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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

A Missing Final Act?

page 328

A Missing Final Act?

Kaponga's story over the period 1881–1920 is like a four-act play from which most of the final act has been rudely ripped away. The first three chapters fall neatly into the decades, with the 1880s half hidden in the bush, the 1890s seeing the sudden emergence and rise of the township, and the 1900s marked by professionalism, modernising, and progress on remaining deep problems such as township sanitation and rural roads. The story seems to be heading for the 1910s as the decade of fulfilment, with ‘The Frontier Fades Away’ or ‘Settler to Farmer’ as appropriate headings. The word ‘settler’ with its sense of new beginnings and a Robinson Crusoe ‘jack of all trades' existence had certainly been steadily giving way to the more solid established word ‘farmer’. But with the violent intrusion of a world war Kaponga faltered in its progress from a frontier to a mature community in a mature countryside. At the end of its first four decades a grief-wracked community, in a countryside grown increasingly untidy from under-manning, gave no thought to any festival of ‘arrival’. Instead it celebrated a too-costly victory, the cessation of the killing, and the return of its decimated fighting men.

We have chosen 1914 as the concluding date for this study because the grim happenings of 1914–18 had such revolutionary economic, social, political and intellectual consequences, at all levels from global to local, that they are better dealt with as the beginnings of a new age than as the end of an old one. However, in this chapter we will take some account of the years 1914–19. We will first discuss the kind of war most Kaponga folk were expecting in August 1914, sketch the kind of war they actually got, probe what Kaponga contributed to life on active service, and what immediate impact the war had on the Kaponga district. We will then consider how things might have developed without this rude interruption. We will also glance at another possible age, lost decades earlier, whose tragic deletion has been forcibly drawn to our attention as we write.

Kaponga would have shared in the general expectation that this would be a short, victorious war. As Christopher Pugsley puts it, the departure of the main body of the NZEF in October 1914

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… was more like the start of an international tour by an All Black team rather than soldiers embarking for a war. Young New Zealanders flocked to join the Expeditionary Force, fearful that the war and the adventure it offered would be over before Christmas.1

After all, the most recent major conflict had been the short Russo-Japanese war and the last major European conflict had been the short Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. The emergence of settler Kaponga had coincided with the burgeoning in popular literature and journalism of a glorifying of war, a pride in the empire and a confidence in the superiority of the British ‘race’ and institutions. Through school and Sunday school prizes, school readers and from 1907 the School Journal, the books in the township library, the serials and stories in their weekly newspapers, and the writings of a new breed of war correspondents who glamorised the succession of minor conflicts of the period, young and old of Kaponga would have built up a picture of war that ill-prepared them for the experience they were to go through. War was depicted as ‘a glorified form of big-game hunting—the highest form of sport’.2 One approached a battle as an adventure, a chance to demonstrate one's manliness.

Over the first half of Victoria's reign service in the ranks of the army had a bad reputation and colonies had been regarded rather as a nuisance than as a source of pride. But popular literature and the experience of the South African war had been changing all that. Steadily the empire became a source of great pride and to volunteer to fight in its defence became admirable. So, when the call of the Great War came, men flocked to the colours in their millions from every corner of the empire, to form the first mass armies the British people had ever known. The result was a bitter calamity, in which Kaponga shared deeply, for these great armies appeared at a time when military technology had recently perfected the art of mass killing. So these years saw ‘the worst tragedy that has ever happened to Pakeha New Zealanders', ‘a national trauma’, ‘a whole generation [giving] its most creative energies on a senseless slaughter’.3

Not till the appearance of the Gallipoli casualty lists, when the war was 10 months old, did these realities begin to break in on the Kaponga community. The landing provided the first two names for the 30 on the Kaponga
war memorial. Irving Blackstock was killed on 26 April, the first of 11 members the Kaponga Oddfellows were to lose of 33 sent to the front.4 Howard Newton, a recent immigrant to Kaponga from Richmond, Nelson, was the Kaponga Rugby Club's first casualty, dying of wounds back in Egypt on 2 May. There were two further Kaponga dead from New Zealand's great day of costly glory at Chunuk Bair on 8 August—J.C. Howie of Riverlea, who had left from several years as wagoner for the co-op factory, and G.D. Dempsey. Besides the grief for their own dead, Kaponga would have been hard hit by the loss of friends and acquaintances from neighbouring communities. Especially they would have mourned for page 330 W.G. Malone of Stratford. It was he who had drawn up the articles of association for their dairy co-op, and, following the introduction of compulsory military training in 1911, many young Kaponga men would have got to know and respect him as the commanding officer of the 11th Regiment (Taranaki Rifles). Many in Kaponga would also have been shocked by the death at Gallipoli, barely three weeks after Chunuk Bair, of the Rev William Grant, one of the party of three who in 1886 had first conquered Mt Egmont from the Kaponga side. He had left his Gisborne parish to serve as a chaplain and was shot by a Turkish patrol while attending to Turkish wounded. But these losses, and the flow of broken men who
began to trickle back home, were but a curtain-raiser. Far more Kaponga dreams were to be trampled on the killing fields of France.