New Zealand suffered the most during WWI - Yale history professor

Kiwi soldiers mourn the death of VC winner Henry Nicholas two weeks before the war's end in Le Quesnoy, France.
Kiwi soldiers mourn the death of VC winner Henry Nicholas two weeks before the war's end in Le Quesnoy, France. Photo credit: Henry Sanders/Royston Leonard

Renowned historian Jay Winter has told Newshub he believes New Zealand suffered far more proportionally than any other country in the British Empire during World War I.

Mr Winter is a leading history professor at the prestigious Yale University and a specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century.

He says New Zealand's high casualty rate marks it out from other former British Dominions such as Australia, Canada, South Africa and India.

"The important point I think is the suffering of the entire British family of nations was distributed in very different ways, in fact the New Zealand casualty rates were the highest of all the Dominions," Professor Winter said.

Yale history professor Jay Winter is a leading scholar on the memory of war.
Yale history professor Jay Winter is a leading scholar on the memory of war. Photo credit: Wellington Conference/Twitter

"The smallest suffered the most proportionally. British casualties were 1 out of 8, the losses in terms of those killed on active service from New Zealand is between 1 and 6 and 1 in 5, so it was that country which suffered the most among the family of British nations."

During the war, New Zealand had a young population of just over 1 million people. Of those, 100,000 saw active service overseas with 18,500 dying and 41,000 being wounded.

So almost 10 percent of New Zealand's total population fought in the war, and 60 percent of those Kiwi soldiers became casualties (killed or wounded).

Another 8000 New Zealand civilians lost their lives in 1918 during the world-wide Spanish Flu pandemic - brought back to the country by returning soldiers.

To put that extraordinary loss into a modern context, if today's New Zealand population participated in World War I, we'd send half a million Kiwi soldiers to fight, of whom 90,000 would be killed, 200,000 would be wounded (losing arms, legs or their eyesight etc.) and 40,000 civilians would die from influenza.

The "vanishing act" of World War I and the 9/11 connection

"The Great War was not just a killing machine - the Great War was a vanishing act," Professor Winter told Newshub.

"Eighty percent of the men who died in the war were killed by artillery, and as the war developed heavy artillery produced shrapnel that could scythe a man in two."

"The terrible figure of the First World War is that 50 percent of all those killed, ten million who were killed in the war, have no known graves, and that meant there needed to be what I would call substitute cemeteries for those who had no known graves because there wasn't a trace of them left."

New Zealand was the only former British Dominion that erected a series of separate national memorials to its thousands of missing soldiers after the war - Professor Winter's so-called "substitute cemeteries".

You can find these memorials at Gallipoli on Chunuk Bair, Hill 60, Cape Helles and at Lone Pine, which is often mistakenly called an Australian monument.

The New Zealand memorial to the missing at Lone Pine on Gallipoli - one of many Kiwi "substitute cemeteries" throughout Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The New Zealand memorial to the missing at Lone Pine on Gallipoli - one of many Kiwi "substitute cemeteries" throughout Gallipoli, France and Belgium. Photo credit: Getty

There are also New Zealand memorials to the missing in France and Belgium on the Somme, Messines, Passchendaele and several other battlefields.

Canada's and Australia's war missing are remembered at the two main British memorials at Thiepval and Menin Gate - New Zealand's remembrance took a separate and independent path from Britain.

Professor Winter believes because New Zealand's soldiers "disappeared" so far from home - the act of mourning them became a far more intimate affair.

"One reason why I think the New Zealand experience is characteristic is mourning is something that happens at a local level, on the family level, it also happens of course on the national level, but overwhelmingly people mourn together in small groups.

"The most important thing that we should appreciate is that nations don't mourn, groups of people mourn together in public, and having separate groups of course brings you down to the level of the community, the level of a family in which the losses were felt most strikingly and most enduringly.

"Fifty percent of those who died in the attacks of 9/11 also vanished without trace, the beginning of the definition of war as a vanishing act happened in 1914, separate national forms of commemoration had a very local and familial character."

The New Zealand link to the Armenian Genocide

Professor Winter believes there is a direct link between the first genocide of the 20th century - and New Zealand's failed invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.

"Historians are in the truth business, and the truth is, that the moment of the Gallipoli landing, the effort to knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war, was the moment when the Ottoman Empire began the extermination of the Armenian people.

"Coincidence is a light word for it, between the defence of the empire and the heroics of Atatürk and the Turks on one side, and the ignominious and un-heroic herding of men, women and children into the Mesopotamian desert where they were murdered, raped or died from thirst.

Some of the many hundreds of thousands of victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Some of the many hundreds of thousands of victims of the Armenian Genocide. Photo credit: Getty

"The linkage between the two is something that is very new and very important, no matter what the political consequences are.

"Historians all over the world, including in Turkey, have recognised that this is new, this is something that the Turkish government has been against for a long time.

"Below the level of the nation, historians and young people are speaking about the Armenian Genocide in a way that their earlier colleagues, five years ago, 10 years ago, didn't do."

No New Zealand government has ever formerly acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, probably over fears Turkey would stop Kiwi citizens from visiting the Gallipoli battlefields if it did so.

It remains to be seen whether the new Labour-led Government will weigh into the debate by recognising that the genocide took place.

Canada, France and Germany are among 29 countries that have officially recognised the Armenian Genocide.

Newshub.

Professor Jay Winter was recently in New Zealand on a speaking tour, special thanks to Tessa Lyons from Massey University for setting up his interview with Newshub.

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz