How we responded to war

JOSEPH WARD: "Out of evil, good will arise."
JOSEPH WARD: "Out of evil, good will arise."

The war telegram had arrived from England, Prime Minister William Massey had finished his address from the steps of Parliament, the gathered crowd had just finished an empassioned God Save the King ... when up stepped a Southlander.

Joseph Ward, Awarua MP and leader of the Opposition, assured the nation of his firm belief that "out of evil, good will arise".

Not only would the coming conflict be successful, he said, it would also establish a lasting peace. [This was not to prove his most prophetic moment.]

It would have been impossible, Ward continued, for Great Britain to stand aside from the aid of friendly nations in the face of German aggression in Europe.

"To have done so would have been an act of cowardice - a thing unknown to Britishers."

Whereupon the crowd burst, once more, into the national anthem.

Back in Invercargill, the declaration was announced at the Southland Competitions Society festival; an event already predisposed to musicality. So of course the massed choirs and audience sang the anthem. It was, simply, their natural response. And they did so, The Southland Times reported, "with great volume and enthusiasm".

They'd all been waiting for this. The assassination of a distant Archduke Ferdinand on June 28 had caused sober discussion in the south but a sense of momentous occasion took weeks to truly kick in as it became clearer that Europe was going to hell in a hat.

In those days, newspapers were fond of telling readers the way things were by explaining what they were not. By July 28, the paper had reported that the possibility of a general war was "not remote".

And, by the time the declaration arrived, the Times greeted it as the "news awaited with so much apprehension and painful expectation".

The paper agreed with Ward. "We would fain [rather] have seen Britain keep her sword in its scabbard if she could have done so with honour. We may be sure that the sword has been unsheathed only because the nation's honour and the nation's vital interests demand it."

The Times described the mood as one of "sane patriotism".

"There need be no excitement nor panic on the one hand and no jingoism on the other. The Empire goes to war in no spirit of arrogance or vainglory.

"It enters the field in response to the stern call of duty and it is fitting that it should meet a crisis so tremendous with the quietness which indicates a resolute determination and concentration upon the business at hand."

Business, in its more mundane sense, was also part of many a commercially minded Southlander's thinking, especially the implications for exports and imports. Local interests had been publicly fretting about the implications of ‘"war risks" , which were additional insurance company charges for goods in transit. In that sense the Times was reassuring: Britain, it soothed, would continue to rule the waves.

But there was no downplaying the big picture. The editorial waxed excitedly.

"This war is a cataclysm the likes of which the world has never known. In the number of men likely to been engaged, in the deadliness of the weapons of destruction employed, and in the magnitude of the issues at stake, it dwarfs the Napoleonic wars."

Many comparisons to Napoleon were being made nationwide. But that was history, whereas in 1914 southerners were still keenly aware of the reflected glory of Southland's Rough Riders the Boer War, which had ended in 1902 and was widely seen as a satisfactory undertaking all round.

The Troopers' Memorial on the corner of Dee and Tay streets stood as a proud reminder of the sense of duty and adventure that the South African conflict seemed to have simultaneously satisfied.

Now a new contingent were ready to answer a call. And a community was ready to encourage and support them.

The Southland Times