood of books coming into print related to First World War. There is no project to complete official history but the Ministry of Culture and Heritage has a single volume of the New Zealand Division for publication as well as a general 'coffee-table' publication about New Zealand in the war looking at all aspects of the experience. Massey University has initiated a project to produce an accessible but scholarly multivolume set of histories of the New Zealand forces, campaigns, and the war at sea, and the home front. This may end up being our official history some 100 years after the events. Researchers can look forward to some reprints of key secondary sources but will have to wait for a comprehensive history of New Zealand in the First World War.

Michael Wynd, Researcher at the Navy Museum, New Zealand

Michael Wynd is the Military Historian at the Navy Museum. He maintains the largest collection of naval history and is responsible for carrying out all the research tasks for both the public, government agencies, and the NZDF. As a military historian, his research interests include the First World War, 19th Century Colonial Warfare, New Zealand's naval history, The Royal Navy in New Zealand, and the Revolution in Military Affairs. He has completed a Master's degree on the Demobilisation of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force and is working on a Doctorate on the New Zealand Division on the Western Front 1916-1918.