Saturday, 21 March 2015

“All that clack about the British Empire”

In my previous posts about the 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibit, I discussed the use of the prominent images depicting 'Empire patriotism'. I argued that the images emphasised a 'monolithic' view of New Zealander's attitudes towards the British empire in general and the first world war in particular. The political views and identities of people who didn't fit into this dominant patriotic code are pushed into the margins of history: Irish nationalists, the many Maori people who took positions similar to that of Te Puea, pacifists, socialists and anarchists.

Just how big was this motley collection of 'disloyal' New Zealanders? In a recent interview , Stevan Eldred Grigg suggests that it was a fairly significant minority:


First of all, you have to take out the 10 to 12 percent Catholic Irish, who certainly did not see themselves as British, and saw the British Empire as a very dodgy enterprise. You have to take out most Maori, who—unlike what he says—did not flock to the colours, but stayed away in droves. You have to take out German and Scandinavian New Zealanders, for the most part, and a large number of Croat New Zealanders, and you have to take out Chinese New Zealanders. Then there’s our colonial peoples, who had to be shovelled in to fill the recruitment quotas. Kalaisi Folau and Margaret Pointer have written a really moving work about the poor Niueans. Some of them volunteered, some got brow-beaten. They had terrible experiences. Most of them just got sick. In return, the whole community of Niue got a type-written letter with a mimeographed signature from the war minister, and some portraits of the king and queen to hang in a village hall.

You’ve still got an overwhelming majority of Anglo-Scots, something like 75 percent. But then of course you can start doing your class analysis.

Grigg's views about this are routinely condemned by many other historians. This review of his book about New Zealand and WW1 sums up this negative appraisal:

There is some terrific research in The Great Wrong War, but it is not balanced research. There are literally hundreds of examples and details of his research into how anti-war New Zealand society was, and hardly any the other way. Yet the literature and anecdotes from the time are strongly pro-war.

Only rarely does the author acknowledge the emotional and family ties most New Zealanders felt to Britain. That was the main influence in New Zealand rallying behind Britain.

After reading a series of these extremely dismissive reviews, I found out about a recently published book  by Stephen Loveridge called “Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War”. This book came out very recently (2014) and is based on his Phd thesis .

Loveridge takes the opposite view, and argues that the vast majority of 1914 New Zealanders had a strong sense of identity based upon loyalty to the British Empire, and that this patriotic consensus naturally translated into support for New Zealand's involvement in WW1. Reading this thesis, I wasn't surprised to find that Loveridge completely dismisses Grigg's views. Echoing the sentiments of many other commentators, Loveridge claims that Grigg's history 'attempt[s] little beyond expressing outrage about the war.'[1]. He also denigrates the book as being 'popular' and 'unsophisticated':

Default assumptions and popular, though not necessarily sophisticated, sentiments remain predominant; if the most recent examination of the home front, at time of writing, is anything to go by, there is still a real tendency to view governments as operating free of constraints, to cast the public as hopelessly duped and to ask little about the war beyond whether it was a bad thing.[2]

Although I'm much more sympathetic to Grigg's perspective than I am to Loveridge's, I think it's really unfortunate that Loveridge does not even engage with the evidence and arguments that Grigg actually puts forward. It's true that The Great Wrong War is written in a popular style, but that doesn't mean it lacks substance. It's also true that Grigg is coming from a partisan, class conscious perspective, and that he openly and passionately makes moral judgements condemning the war. This fact does not mean that he loses any claims to objectivity or rigour. It just means that he is honest and open about his values and ideals. If Grigg is so wrong, why can't Loveridge engage with his views and explain exactly why and how?

* * *

Contemplating this ideological chasm and complete lack of debate between two 21st century historians, I was reminded of another heated debate with resonant content in Robin Hyde's novel The Godwits Fly. The young Eliza watches her parents having an argument about the merits of the British Empire:

John got the parts of a History of Mankind, which ran in small print and coloured plates through a weekly magazine. Carl Withers sold them to him for sixpence, and bought them back for a penny. Some of them upset him dreadfully. He came rushing in and slammed the door, his hair standing up on end, his thin face flaming.

'Look at that. That's your capitalist system. That's what they do to men. Look at that, I tell you.'

Augusta looked. 'It happened two thousand nine hundred years ago,' she said tonelessly.

'They're all the same. Capitalists – murderers. Look, Eliza, that's what your mother wants me to put into Parliament. That's what she votes for herself.'

'Must you defile the eyes of your own children?'

'Let them see what the world is. Look, Eliza!'

Eliza looks, and sees a picture of some slaves flayed alive by an Emperor. They lie huddled, not unlike the raw pink rabbits that have to be soaked in the ink before they can be stewed. The Emperor stands over them with his whip, looking rather like Daddy in a temper.

'Yes, Daddy.'

John fires off his parting shot.

'That's your Imperialism. That's your God for you.' Augusta, hard tears forcing themselves between her eyelids, continues to pare very thin rings from the potatoesi.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, the main character Eliza is Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson), the fictional parents John and Augusta are based on the real life parents George and Nelly Wilkinson. There were indeed many heated political arguments in the Wilkinson household. Nelly took the side of God, tradition and the British Empire whereas George was the radical athiest who denounced the iniquities of the capitalist system. The second hand bookseller referred to above as Carl Withers was also a real person:

His [George Wilkinson's] very modest salary could scarcely afford the luxury of his omnivorous appetite for books, but friendship with a local free-thinking socialist second-hand bookseller allowed him to regularly trade books he had bought for another batch of books and papers. Over the years the tall, blue-eyed, sandy-haired postal clerk with an explosive temper and a propensity for migraine, both ascribed to the impact of the [Boer] war,earned a respected name among his workmates as a reliable source of information and referenceii.

Both of the Wilkinson parents belong to Grigg's 75% Anglo-Scot majority. As for their class position, reading Challis' biography reveals a quite complex picture: although the Wilkinson family was quite poor, there were family connections on Nelly's side to more distinguished ancestors. Nelly cherished these connections and dreamed of one day returning 'home' to England. George's position as a government employee rendered his radical tendencies more theoretical than practical, according to Challis:

[But] if George's sympathies lay with the Red Feds it was not not because he was then or ever an overt union activist. As a government employee this would have put his livelihood in jeopardy; and besides, although his convictions were deeply felt, and often fiercely expressed, he was perhaps more of a dreamer than a doeriii.

How did George respond to the war when it broke out in 1914? His radical political views would surely have inclined him to take a critical stance. On the other hand, the intense social pressure to join in the patriotic campaign would have been very strong, and amplified by his wife Nelly. There is some fairly convincing evidence that they argued about the war. In Hyde's novel The Godwits Fly Augusta and John get into a huge argument which leads to a temporary separation. Augusta takes her children and leaves John, travelling to stay with her relatives in Australia. During their stay they receive the news that John has enlisted:

Quite suddenly the talk of the grown-ups changed, becoming faster, harder, agitated, curiously proud. Life filled up with voices, everybody asking questions, nobody willing to stand still and explain. In a few days, Augusta came running in with a telegram. She looked on the point of tears, and yet triumphant.

'We must go home at once, by the next boat. John's enlisted as a private.'

For a moment there was silence among the grown-ups. Then Uncle Martin said awkwardly, 'Well, old girl …' His red-brown face was embarrassed and sympathetic.

'Shows all that clack about the British Empire wasn't anything but a pack of man's talk,' cut in Aunt Rosalind. Uncle Will nodded.

'Many a man who's apt to rant a bit till the time comes shows up all right when it comes to deeds. Actions speak louder than words.'iv

This final comment by Uncle Will serves Loveridge's narrative more than it does Grigg's. He may have hesitated and even argued, but in the end the fact that he volunteers to serve proves the point: his identity as a British New Zealander is stronger than his radical political identity. If people like John end up joining in the common cause of the Motherland, then surely the die-hards who resist (like Briggs, Baxter and so on) are then best characterised as an 'extreme fringe' element.

There are a few problems with this interpretation. Fact and fiction mix and mingle in interesting ways here in The Godwits Fly. According to Hyde's biography, the Australia trip happened in 1910, four years before the war when Iris was only four. In reality there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Nelly separated from George at all. The Australia story is a fictional device which emphasises the deep rift between her parents. Even though it is very believable that Hyde's parents did in fact argue about the war, it needs to be remembered that Hyde was born in 1906. When the war started she was only eight years old. Childhood memories of parental conflict can often be vivid, but it's hard to attach too much biographical authenticity to the politically sophisticated subtext of this passage. When she wrote this book in 1938 Hyde was effectively working through what would have been very painful memories of parental conflict. It's the fictional medium which allows her to explore the adult political content, even if she is drawing on memories from real life for some of this same content.

All that we really know for sure is the fact that George Wilkinson did enlist with the NZEF in May 1916. His age and the fact that he still suffered from the effects of a leg wound from the Boer war meant that he was diverted from actual combat duties. He spent his time in the UK working for the Postal Service of the New Zealand Engineers.

What was going on in George's head when he volunteered? Conscription was not officially introduced until September 1916. Given his age, married status and leg wound, it would not have been an issue for him anyway. We can easily speculate that Nelly might have pressured him into it. She was nine years his senior, and appears to be the stronger and more dominant partner. He may have argued strongly but finally caved in, not wanting to sacrifice his marriage to his political ideals.

There's a different line of speculation I would like to explore here. To be clear before I begin, it is just that – speculation. There are some questions of fact which might be able to be resolved through reference to primary sources. I haven't done the research, so what follows could be pure fiction.

George Wilkinson's political connections centre around his friendship with a second hand book dealer. In The Godwits Fly there are several references to this 'Carl Withers' and the fact that he is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). There is a very interesting essay  by Jared Davidson called “Fighting war: anarchists, Wobblies and the New Zealand state 1905-1925”  which provides a detailed account of some of the key members of the Wellington IWW. One of the most prominent members was Philip Josephs. According to Davidson:

Writing from his tailor-shop-cum-radical bookshop in 1911, Josephs decried CMT [Compulsory Military Training] and conscription as a capitalist weapon and a form of state oppression. As well as filling his shop with anti-militarist material, he used the pages of the FOL’s [Federation of Labour] newspaper, the Maoriland Worker, to put forward a decidedly anarchist position on militarism in its New Zealand form. In “The General Strike As a Weapon Against Conscription,” Josephs analysed the arguments for and against CMT, and urged the militant miners’ unions to call a general strike.

Could this be the same 'Wobbly'? In the biography Challis describes a 'socialist' book dealer, whereas Davidson is keen to apply the label 'anarchist'. From what I understand, the IWW included elements of both Marxist and Anarchist traditions. Whether Challis has made a labelling error, or Davidson is exaggerating the anarchist aspect for his own purposes, I don't know. Possibly (and again I'm guessing here) the boundaries between labels like 'socialist' and 'anarchist' were much more fluid in 1914 than they are now.

Conformists have red poppies, pacifists have white, guess what colour the Anarchists chose?

Whatever, I'm going to take a punt that 'Carl Withers' is the fictional version of the real life Philip Josephs. (How many Wobbly second hand book dealers could there have been in Wellington?).

The next quote from Davidson's article shows the connection between the military censorship regime set up by the New Zealand government and the Postal Service where George Wilkinson worked:

Both Customs and the Post and Telegraph Department had a number of censors working within their ranks, the latter including the Deputy Chief Censor, William Tanner. But it was the military that managed censorship during the War. Tanner and other censors located across the country answered directly to Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was both Chief Censor and Chief of the General Staff of the New Zealand Military Forces. Postal censors were mostly officers of the Post Office and worked in the same building “as a matter of convenience”, but censors acted “under the instructions of the Military censor.”

And the next quote shows the connection between Tanner and Philip Josephs:

One of those under Tanner’s watchful gaze was Philip Josephs. After letters to US anarchist Emma Goldman were spotted in October 1915, Josephs was arrested and “detained all day in the cooler until 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” when he was released without being charged. While Josephs was in police custody, two detectives searched his shop in Cuba Street and took possession of all books and papers on anarchism. They then repeated their search at his Khandallah home. As well as holding a considerable stash of anarchist literature, it appears Josephs’ shop had been the Wellington Local of the IWW. Police found “a number of unused official IWW membership books, rubber stamps, and other gear used in connection with that constitution,” as well as IWW correspondence, pamphlets and papers.

Censors such as Tanner and police were actively hunting out IWW members and other anti militarists. Punishments for involvement in any form of 'sedition' were heavy and long. When Josephs was arrested in October 1915, how did George Wilkinson feel? Working in the same building as Tanner, surrounded by the hyped up jingoistic paranoia of the time, I think it's safe to assume he felt the heat.

What happened between October 1915 and May 1916 when George enlisted? Did the police, or possibly a censor, knock on his door and ask a few questions? Did Nelly see what was going on, then explode later in a burst of loyalist fury? Did she remind him that he was responsible for the needs of four children? That if he went to jail they would starve?

Or was it not quite so melodramatic ? Maybe George avoided suspicion of any outright link to the seditious deeds of Josephs, and merely suffered the jibes and dirty looks of his more conservative workmates in the Postal Service. Maybe the atmosphere, especially with the likes of Tanner around, became too much for him. Volunteering would give him a ticket out of the building. He wouldn't have to feel guilty that maybe he was indirectly involved with the harassment and persecution of comrades such as Josephs.

* * *

To conclude by returning to the “big picture” narrative conflict between Grigg and Loveridge: what I've sketched here is relevant but hardly in any way decisive or major. George Wilkinson was just an individual, and my speculative take on him could easily be fiction rather than fact.

What Davidson's article proves, in support of Grigg's narrative over Loveridge's, are two facts:

  1. Radical IWW members took a staunch anti militarist and anti imperialist position on WW1. They faced harsh penalties for doing so and took big risks:

Another ‘silent agitator’ that caused uproar was a satirical poster by ex-New Zealand Wobbly Tom Barker. ‘To Arms!’ called on “Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors and other Stay-At-Home Patriots” to replace the workers in the trenches. Four copies were “smuggled across the Tasman... and pasted up outside the Supreme Court in Wellington,” causing the judge to suspend the court until the offending posters were removed. Anti-war pamphlets were also making their rounds. War and the Workers was a pocket-sized booklet printed by the Auckland IWW that implored workers not to become “hired murderers.” Sold from their Swanson Street office, the booklet insisted, “Those who own the country [should] do the fighting! Let the workers remain home and enjoy what they produce.” After being distributed at the Buckle Street Drill Hall in Wellington, the booklet was forwarded to Solicitor-General John Salmond. Salmond urged for war regulations to be extended so that immediate powers would be available to punish those responsible for such “mischievous publications.”

  1. For every radical, risk-taking IWW activist there were literally thousands of people who read the literature and were influenced by the radical socialist / anarchist / anti militarist views:

Pamphlets and newspapers of the IWW had a wide circulation in New Zealand.According to the Secretary of the Waihi branch of the Socialist Party, imported IWW anti-militarist pamphlets were “finding a ready sale” in 1911. Chunks of IWWism and Industrial Unionism, two locally produced pamphlets, sold in quantities of 3,000 and 1,000 copies each, while the Industrial Unionist, newspaper of the New Zealand IWW, reached a circulation of 4,000. These figures do not indicate their true readership however, as workers shared their copies or would read the columns out loud in groups.

If George Wilkinson was one of these thousands of peripheral radicals, then surely it is reasonable to suppose that there were many other heated arguments, just like those described in Godwits, going on all over New Zealand? If we also remember that the population of New Zealand at the time was around one million, then those thousands of minds ignited by the 'mental dynamite' of radical IWW literature are not such a tiny minority after all.

1. Loveridge, Steven. 2013. 'Sentimental Equipment: New Zealand, the Great War and Cultural Mobilisation'. Victoria University - Phd thesis, p. 16
2. Ibid., p.296

iHyde, Robin. 'The Godwits Fly' AUP 1970 (1938), p. 46 - 47

iiChallis, D. and Rawlinson, G. 'The Book of Iris: A Biography of Robin Hyde', AUP 2002, p. 8

iiiIbid., p.9

iv(Hyde) ibid p.63

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