Monday, 2 February 2015

The Curator's Reply

The short history of this blog has so far been a fairly lonely one. I have received a few positive comments from like minded friends and people who share my perspective on New Zealand's role in WW1. While these are appreciated, I had hoped to receive some critical comments too. Many of the opinions expressed in this blog are clearly opposed to the more mainstream views of Anzac day seen in Newspapers, TV and various magazines. I provided a link to my blog at the official government “WW100” site, and various other internet sites which related to this topic. The results were a handful of views, but no comments on any of my posts.

Given this background of silence, I was very pleased to receive a reply to my letter to the Otago Early Settler's Museum, written by the curator Seán Brosnahan. Seán made several interesting points in reply to my criticisms and also pointed out a few factual errors. He also provided me with some very useful additional historical information, which I am very grateful for. I'm going to reply to his points in what follows, and I remain deeply critical of the overall framing of the exhibition, but I would like to first of all thank Seán for his considered and well thought out reply to my letter. My very recently started research project into NZ and WW1 has coincided with the birth of my two sons, so I have limited time and energy to devote to this project. So the factual checks and the additional pieces of information are very welcome. Also, Seán's criticisms have compelled me to think more carefully and thoroughly about my own views.

So, what were my factual errors? The most embarrassing one is the fact that I managed to completely overlook a display case containing a signed copy of Baxter's We Will Not Cease. This is quite a major oversight, and it seriously undermines a lot of what I said in my previous post. My excuse is that when I was at the museum copying the various pieces of text, I was also looking after my 2 year old son. Although I have been to the museum, and to the 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibit many times over the past few months, I have never had the opportunity to take in more than very brief partial glimpses. Two year old boys like to run, especially in museums.

The other two factual errors are not nearly as significant, but I still regret that I made them. Although this is a very humble and somewhat isolated blog, I do like to think of it as a potential resource for other people who might be interested in the themes and topics I cover. So I want to get my facts right, not wrong. If anyone out there spots any other errors, even if these are just spelling mistakes, please let me know. Anyway, the errors were:

  • John A Lee was born in Dunedin, not Auckland
  • My list of authors should also include Cecil Malthus

These two facts mean that there are six New Zealanders who either wrote books based upon their first hand WW1 experiences or had books written about them. Of these six, four were born in the Otago region (Baxter, Aitken, Stark and Leei). []

Anyway, with all these preliminaries out of the way I will now turn to the more substantial points Seán raises. His reply focuses on a statement I made at the beginning of my last post:

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.

. and also at the beginning of my letter:

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.

He replies

The saluting child.  Unfortunately this image is incorrectly captioned (I was at Gallipoli making our documentary when the graphics were being finalised and captions written).  The boy is in fact a child of the 1890s at a Dunedin kindergarten and my point in selecting it was to highlight the decades of Imperial propagandising that preceded the war and that prepared that generation of young men so remorselessly to offer their lives for King and Country when war broke out.  I see it as a very sad image and not something to inspire contemporary feelings of pride or poignant feelings. 

He also explains his own view and counters my interpretation of the title of the exhibition:

I note your negative comment thereon about our exhibition’s title: Dunedin’s Great War.  This is actually meant to be ironic.  Dunedin had a terrible war, as the heavy emphasis in our exhibition on the casualties of war from the city is designed to make clear.  The element that most people have commented on, including Chris Pugsley, is the 1917 street map of Dunedin showing the wartime casualties year by year and where the relevant telegram notices would have been sent.  This combines with our photo montages of the faces of the fallen and the two group photographs where we tracked the fates of all the men in the shots – Port Chalmers men in Egypt just before the Gallipoli campaign, and officers of the 2nd Otago Battalion just before Messines. 

I would also cavil at the exhibition as being an expression of my personal views.  My colleagues would be amused at the thought that I put up an image of someone saluting a Union Jack as any sort of approbation of that act.  I am noted for my abhorrence of the Union Jack and all its freighted history.  Likewise, I consider WW1 as an horrific waste, personalised to me not only by my own relations who lost their lives but also by all the Dunedin men whose stories I have had to trace in my work for this exhibition and others.  I am drawn to places like Gallipoli, Messines, and Passchendaele precisely because of that waste, it is so overwhelmingly sad that it demands to be remembered.  I don’t profess to understand it.  I have been privileged to stand on the those battlefields, as on the war cemeteries adjacent to them, and was profoundly affected.  Glorification of war is not what DGW  is about and I don’t think many of our visitors would think it was.

Contemplating these critical comments, I decided to return to the museum and take a closer look. This initial return visit happened around the same time as I read Stevan Eldred-Grigg's The Great Wrong War, a critical take on New Zealand's role in WW1 which focuses more on the domestic aspect of the years between 1914 – 1918. I have also subsequently corresponded with Sean Brosnahan about a variety of other topics. All this has led to me to visit the 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibition several more times over the past few weeks. I've watched the video documentary Journey of the Otagos, I've taken pages of notes and attempted to look at the various parts of the exhibits as judiciously as possible. This time, I have tried to take in the exhibition as a whole, rather than focussing on small parts of it. I'm conscious of the dangers of this approach: making overly hasty generalisations which reflect my own perspective, overlooking the importance of items other people might place great value upon and so on. To counter this I have made a considerable effort to identify the parts of the exhibit which I appreciate. Alongside this more considered and comprehensive take on the exhibition, I have developed my own views on remembrance and how it frames and shapes the way history is portrayed.

Anyway, before I respond to Seán's points I am going to outline my overall view of the exhibition as a whole. I will note as I go where I agree with Seán, and also the parts I view positively. The critique, redeveloped and hopefully free of factual errors, will follow.

Firstly, I agree with Seán that the images of “the faces of the fallen”, together with the large image of the map of Dunedin showing the homes of all of the dead soldiers, emphasise the terrible and tragic loss of life inflicted upon the city by the war. As you enter the exhibit you see images of red poppies and gravestones, with the faces of the dead young men popping up behind them brightly lit. These images, plus the map, form a major part of the exhibit as a whole. The subject is death, loss, mourning, sadness. The expected viewer response – and I don't think Seán will disagree with me here – has to do with remembrance.

There are two massive and prominent images which refer to 'empire' patriotism: the young Kindergarten boy saluting the Union Jack at the entrance, and another very large photo at the rear of the exhibit which shows a large group of smiling people in the Octagon posing around a big Union Jack flag. There are several more artefacts, such as a large quilt made by patriotic women depicting the NZ flag and the Union Jack side by side, which make the same point: in 1914 New Zealand, people cared quite a lot about Britain. Patriotism was a big deal, and it had a lot to do with our decision to go to war.

The third major element of the exhibit explores the history of the war years 1914 – 1918 from a specifically Otago-centred point of view. You enter through the panels of red poppies and images of the dead, and walk around the perimeter to take in the history of the period. Half of the panels are dedicated to a detailed description of the battles fought by the Otago regiments - Gallipoli, Passchendale, Messines and so on. There's also a large screen in the front of the exhibit, which shows the documentary Journey of the Otagos. This is a long and very detailed documentary, which focuses almost exclusively on the military history of the Otago Infantry Battallions and the Otago Mounted Rifles. The other half of the panels deal with a variety of different aspects of the war: recruitment and training of the troops, patriotism, dissenters, women and domestic politics. Initially I was struck by what seemed to me the incredible dominance of military history over all other aspects of history. This isn't completely true, and while I remain deeply critical of this section (see below), I appreciate the space given to these topics.

The fourth major element of the exhibition is that of the really big artefacts on display. There are mannequins wearing various types of uniform worn by the Otago regiment. They are depicted standing with rifles by their sides pointing upwards. To me they appear completely non threatening, quite passive representations. Together with the mannequin of a woman dressed in early 20th century apparel, they evoke a sense of nostalgia for a distant historical era. The other big artefacts are those of the enemy: a gigantic Imperial German flag, with a Minenwerfer trench mortar gun sitting beneath it. The massive and hideously powerful looking gun is aimed outwards towards the viewer. The flag is already aggressive and warlike in its design, a sense of threat which is amplified by the gun. There's also a large Turkish flag near the entrance, again with a large machine gun directly beneath it. 


The fifth major element of the exhibition is positioned near the entrance, surrounded by the faces of the dead Otago soldiers. It's a sort of vine descending from the ceiling, with small pieces of paper clipped onto it. The paper and pens provided sit on tables beneath the vine, and etched onto the tables are three questions viewers are encouraged to answer. You write your answer on a little piece of paper and clip it onto the vine. The questions are:

  • What does Anzac mean to you?
  • Would you have/ have not volunteered?
  • Is the world better because of WW1?

Before I make any critical comments, I think it is worth noting the sincerity of Seán's reply. The exhibition definitely reflects this depth of feeling, especially the map of Dunedin showing the locations of the families who lost sons, brothers or husbands in the war. People who have family connections with the Otago region might be able to spot the face of a great – great – grandfather, others may simply appreciate the personalised and specifically Otago related connection to a major world shaping historical event. Another positive aspect is the meticulous and vivid attention to military history. The panels and the documentary taken together provide an extremely detailed and evocative account of the battles fought by Otago soldiers. Anybody with a special interest in military history would most likely find a great deal of interest in the exhibition.

Now, to take up Seán's points about the various patriotic images. I will first of all concede that my initial comment about an 'expected response of pride and poignant feelings' was misguided. I have very strong ethical and political opinions about WW1, and these do colour my perceptions. The image of the small boy saluting the Union Jack might provoke a fairly wide range of emotional responses, depending upon the point of view of the observer. They might feel sadness, anger, some form of nostalgic pride, or indifference.

Having said that, I have two major issues with the patriotic images taken as a whole. The first is that they are all very 'soft' and innocuous representations. There are bulldogs dressed as old ladies, children saluting flags, quaint advertisements, women in funny looking costumes selling kisses. What is almost completely absent are any images depicting the really dark, violent and shameful aspect of this very same patriotism. There is a good section on 'Anti-German Feeling' to be found if you search through the computer kiosk. There's a tiny but quite important cartoon called 'The Spoils of War' which depicts monstrous looking Germans ransacking the treasure boxes of Belgium. These exceptions are easily missed – I only noticed them after my third or fourth visit. The overwhelmingly dominant portrayal avoids these darker aspects.

My second issue with the patriotic images is the sheer size and dominance of them. The only part of the exhibition to display any evidence of New Zealanders who actually rejected 'empire' patriotism is the Green Ray exhibit, which occupies a relatively small section. This presentation suggests a monolithic view of early 20th century New Zealand identification with the 'mother country'. While it is true that this sort of identification was a powerful and dominant force, it is also true that it was seriously challenged by significant minority groups such as Maori, Irish Nationalists, Socialists and pacifists. It also changed considerably over the course of the war years, weakening as the war dragged on. Alongside this weakening of patriotism was the strengthening of another kind of identification which had to do with class instead of nationality. The best book about this topic which I know of is Stevan Eldred-Grigg's The Great Wrong War. A very good article which focuses on the effects of the 1916 Easter Uprising on Irish Nationalism in New Zealand is Seán Brosnahan's '”SHAMING THE SHONEENS”: the Green Ray and the Maoriland Irish Society in Dunedin, 1916 – 1922'.

Regarding Seán's claim that the title 'Dunedin's Great War' involves irony rather than glorification, I am still unsure. The best evidence for the claim is to be found in the text of the final panel, 'Coming Home', which concludes:

Many ex-soldiers settled quickly back into civilian life but for others the war had blighted their lives for good. Ill health, alcoholism, poverty and premature death stalked veterans of Dunedin's 'Great War'.

The text of the first panel, beneath the title 'Dunedin's Great War', seems to be a sort of mission statement for the exhibition as a whole:

INTRODUCTION: One hundred years ago Dunedin went to war. Thousands of citizens signed up to become soldiers. They fought and died at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Almost 1900 were killed, their remains left far from home. Those who returned came back changed forever, with scars in mind and body that marked the rest of their lives. This year we remember their sacrifice and honour their memory.

Next to this introductory panel is the patriotic quilt I mentioned earlier, and another large colour reproduction of a booklet cover from 1919. This 'Souvenir of the Great War' cover shows a soldier and a seamen posing heroically, with flags of the Allied nations draped around them. The text of the image is crowned with the lion and the unicorn emblem, evoking a sense of royal tradition. To me, the images and the text convey a very strong sense of pride, tradition and nostalgia for a distant historical era. The irony is not apparent.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My initial perception of the exhibition was that everything in it was dominated by two central themes which framed the history in a very particular way. Firstly remembrance, with its personalised focus on the Otago soldiers who lost their lives in the course of the war. Secondly a very 'forensic' and highly detailed sort of military history. This framing, in my view, marginalises and excludes other perspectives on the history in question and severely inhibits any form of critical engagement with our past. Although I still believe that this sort of criticism does hit the mark, after multiple viewings I have come to realise that the exhibition is not completely dominated by this framing. I still have issues with these exceptions to the dominant framing, but before I discuss these I will acknowledge some of the positive features:

  • The 'Green Ray' exhibit
  • The first edition of Baxter's 'We Will Not Cease' and the detailed information on Baxter in the computer kiosk
  • The various newspaper cuttings referring to conscription
  • The panel which deals with press censorship
  • The panel which deals with 'Women's Work'

The considerable space taken up by these panels means that it is not true to claim that 'military history' is completely dominant. Still, taken as a whole there are some serious and crucial missing pieces. The detailed information on Baxter does not include any reference to his actual arguments against the war. Conscription is mentioned several times, and the newspaper images testify to its importance, but arguably it deserves its own panel. There is a whole panel devoted to the Otago Women's Patriotic Society, and another whole panel devoted to 'War Leaders'. The only 'non-conformist' panel is the 'Dissenters' panel. The impression given is that opposition to the war was the province of a tiny minority of extremists such as pacifists and Irish Nationalists.

Perhaps the most objectionable panel is the final one in the 'domestic' series. Presumably it is a sort of summary of the previous panels. The title is 'Far Away':

Far from any battlefield, New Zealand was under little threat of attack. For most people and organisations in Dunedin, life went on through the war pretty much as normal. Except for some shortages, so many young men absent overseas or returning wounded, it could be easy to forget there was a war on. At least that is until the telegrams arrived from the Defence Department with the sad news of men who would never return.

According to the text, not much happened, life continued as usual. According to the images, the most significant events were military parades and funerals. Even though the other 90% of the exhibition which focuses on military history has numerous pictures of men in uniform, well over half the space in the 'Far Away' panel also contains images of Our Brave Boys: parades in the streets, funeral processions. A motley collection of smaller images provide us with comforting and harmless pictures of a bygone era. Ladies in hats at the Forbury Park Trotting Club. Elderly Bowlers Day. Sentimental postcards. Wedding pictures. St Clair beach – children's dayii.

The unfortunate effect of this final panel is to undermine the significance and value of the preceeding panels: almost as if to say, 'yes, this stuff in New Zealand happened, and here it is. But really it wasn't all that important, the real action was of course on the battlefields overseas'. There are hundreds of reasons why I think this sort of view is misguided. Instead of listing them here I will simply refer again to the best book I know of on this topic, Stephan Eldred Grigg's The Great Wrong War.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before I turn to discuss the documentary Journey of the Otagos I will make a confession: I don't care very much for military history. I get bored and somewhat nauseated by detailed descriptions of battles, terrain and tactics. I don't like the fact that the perspective of military history has a dominant position in the contemporary framing of WW1 commemorations. Having said that, I don't think it is possible to talk about WW1 without some reference to the battles and the deaths which they incurred. And even though I don't like military history very much I do not 'write it off' as a completely invalid type of inquiry.

So as far as I can gather, judged by the 'terms of reference' of the genre of military history, Journey of the Otagos is a fine and well produced account of the experiences of the Otago Mounted Rifles and the Otago Infantry Battallions. Seán Brosnahan takes us to the locations of all those famous battles: Gallipoli, Armentierres, the Somme, Messines Ridge and so on. He brings the battles vividly to life, and provides detailed information on how the geography affected the various battles, the rights and wrongs of various strategies and tactics, conditions of the trenches, etc,etc.

Given the 'genre' of the documentary, it isn't really fair to judge it on what it excludes. The criticism that Archibald Baxter gets a very brief 30 seconds, compared to the lengthy and detailed segment on the heroic deeds of 'King of No Mans Land' Dick Travis, cannot be levelled legitimately. The Subject is The Otago Mounted Rifles and The Otago Infantry Battallions. Baxter wasn't a member. He is lucky to get his 30 seconds.

There are other exclusions I could mention, but instead of detailing these somewhat pointless criticisms, I will accept the limitations of the genre for now and simply describe some of the most prominent general features of the documentary.

The location shots flip between cemeteries or memorials to the dead soldiers, and battle sites. This is military history through the lens of remembrance, very specifically focused on the Otago soldiers. There's a repeated use of evocative mournful music, especially in the scenes of the cemeteries and memorials. Individuals are singled out for mention throughout, it is a very personalised view of history. Two facts about the Otagos are repeated again and again throughout the documentary, they function as sort of leitmotif: 1. The Otagos were particularly unlucky, suffering very high casualties compared to other units. 2. They were particularly skilled and effective soldiers compared to other units. The two points are related: they were singled out for dangerous missions because they were such effective soldiers.

There are three New Zealand historians interviewed throughout, and the most interesting part of the whole documentary comes at the end. The historians are asked about the role of conscription, and finally the broader questions around the “legacy of the Anzacs”. All of them seem to support the idea that conscription was necessary to maintain the pre-eminent status of the Otago regiments. None of them discuss the broader issues around conscription, but as I have already conceded, those broader issues are not on the agenda here.

The final interviews which do attend to the question of the “legacy of the Anzacs” are particularly revealing. There are several important rhetorical techniques used, and to do justice to them would require a separate essay. To give what is in my opinion the most interesting example, I will quote the words of historian Tom Brooking:

… we were deeply involved in it, rightly or wrongly … in a way it [the question of whther the war was just] becomes a non issue, we were there, we did our best, and on balance we came out of it pretty well.

[ …. ] it doesn't really matter what their motivations were because they were all tipped by fate into the maelstrom …

[was the war] justified? … well the origins of the war are a bit, you know, fuzzy … European culture as a whole was to blame. But, you know, it happened, our guys were there, and they did their best and that's why I think their effort should be honoured, but not glorified.

The shift from the broader question of whether or not the war itself was just or necessary, to the question of whether or not we should 'honour the effort' of 'our guys' is easy to miss when you actually watch the documentary. Because the focus of the preceeding two hours resolutely restricts itself to the valour of the Otagos and the tragedy of their huge losses, it is very difficult to distinguish the two questions.

There is also the notion here that remembrance 'trumps' the question of whether the war was right or wrong. This framing allows us to ask the question “Was WW1 a just war?” and discuss the topic, just as long as we remember the Really Important Thing, which is remembrance. We can even agree with the critics that it was stupid, unjust and a waste of life – because it is a secondary concern, this does not prevent us from the crucial task of honouring the sacrifices of our men.

Another very crucial idea here is the claim that the men were 'tipped by fate' into the horrors of WW1. The image of a 'maelstrom' suggests an analogy with the weather. Just as a ship can be destroyed by a mighty storm, so can people be destroyed by History. We move along the horizontal axis of time, and ever now and then we have to suffer through an awful blip of War. Like the weather, or a disease, it is something well beyond our control.

This idea of war as 'fate' is echoed in an interesting way in the sculpture 'Victory Medal', also on display at the Otago Early Settlers Museum.

This is a very powerful work, which I believe succeeds very well in questioning the idea of 'victory' and the glorification of war heroes. The sculpture also provides us with a compelling vision of the horror of war and its devastating effects. There's a piece of text which accompanies the work, headed by a picture of the two sides of a medal: one side is the image of an angel, the other is the dedication: The Great War for Civilisation 1914 – 1919. The text includes the following statement:

This work acknowledges all of those whose lives are lost or blighted by circumstances outside their control; and the consequences that reach across the generations.

There's no doubt that this sculpture represents the exact opposite of 'glorification' of war. What it does not represent is the fact that the deaths of all those soldiers were the result of political decisions. Those decisions could have been different. People did not all agree with them and a sizeable minority challenged them vehemently. Those same decisions, even though they happened in the past and cannot now be changed, we can reflect upon and discuss. 'Remembrance', as a ceremony, as media, as museum exhibit, as art: it quashes this reality, it obscures from view the political nature of commemoration behind a veil of tears and the false notion of war as 'fate'.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I hope it's possible to at least entertain the idea of a world in which the Allies did not win the First World War. I hope it's also possible to imagine a world in which WW1 did not happen. I hope it's possible for New Zealander's to pose the question of whether it was necessary for us to commit our men overseas to help the Empire. I hope it's possible for us to also question the morality of our decision to do so. I really, really, really hope that it's possible for New Zealanders living a full 100 years after the catastrophe of WW1 to ask all of these questions outside the shadow cast by the imperative of “Remembrance”.

I'll conclude this post with a very unscientific statistical analysis of the 'remembrance vine' I described above. There are three questions visitors are encouraged to answer:

  • What does Anzac mean to you?
  • Would you have/ have not volunteered?
  • Is the world better because of WW1?

I took a more or less random sample of 32 responses, ignoring those which responded to the first question, or did not give a clear positive or negative response to either of the two other questions. I was most interested in people's responses to the third question. Many of the 'No's' did not provide any explanation, although there were a few quite thoughtful anti war statements. So some of them may have been saying “No, I wouldn't have volunteered” instead of “No, WW1 did not make the world a better place”. Anyway, a sizeable 14 out of the 32 in my sample said No. Many of the cards, at least half, were written with children's handwriting. With all those dead soldiers looking down on them, and the complete absence of anything in the exhibition itself which would assist people to think about these important questions, I take heart from this result.

iI read John A Lee's Children of the Poor not too long ago, which is based on his experiences growing up in Dunedin during the early years of the twentieth century. Although I enjoyed reading this book, I found his WW1 book Civilian into Soldier really plodding and mediocre. I'm curious to now read and compare Malthus' 'Anzac: A retrospect'.

iiThere is a single interesting looking exception to this, a newspaper article with a picture of a ruined building and the headline 'Bombardment of Papeete, Tahiti, by two German Cruisers'.

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