The learning journey begins

01:06, Apr 28 2014
Tim Shadbolt
TIM SHADBOLT: Invercargill mayor.

Considering all the lives that were lost, no-one will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of World War I.

There will however be commemorations all over the world for the brave young men who fought on both sides of no man's land.

One of the benefits of focusing so much attention on this international tragedy is that inevitably more information and stories will be revealed. It was interesting to see, for example, that the lives of conscientious objectors have been publicly discussed.

In the past they were dismissed as cowards and except for a book called We Shall Not Cease by Archibald Baxter, their stories were never told.

The story of James Hargest during World War I is seldom mentioned because he was blamed for the loss of Crete in World War II.

As he was the only New Zealander killed during the D-Day landings it was far easier for authorities to place all the responsibility for this disaster on an officer who couldn't defend himself.


Another story that was seldom mentioned was the heroic battles fought by Rewi Alley during World War I. Because he went to China and developed the 'Gung Ho' industrial co-operatives he was dismissed as persona non grata during the Cold War.

I would also like to hear about the Chinese workers who were sent to the Western Front to help dig trenches for the New Zealand soldiers.

Naturally the World War I commemorations will focus on those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

There were 65 million troops in the field and 37 million of them were killed or wounded.

For New Zealand with a population of under one million, the impact was devastating.

More than 100,000 soldiers served overseas, of which 18,000 were killed and 41,000 wounded. The images we will face 100 years later will tell us of the blood and mud and gas and shattered, shell-shocked lives.

All I know is that my Great Uncle, Peter Shadbolt, and five of his mates from French Farm in Akaroa all served from 1914 to 1918 and none of them received a scratch. I know it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but there must have been some soldiers who had an 'easy war' and I would like to hear their stories as well.

Former local MP, Mark Peck, and the Spencer family, helped us as a nation to redefine our attitude to "deserters". I'm sure that as we mature and receive more information about the Great War, the next four years will become known as the "Great History Lesson". We are indeed fortunate to have men like Dr Aaron Fox, who is our own home-grown professor of World War I. I'm sure he will lead us in the battle for more knowledge and understanding.

Other centres of learning will be our museums. If you want to "experience" our local history I would recommend a visit to the Te Hikoi Riverton Museum. One of the exhibits includes a bush walk around the biggest Chinese settlement in the history of New Zealand. About 600 gold minders worked around "Canton", "Round Hill" or as the Chinese called it, "Long Hee-lee". The settlement had its own hotels, stores, a Joss house (temple) as well as gambling and opium dens. Their success was based on their skills in irrigation. The longest water race was built by Ly Chong and directed water for 9.6km to his gold claim. This lively, vibrant museum brings history to life and the video productions add to the experience. I thought they would know everything possible about the Chinese gold miners, but that's why history is so exciting; last week in a dusty attic they found an entire manuscript about the gold miners of Long Hee-lee.

We think we know everything. Our libraries are full of books. Our film archives have a catalogue of over 110,000 films and now with the internet the mountain of knowledge at our fingertips seems to reach for the sky. But perhaps the journey has just begun.

* Tim Shadbolt is Invercargill City Mayor.

The Southland Times