Birth of a nation?
Fighting on the South African veldt and competition on English rugby grounds proved small adventures once the First World War broke out in 1914. Over the next four years 124,211 New Zealand men served in the war, and almost half were either killed or wounded. This constituted a national trauma. The legend emerged that on the rocky slopes of Gallipoli in 1915 and in the muddy trenches of France and Flanders the New Zealand people achieved a sense of nationhood.
It is hard to prove that the war induced New Zealanders to consider themselves a separate people from the British. However, some New Zealand soldiers did acquire a contempt for many things British.
Sniping at Mother England
One New Zealand soldier, an officer and an Anglican, wrote back after some time in England that ‘the general opinion is that we should hand it over to the Germans and apologise to them for having nothing better to give them.’ 1
Other New Zealanders, socialists and supporters of the Māori King movement, also questioned any obligation to the British Empire. But their numbers were few. It was as Britons, albeit superior to the ‘old country’ variety, that most New Zealanders thought of themselves in the war years. New Zealanders’ encounters with Asian people in Colombo or with Arabs in Cairo reinforced their pride in belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.
Yet within this framework war helped New Zealanders define themselves, in part from the sense that they were different. The soldiers met Australians and judged them ‘a loose beery lot’, more rowdy and uncouth than themselves. They met the English and considered them ‘a lot of half-grown boys’. 2 They met Scots and warmed to their lack of class-consciousness. New Zealand soldiers used new terms to describe themselves – ‘Enzedders’, ‘Fernleaves’ (referring to the native fern) ‘Diggers’ (from the gold and gum diggers) and for the first time, towards the end of the war, ‘Kiwis’ (after the native flightless bird). They developed common swear words and banter. The mateship which grew among men enduring harsh conditions and starved of family cemented a sense of a common nationality.
Flower of the world’s manhood
Once again people at home consumed press reports and foreign judgements on ‘our boys’. The comment made by British poet John Masefield that the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were the ‘flower of the world’s manhood’ was quoted endlessly. The idea re-emerged that New Zealanders were better fitted for these struggles because of their pioneering heritage. While people at home viewed the New Zealand soldier as a ‘natural gentleman’, among the troops the reality of nights on the booze and queues at the brothel suggested another emerging type: the ‘hard-case’ Kiwi.
Meanwhile the widely recognised commitment of New Zealand women to the cause, as patient, long-suffering mothers, as raisers of funds, as nurses, as knitters of socks and bakers of Anzac biscuits, strengthened the perception that they too were capable, brave and adept in domestic virtues.