Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Letter to the Otago Early Settler's Museum

I'm a regular visitor to the Otago Settler's Museum, it's a great place for my 2 year old boy to run around in and occasionally look at the exhibits. The 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibit has been going for several months now, and over time I have managed to look at a few snippets of it when I am not busy looking after my boy. The title of the exhibit, and the central image of the small child saluting the union jack, I find highly objectionable. The emphasis on remembrance of the dead and military history, and the marginalisation of almost all other aspects of the war is not really very surprising. These more or less obvious ideological points aside, I was motivated to write a letter to the curator because of some factual innaccuracies and omissions. I think I have succeeded in being polite and reasonable sounding, while at the same time not pulling any punches:

TO: The curator of the 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibit

I would like to make a few comments about some of the parts of this exhibit. The topic of New Zealand's involvement in the first world war is a topic which interests me, and I have recently conducted a fair amount of independent research into this subject. Philosophically and politically I am deeply critical of the overall tone of the exhibit – the hugely prominent image of a small child saluting the union jack, for example, provokes within me a keen sense of shame, embarassment and anger rather than the expected response of pride and poignant feelings. Putting my ideological differences to one side, however, there are some points of historical fact which I would like to address:

  1. The 'Swotty Aitken's violin' exhibit

The text reads: OBHS old boy Alexander Aitken was a brilliant mathematician who served with the Otago Infantry. At Gallipoli he played nightly concerts in the trenches on this cheap violin, won in a raffle. Aitken took the violin on to France where he was wounded at the Somme in 1916.

I have recently read Aitken's memoir 'Gallipoli to the Somme', so I appreciated being able to view his violin. The claim that “he played nightly concerts in the trenches” however is very misleading. Shortly after arriving at Gallipoli, Aitken leaves his violin with an Australian stretcher bearer (see p.24, ibid). He goes on to describe his experiences in the trenches fighting. Near the end of the Gallipoli campaign, when the Allied forces were preparing for evacuation, Aitken is “detached for remote duty”. This new location, away from the action, provides the remarkable setting of his violin concerts: “I brought up the violin, which for weeks had lain in the empty dug-out of the Australian stretcher-bearer, he himself being by now ill or wounded. Each night we had a muted concert in the largest dug-out ...”. (p. 35, ibid)

This observation might seem to be pedantic, but to me it seems like quite an important detail. The impression that conditions within the frontline trenches at Gallipoli allowed nightly violin concerts should be avoided. The text could be easily altered to qualify the statement to avoid this impression.

I also think it is regrettable that Aitken's memoir itself is not even mentioned. Alongside Archibald Baxter's 'We Will Not Cease' and Robin Hyde's 'Passport to Hell', this book is a singular contribution to New Zealand literature. I think it is significant and interesting that Aitken himself was the exact opposite of the 'larrikin' stereotype. The title of “Swotty Aitken” is rather puerile in my opinion.

  1. The “Hi Jinks in Egypt” exhibit

The text reads: The Main Body reached Egypt in November 1914. They set up camp at Zeitoun, just 9 kilometres and 20 minutes by train from Cairo. In between long bouts of training in the sand there was plenty of time to explore the city. As well as innocent tourist pursuits – visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx – there was also trouble to be found. Venereal disease rates skyrocketed with almost 5% infected by April 1915.

If it was true that the 'trouble' involved nothing more than drinking and having sex with prostitutes, then the title of 'Hi Jinks in Egypt' could be an appropriate title (although arguably quite a tasteless one). I appreciate also that a direct reference to prostitution in the text might be considered by many people to be inappropriate in a museum which attracts visitors of all ages. The problem is that the 'trouble' involved quite a lot more than sex and drunkenness, it also involved a considerable amount of violence and destruction of property. The so called 'Battle of the Wassir' involved around 2,500 Australians and New Zealanders who set fire to buildings, assaulted Egyptian citizens and caused a huge amount of damage to property. The undertones of this violence, which without question reflect a deep seated racism and a fragile sense of masculinity, are the dark and seedy underbelly of the Anzacs. To sweep this incident under the carpet of 'mischevious hi jinks' is highly questionable. Even if we are hell bent on glorifying and sentimentalising the brave Anzacs, are we not mature enough after a full 100 years to face up to the human reality of these soldiers warts and all??

  1. The “Dissenters” exhibit

The text reads: Most Dunedin citizens strongly supported the war effort. Some small groups and individuals, however, refused to participate for political, religious or moral reasons. But there was little tolerance for dissent in wartime society. Conscientious objectors, such as the pacifist Archibald Baxter from Brighton, paid a heavy price for their stance. Irish republicans in New Zealand were also opposed. The Green Ray, their flagship journal published in Dunedin, was suppressed in 1918. Its editors were jailed for sedition.

I appreciated the information about the Irish dissenters and the 'Green Ray' journal. This is a subject I would like to know more about, so I am grateful for this information. The overall tone and framing of this part of the exhibit however I find extremely perplexing. What exactly were those 'political, religious or moral reasons' the blurb refers to?? I am aware that there is limited space and that too much text would be impractical, but I don't think that too much space would be needed for Archibald Baxter's most important pacifist argument. Simply stated, Baxter rejected the idea that the war was a 'war to end all wars', he argued that any sort of victory would only be temporary because the underlying tensions would not be resolved by military means. Depending on how you read history, Baxter's argument was validated: WW1 set the scene for WW2, and many other wars, including those in the middle east today. Of course there are many historians who would still object to Baxter's pacifism, and this sort of issue is a field of contention and debate. Unfortunately, nothing in this exhibit helps people to understand the content or nature of these important debates. If space for text is an issue, may I humbly suggest that the dozens of square metres dedicated to children saluting the union jack were somewhat excessive?

Although it is undoubtably true that 'empire' patriotism was a very strong force in 1914 New Zealand, there were still many who questioned the legitimacy of the war in various ways. Baxter's principled and uncompromising objection is one extreme, whereas the people involved in the anti-conscription movement are another. Irish republicans, Maori loyal to Te Puea, socialists, pacifists and anarchists were all opposed to the war for different reasons. To characterise these people as 'some small groups and individuals' seems remarkably deprecating. They might have been a minority, but they were surely a very brave and important minority speaking out in the context of a very conformist dominant culture. At the very least, as with poor old 'Swotty Aitken', you could have mentioned Baxter's book 'We Will Not Cease'. Four words of text is not too much to ask, and then interested visitors could check out for themselves why he opposed the war.

Finally, a few more comments on Robin Hyde's book 'Passport to Hell'. Alongside Baxter's 'We Will Not Cease' and Aitken's 'Gallipoli to the Somme', this is an important book in a very tiny genre of New Zealand books based upon first hand experience of World War One. Based upon interviews with Private J. D. Stark (8/2142, Fifth Reinforcements, Otago Infantry Battalion), it is a powerful and action packed story of a New Zealander's experience in the trenches of Gallipoli and various other battlefields. The only other similar books I know of are written by Aucklanders – John A. Lee's 'Citizen into Soldier' and Ormond Burton's 'The Silent Division'. So out of five books, three are written by Otago natives, which to me is a noteworthy fact deserving some sort of recognition.


Aitken, Alexander. 1963. “Gallipoli to the Somme”. Oxford University Press.

Baxter, Archibald. 1968 (1939). "We Will Not Cease". The Caxton Press, Christchurch.

Hyde, Robin. 1986 (1936). "Passport to Hell". Auckland University Press.

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