Of the First World War’s many consequences for New Zealand, the human cost was the most traumatic. Among the dominions of the British Empire, New Zealand had the highest percentage (5%) of its military-age men killed. The loss of 18,166 men and women severely affected the small community. Two-thirds (12,483) had fallen in the 30-month Western Front campaign, which remains New Zealand’s most costly. Of those who survived, many were maimed or suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder), imposing a longstanding burden on their families and communities.
Despite the fearful cost, New Zealanders rejoiced in their country’s part in the successful outcome. The British Empire had triumphed, and appeared to be stronger than ever. Its extent grew with the incorporation of enemy territories. New Zealand got some too: it satisfied a long-held aspiration when it received control of Western Samoa in the peace settlement, as a mandate of the new League of Nations. The threat that Germany posed in Europe – and the Pacific – had seemingly been removed by the outcome.
New Zealanders viewed their contribution – and sacrifice – as part of the price of empire. When the possibility of renewed war with Turkey arose in 1922, during the Chanak (Çanakkale) crisis, thousands flocked to the army again, eager for another go at ‘Johnny Turk’. Only later did sentiment turn against the futility and apparently useless sacrifice that trench warfare had involved.
New Zealand’s status in the world was affected by the war. Dominion leaders had been called into conference with their British counterparts from 1916, reflecting dominion contributions to the British war effort. This created a sense of partnership within the empire. In 1919 New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles as a constituent part of the British Empire delegation. More significantly, it joined the League of Nations as a member in its own right – an important step on its path to independence.
New Zealand emerged from war in reasonable economic shape. Its economy had been protected, even enhanced, by the bulk-purchase arrangements with Britain. Despite labour shortages, farmers had been favoured by the certainty of sustained high prices. Infrastructure had been expanded to meet wartime needs.
The six o’clock closing time of pubs was an unlikely legacy of the war. It was introduced as a temporary measure to prevent soldiers who went off duty from Trentham camp at 5 p.m. from over-indulging in the evenings. It was said that the measure would also reduce temptation to a still worse form of vice – visiting women of ‘ill-repute’. In 1918 the measure was made permanent and was not finally abolished until 1967.
But not all sectors of the economy benefited from the war, and this resulted in industrial disharmony. The New Zealand Labour Party emerged on the left of New Zealand politics as a channel for such discontent.
Having suffered no more than an incursion into its territorial waters, New Zealand faced no reconstructive task in the aftermath of war. Its landscape was changed only by the numerous memorials to the fallen that were erected by towns throughout New Zealand, and the National War Memorial in Wellington. The literary landscape was enriched by a flow of memoirs by participants, as well as by inadequate official histories.
The cultural landscape was enriched by:
- Anzac Day, which commemorated the landing at Gallipoli but which was a day of remembrance for all who had fallen
- the Anzac legend, born on the slopes of Gallipoli and focused on the prowess of the citizen-soldiers of Australia and New Zealand
- an increasingly influential veterans’ organisation, the Returned Soldiers’ Association (RSA).
Perhaps the most lasting impact of the war was on New Zealand’s sense of itself. A New Zealand identity had been emphasised during the war, but one within the imperial family. New Zealanders compared themselves with British and others and did not find themselves wanting. Most New Zealanders took pride in the fact that they had done their bit – even overdone it – in the war. In their minds, they had stood the greatest test to confront them so far.