Opinion: Kiwi soldiers didn't die for freedom in WW1

What did 18,500 Kiwis die for in WW1? (Author's collection)
What did 18,500 Kiwis die for in WW1? (Author's collection)

One hundred years ago, New Zealand soldiers were finally being withdrawn from the battlefield of Britain's bloodiest offensive of World War One, the Battle of the Somme.

Of the 15,000 Kiwis who took part, 8,000 had become casualties, with over 2,000 losing their lives.

I had the privilege of touring the Somme battlefield two weeks ago, the once nightmarish killing grounds are now fertile farmers' fields full of healthy crops.

There are signs of a once mighty conflict though, with hundreds of cemeteries and memorials dotting the landscape.

As I walked on the Somme, on the very ground where over a million men fell in one of history's most horrific and controversial battles, I began to wonder why so many New Zealanders fought and died here.

Before answering that question, it is perhaps worth looking at what the Kiwi soldiers actually achieved on the Somme.

They captured nearly 1,000 German prisoners and 3.2km of enemy ground, more than any other British, Australian or Canadian division in the entire Somme offensive. Because the New Zealanders were successful in killing Germans and capturing their trenches they were also kept on the battlefield longer than any other division for 23 days.

If you're to judge those statistics, New Zealand soldiers were among the very best Britain had to use. They were an elite fighting force.

The main actions the New Zealanders fought on the Somme, the battles of Flers-Courcelette and Morval, were designed by the British General in command, Douglas Haig, to break through the German lines and allow his cavalry corps to punch through and return the conflict to open warfare rather than the static and costly trench warfare it had become.

Although there were several breakthroughs none were large enough for Haig's massed cavalry to gallop through, and the Somme became a costly battle of attrition; essentially Mr Haig tried to kill as many German soldiers as he could.

And while he did kill or injure over half a million of them, he also did the same to 620,000 of his own soldiers.

Many New Zealand survivors of the Somme described their efforts as being similar to the Gallipoli debacle. They called it a slaughter with little purpose, a waste of lives for little gain.

Any answer to this complicated and emotive question must begin first with the men who sent the New Zealanders to fight in the first place, the New Zealand coalition government.

That government had an agreement with Great Britain to supply her army with a standing division of 15,000 men, which was to be constantly reinforced from New Zealand in the wake of 'severe losses', such as what happened on the Somme.

And to keep up these reinforcement drafts, the New Zealand government brought in the military service act of 1916, which forced all Kiwi men between the ages of 20 and 46 to register for a ballot, and if their name was drawn then they would have to join the army on threat of imprisonment.

It's worth mentioning that the Labour Party was officially formed at this time to fight the military service act, and that our Anzac cousins Australia did not force its men to go to war.

Not really. Apart from the government-led support for Britain's war, New Zealand society at the time was very complicit in supporting it as well.

Most Kiwis saw themselves as 'better Britain's', and were incredibly jingoistic. They saw Britain's war as New Zealand's war.

By the war's end in November 1918, some 50,000 New Zealanders had become casualties in France and Belgium, with almost 14,000 paying the ultimate price with their lives. That's almost five times the number of Kiwis who died at Gallipoli.

In total, almost six percent of New Zealand's entire population became casualties during the war. Thousands more died of wounds in later years or committed suicide.

Another 8,500 Kiwi civilians were killed by the deadly flu pandemic of 1918, which returning soldiers had brought home with them from Europe.

At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, attended by New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey, the victorious nations carved up Germany's colonial territories and demanded billions in reparations.

New Zealand was gifted the former German territory of Samoa to rule as its own.

It's worth noting that New Zealand soldiers took over German Samoa in 1914 without a bullet being fired or a single loss of life.

Tragically, the flu pandemic also reached Samoa and other pacific island nations from New Zealand in 1918, killing 8,500 Samoans, or one-fifth of the population.

'The Great War', as it was called then, is easily the most traumatic and deadly experience New Zealand and its pacific neighbours have ever had to endure.

So did any of 'the fallen' die for freedom a century ago?

It's hard to argue the case for the affirmative.