Story: New Zealand identity

Page 3. War and sport

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New Zealand wars

National identity is often shaped by remembered success and failure in war. This is certainly true of New Zealand’s 20th-century wars. But the battles between British and Māori during the 19th century were less often commemorated as founding moments of New Zealand. While Māori remembered them, Pākehā preferred to forget. This makes New Zealand different from societies like the United States, where the Civil War of 1861–5 is central to national identity and memory.

South African War

The first occasion when New Zealanders gained national pride and international attention in war was in the South African War (1899–1902). The 10 contingents of New Zealand soldiers (6,500 men) established a reputation as brave soldiers who were adaptable, full of initiative and natural leaders.

First World War

The deaths of over 18,000 and the service of over 100,000 soldiers in the First World War (1914–18) became a key feature of New Zealand’s national memory and identity. Foreign observers gave them international recognition, and in meeting soldiers from other countries Kiwis judged themselves against others.

International praise

New Zealanders like to quote, and requote, the praise showered on their soldiers at Gallipoli. King George V said the New Zealand troops had ‘proved themselves worthy sons of Empire’; Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander, said they had ‘upheld the finest traditions of our race’; poet John Masefield described them as ‘the flower of the world’s manhood’.1

While fewer died at Gallipoli than on the Western Front, the landing at Gallipoli in Turkey on 25 April 1915 became especially commemorated as the first significant occasion when New Zealanders displayed their courage to the world. In 1920 that day became a public holiday, Anzac Day; it has been a national day of commemoration ever since.

Although New Zealanders seek to distinguish themselves from Australians in many ways, the close relationship forged in the First World War between New Zealand and Australia, and commemorated through the ‘ANZAC spirit’, has remained important to how New Zealanders understand their history.

Second World War

The experience of New Zealand soldiers fighting in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy during the Second World War reinforced New Zealand men’s sense of themselves as tough, adaptable and egalitarian. The service of New Zealand women abroad as nurses or at home as factory workers or housewives established their reputation as dependable and able to ‘make do’.


International sport was another area where New Zealanders demonstrated their identity to themselves and the world. The success of All Black rugby teams since 1905 and netball teams since the 1970s established an image of New Zealanders as good at working in teams and with a physical strength which was thought to have derived from a rural background. Rowing successes reinforced this image.

Individual sporting successes such as Jack Lovelock at the 1936 Olympics, Yvette Williams at the 1952 Olympics, Peter Snell at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics and John Walker at Montreal in 1976 were also noteworthy, and like Edmund Hillary’s success in climbing Everest in 1953, presented New Zealanders as people who had strength and stamina, yet were modest and down-to-earth.

From the 1990s, New Zealand’s yachting successes in the America’s Cup evoked the image of a people who combined physical abilities with cutting-edge technological innovation.

  1. Quoted in Jock Phillips, A man’s country?: the image of the pakeha male, a history. Auckland: Penguin, 1987, p. 165. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - War and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Fiona Barker, published 20 Jun 2012