Known at the time as the Great War and later as the ‘war to end all wars’, the First World War is the most traumatic event in New Zealand’s history. It involved a national effort unprecedented at that time, and it proved more costly, in terms of lives lost, than any other war New Zealand has fought. Of the 104,000 men and women who left New Zealand’s shores to take part in the war, nearly one in five did not return – a huge price for a country that at the time had just under a million inhabitants. The war had a far-reaching impact on New Zealand’s society and culture, but it also enhanced New Zealand’s sense of identity within the British Empire.
The fundamental reason for the war was the rise of Prussian-dominated Germany in the late 19th century. This destabilised the balance of power in Europe. By the early 1900s an uneasy alliance system had emerged in which Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (the Triple Alliance) confronted France, Russia and the United Kingdom (the Entente powers, or the Allies).
War between the alliances was precipitated by the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. Because of this Austria-Hungary made demands on Serbia, which were rejected, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia. Plans to mobilise armies forced the hands of allies on both sides. Russia and France were soon at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers), and, when German forces invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
During the course of the war the two sides gained other participants: the Central Powers were joined by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in late October 1914 and Bulgaria in 1915; the Allies by Japan in August 1914, Italy (which had stood aside from the Triple Alliance) in 1915, Romania in 1916 and the US in 1917.
Who called the shots?
In declaring war on Germany on behalf of the UK and British Empire, the king acted only on the advice of his British ministers. There was nothing remiss in the fact that the governments of neither New Zealand nor any other part of the empire were consulted before being committed. The process reflected the nature of imperial relations and New Zealand’s international status at the time. However, as a self-governing dominion within the empire, New Zealand did have a choice as to whether to actively participate in the war by sending troops overseas.
New Zealand enters the war
As part of the British Empire, New Zealand found itself at war on 4 August 1914, when King George V declared war on Germany. New Zealand was willing to participate for reasons of sentiment, economic interest and security.
Most New Zealanders favoured supporting the British Empire; many were enthusiastic. ‘War fever’ was present in New Zealand, as in Europe. It derived from jingoistic nationalism, a belief in the glory of war and expectation that the war would be short. Kinship ties, and the belief that New Zealanders were ‘British’, were also powerful motivating forces.
Although sentiment shaped New Zealand’s approach, there was a solid foundation of national interest. In 1914 New Zealand was very dependent on Britain. New Zealand had prospered through its exports of agricultural produce, though this reliance on the British market rendered it vulnerable to any interruption of the flow of goods. Both the market and the sea routes to its market were vital New Zealand interests.
New Zealanders were also conscious of their situation at the periphery of the empire, alone in a vast ocean in which a new, alien power – Japan – was emerging to the north (though at the time it was allied to the British Empire). New Zealanders regarded British sea power as the key to their security – and were conscious that by 1914 the supremacy it had enjoyed in the mid-19th century had long since disappeared. New challenges to the British Royal Navy, not least Germany’s naval build-up, had emerged.
New Zealanders were acutely aware of the dangers of defeat. Apart from the economic or physical threats, New Zealand, as one of the empire’s territories, could become a bargaining chip on a peace settlement table. Much of the existing British Empire had been acquired from defeated enemies. New Zealand’s overriding strategy was to prevent such a situation.
Prime Minister William Massey pledged New Zealand’s support for the empire immediately. Given the national mood, to fail to do so would have meant political suicide. In the election several months later political parties (Reform, Liberal) that supported participation in the war took 90% of the seats. In August 1915 these two parties came together to form a national coalition government, with Massey as prime minister and Liberal leader Joseph Ward as minister of finance.