Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Dead Letters, Great War Stories

Image by Glenn Humphries
On 24 April 2019 I gave a talk with Anna Cottrell at the National Library's Wellington auditorium. The event was called 'Dead Letters, Great War Stories' and included a screening of eight films from the Great War Stories project. Here's my talk from the event. Many thanks to Anna, and the National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library team for making the event happen.

Today being 24 April is an auspicious date for my talk. It is of course the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, but closer to home, 24 April is when the Prince of Wales arrived in New Zealand for his 1920 Royal Tour. For anyone who has read Dead Letters, the Prince of Wales is the thread that ties together the beginning and end letters of the book. It was also a research topic close to David Colquhoun’s heart. David passed away last year, so I’d like to acknowledge David and his long association with the Alexander Turnbull Library.

I want to begin with a letter written by Robert Gould. As I read it, I’d like you to think back on the four-plus years of the WW100 centennial. Hold on to any images or memories that come to you…

R Gould, 4 Tinakori Rd, Wellington. 28/8/18

I was elected to go and fight for our “Glorious Empire” but the trouble is I don’t feel any of that patriotic spirit running down my backbone. I am not going unless of course they wind and gag me and they are not past doing that in this splendid little bit of our Empire. I did not go before the Medical Board and I did not appeal but you will see by the papers that about 40 wharfies appealed and only eleven were turned down and have to go to camp, unless they are prepared to go to one of Bill’s Boarding Houses.

I suppose you heard about the treatment of the C.O.’s at Wanganui Prison, it was pretty hot, some of the chaps were just about driven insane. When you hear about Huns just refer them to N.Z. and a little place called Wanganui, and it is not stretched at all by the accounts I have got, of course the warders etc. were shifted from there to other places, but the Head Officer there, up to the present is still in charge. I got a letter from a chap up there today, it was smuggled out and he said that when he went there the C.O. in charge told him he would like to shoot him, so you can see the respectable gentleman they have in charge there.

They may arrest me any time now, it is seven weeks since I should have visited the doctor, anyhow I don’t intend to go, they can do what they like, they have the power because the slaves in uniform do all their dirty work for them and the organisations are really assisting them by their rotten attitude, it makes a man disgusted with his fellows…  
I saw Charlie Johnstone he is out of his little spot and quite well. The military arrested Jones last week and sent him to Wanganui for 28 days and then he will get a C.M. and 2 years when he comes back to Trentham. However there are too many to mention names going for the two years and that is the only ray of hope that shines out in the whole damned business.

I received your letter alright—did you get mine?

Remember me to any friends with hope for the revolution some day at any rate.

Yours in revolt, R Gould
PS Things are only middling with the miners and they are either going out or going slow and there is no coal in the country worth speaking about. Just got word Jones is pretty bad at Wanganui gaol and the Officer in Charge there is a dog.

In the space of four paragraphs, the four years of official WW100 commemoration are confronted with a very different story – one of resistance, defiance, and objection. We learn of the anti-militarist movement and its members, of whom over 650 had been imprisoned by the state. We learn of the Wanganui Detention Barracks scandal, when an official enquiry found overwhelming evidence of mistreatment and brutality that led to the prison camp being shut down. We learn of the strikes and go-slows the government worked so quickly to stop, believing, in the words of Defence Minister James Allen, that the nation was doomed. Thanks to the letter of Robert Gould, we gain an insight into the views of an ordinary, working-class writer during an extraordinary time.

It is the experiences of Robert and others on the margins of wartime society that are the focus of my book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914 -1920. In fact, Robert is not a main protagonist in the book and makes but a brief appearance (on p.110 if anyone is looking). But his letter is an excellent entry into the confiscated letters of the Army Department’s ‘Secret Registry’, personal experiences of the First World War, and the Great War Stories that will be screening shortly.

*** 

So who was Robert Gould? Born in England and late of Timaru, Robert was a 36-year old watersider, socialist, husband, and father of two who was known as a boxer in his youth. 5’5” with greying hair and brown eyes, Robert had scars on his arms and neck from his waterfront work and a tattoo of a woman’s head on his right forearm. Skilled with a winch and crane, Robert was also an avid reader and largely self-educated. When asked about his views, he would quip that socialism would bring a little more butter on the bread, and a little more light in the home and work.

A month after writing his letter, Robert was arrested and sent to camp, where he refused all military orders. He was sentenced to 23 months hard labour and imprisoned at Waikeria, near Te Awamutu. In April 1919, as he languished in a cell alongside other resistors, Robert learned that his wife was seriously ill. He asked to be transferred to Wellington to be near her. His request was denied. So Robert went on hunger strike, refused all work, and was placed in solitary confinement. Others soon followed in protest, and Robert was quickly removed to Mt. Eden prison.

But the hunger strike did not end with Robert’s transfer. Within 3 days, 36 military prisoners had joined the hunger strike, partly in sympathy with Robert and partly through frustration at being jailed despite Armistice having come and gone. 15 days later, a hardcore group were still refusing all food, drink and work. The authorities were stumped, and with no real answers, were extremely relieved when the strike was called off by the prisoners themselves.

Meanwhile, Robert had been transferred to Wellington and was eventually released on 20 October 1919. He would go on to join the Communist Party of New Zealand, where he gave lectures on the Russian Revolution and continued his love of reading. He later fell foul of the censors for importing banned literature, and later, of the Party as well. He was expelled from the Party in 1922

*** 

Robert’s letter was just one of the 1.2 million letters stopped and examined by military postal censors during the First World War. As Charlotte Macdonald writes in the Foreword to Dead Letters, ‘mail was connection, vital to keeping relationships, political ideas, and social movements alive. And in that force lay its danger.’

By November 1920, when the censorship of domestic mail officially came to an end, writers critical of the government had had their mail detained, were put under close surveillance, or had their homes or offices raided. Some were jailed. Others were deported. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of domestic correspondence heralded the largest state intrusion into Pākehā private life in New Zealand history.

It is hard to know exactly how many of these letters were withheld or destroyed, because it was policy after the war simply to destroy any letters and packets that had been confiscated. Despite this, some letters ended up in the Army Department’s Secret Registry. A writer whose correspondence went into this exclusive set of records would have a constable following their every move, enquiries made with their employer or a raid of their home. It meant censors in New Zealand and Australia were talking about them, as were the chief of general staff, the commissioner of police, the upper echelons of parliament and, in some cases, the prime minister. It put a halt to the intended trajectories of the letters. And if they made it through the haphazard recordkeeping of the twentieth century, the letters found a home in the long metal stacks of the modern archive.

The Secret Registry appears to have been set up before 1912 as a way for the military to store confidential material too sensitive for their main filing system. The incomplete nature of the records suggests the Secret Registry was far larger in the past. Yet among the 500 surviving records in the registry are more than 50 complete letters, and extracts from many others.

As objects they are a real treat. Close to half remain in their original, handwritten form; the rest have been meticulously transcribed on a typewriter. The archival experience of viewing and handling these artefacts is near-impossible to convey – the joy of each discovery, the smell, the texture, grappling with their hundred-year-old folds. Some contain treasure within treasure: a clipping of a West Coast fern, perfectly dried and preserved; money order receipts from a Te Aro post office; pocket-sized pamphlets printed on a rebel press. Others feature elaborate letterheads, patterns of splattered ink and loose scribbles designed to convey order.

*** 

My book is about postal censorship, but really, I was drawn to the writers behind the words. The letters provide us with a personalised snapshot of life from the bottom up. Indeed, because the writers describe their day-to-day lives and the issues that concerned them, the letters allow us to undertake an exercise in biography and identity formation from below. As the historian Marcus Rediker wrote, ‘we do not, for once, have to ask repression to recount the history of what it was repressing’.

In their own words and often in intimate detail, the writers describe the social forces that shaped opinion and the lenses used to make sense of war. Even the language they use is one way these fragments of everyday life steer us towards a larger and more complex story. Because of this the letters are a useful companion to generalisations about the impact of the war on New Zealand society and culture.

As a unique record of working-class experience, the letters also allow us to hear voices often silenced by traditional histories. Most working-class women and men like Robert Gould did not keep diaries, publish their thoughts or fill the shelves of manuscript libraries with their personal archives. Miles Fairburn, writing about the remarkable exception of Wairarapa labourer James Cox, notes how illiteracy, work-related fatigue, the stress of economic insecurity and lack of spare time deprived many workers of the opportunity to keep a diary. Letter-writing was far more common, yet even these snippets of working-class life are wholly dependent on whether they were kept or – in the case of this book, detained.

Indeed, by intercepting, confiscating and archiving these letters, the state has preserved their resistance far better than if the letters had been allowed to reach their intended destinations. The unintended consequence – and a satisfying form of poetic justice – is that the letters are now available to a far larger audience.

*** 

Charlotte Macdonald noted that these letters remind us ‘that WW1 was fought in conditions of political turbulence. It is an important reminder, as the historical discourse of 1914-18 has come to be strongly characterised by rather too neatly drawn themes of consensual patriotism, duty and sacrifice.’ According to Charlotte, the people whose letters were confiscated — the agitators, non-conformists, socialists, anarchists, Irish nationalists, and questioners of authority asking stirring questions of the ethics of war — show us ‘a New Zealand beyond the pieties of the war memorial.’

I hope my talk today has given you a glimpse into a wartime New Zealand that remains largely hidden, but is slowly revealing itself. The confiscated letters are one avenue. The other is film. So it gives me great pleasure to now hand over to Anna Cottrell and her Great War Stories. Kia ora koutou.

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