To complement the First World War Centenary History Programme, the project’s sponsors organised a major international conference at Massey University’s Old Museum Building in Wellington last week. Its theme was The Experience of a Lifetime: People, Personalities and Leaders in the First World War. For a full weekend we conference delegates were offered a wealth of personal war stories. Twenty four presenters regaled their audience with a range of experiences – from European generals responding to unprecedented mechanical conflict, to Able Seaman John Reardon, a New Zealander who died when the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine disappeared off New Guinea in September 1914.
It was great to hear the perspectives brought by several historians from overseas – including Professor Sir Hew Strachan of Oxford University – as they gave a glimpse of British, Australian, American and even Ottoman experiences. As well as providing a fuller picture of the effects of the war, these presenters emphasised that the First World War was a truly transnational event, and one which shaped the experiences of many millions of people.
Naturally enough, considering how the theme was about personalities, the weekend was filled with interesting personal stories. Some of the ones I particularly enjoyed included that of Ratu Sukuna, a Fijian chief who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in order to join the conflict; the stories of the seven Indians known to have joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; and Lord Kitchener’s preferred alternative to the Gallipoli Campaign: an invasion of Alexandretta (now known as İskenderun) on the Mediterranean coast, west of Aleppo.
The challenge for us, however, is to tease out what it is that these individual stories tell us about the broader picture of the war. One of the most effective presentations at the conference related to New Zealand pilot Keith Park, and how his experience converged or diverged from that of other pilots. Park’s assignment as an instructor immediately following his own training speaks not only of the shortcomings in the British air training scheme, but also of the calibre of Park as a pilot. It also meant that Park tallied up 135 hours of flying experience before deployment on the Western Front, as opposed to the average 30–50 hours of his comrades.
The recent digitisation of historical resources – including Papers Past and the armed forces personnel files housed at Archives New Zealand – enriched these and the countless other stories we heard. Many of these stories have only recently come to light. It made me realise that there are so many stories of personal courage and suffering that have not yet been told, and the centenary of the war provides us with a great opportunity to share them and learn from them. In addition, it would be worthwhile to widen the scope of the stories on offer to include those not substantially covered in the conference: those on the home front, the men and women in the New Zealand Medical Corps, conscientious objectors, Māori and Pacific Island peoples in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, as well as the lingering effects of their experience of a lifetime.