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

The Kaponga Contribution to Life on Active Service

The Kaponga Contribution to Life on Active Service

One the positive side, the war provided rich experiences of comradeship and courage, deepened the country's self-awareness, and gave it a new confidence in the quality of its citizens and its way of life. New Zealanders had
good reason to feel that through their young men they had demonstrated at Gallipoli and confirmed in France that in loyalty to a great cause, in organising ability, and above all in military virtues, they could hold their own with the world's best. They had cause for pride in the fact that at the war's end their division was the strongest in quantity and quality in the British armies in France. And these armies in turn had cause for pride in that ‘the unmilitary amateur British outlasted friend and foe alike’ so that the war, in the end, ‘was chiefly won on the ground by a huge crowd of young Britons who never wanted to be soldiers’.5

The armies of their French, Russian and Italian allies tumbled into large-scale mutiny or military collapse in 1917. By the following autumn the resistance of Germany's allies was disintegrating and the great German army itself, the engine of the war, was cracking under the strain. Yet the British and Dominion forces kept going, withstood the mightiest blows that the German army could deliver in spring 1918 and took the leading part in the great war-winning offensives that autumn.6

Whence did these Britons draw their strength and tenacity? In particular, whence came the staying power that enabled the New Zealanders to stand out among them? In his Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914–1918 J.G. Fuller has thrown light on this matter from a scholarly analysis of over a hundred ‘trench newspapers’ produced by the front-line soldiers themselves.7 His conclusion is that these men were able to maintain their morale in the face of appalling conditions in the trenches and unprecedented slaughter in battle because they ‘carried over from civilian life many institutions and attitudes which helped them to adjust to, and to humanise, the new world in which they found themselves’. page 331 Drawing on a wide base of support in the ranks ‘a great network of entertainments paralleling those at home existed behind the lines’. This spontaneous growth of stopgap institutions to foster sports, concerts, excursions, popular journalism and other entertainments seems to have enhanced the periods of rest and recreation and played an important part in upholding morale. The home background also shaped the way the men approached their soldiering. Fuller writes:

The historian of the New Zealand Division contrasted the keen awareness shown by its men with ‘the boyish insouciance of the English soldier’. At home, wrote an officer of the division, education for all ‘nurtures the seed of independence’, so that all feel fit for leadership: consequently, in the field, the men in the ranks exhibit ‘a native inquisitiveness … they seem to want to know all about their surroundings, and to have the intelligence to grasp the situation. A certain mental restlessness will not leave them content with only sufficient information to carry out their duties; they find out more.’

It is not difficult to see how well Kaponga's little world would have prepared its servicemen for their time of testing. The vigorous local social and sporting life, the shared responsibility of the family farm, the do-it-yourself frontier approach to all kinds of problems from roading the Taranaki mud to selling on a world market, together made an almost ideal preparation for Gallipoli, the Somme, Flanders and the rest.