This month we acknowledge the military service of the New Zealand troops who fought in and died during the devastating Battle of Passchendaele 100 years ago. However, in this blog, history curator Kirstie Ross considers other notions of duty and service that many men, like Levin farmer Leslie Adkin, had to weigh up in the face of the demands being made on them to serve as soldiers.
When war broke out in August 1914, Horowhenua farmer Leslie Adkin was a prime candidate for the army. Twenty-six and single, he had proven his worth as a special constable during the 1913 strike, and had a brother who could help run the family farm if Adkin signed up.
In fact, Adkin quickly joined the local mounted reserve that formed and drilled during the first few days of the war, and quickly decided, as he put it in his diary, that ‘the Kaiser is quite insane and as a result thousands are going to their death’.
Recording the war
Adkin kept diaries and photographed his daily life through the war years, and for most of his life, and religiously reported war news for the first year of the conflict.
And from this photograph he took, we can also see that he enjoyed public displays of imperial hubris. This float, which appeared in a street a parade in Napier, boldly predicted that in 1915 the enemies of the British Empire would be captured and caged like beasts in a menagerie.
But despite his eligibility and commitment to the war in general, Adkin did not rush to volunteer to fight in it. It was not until mid-May 1915 – and in light of the situation on Gallipoli – that he expressed any thoughts about his options. In his diary he wrote that:
This observation, which was followed by a list of local boys wounded on Gallipoli, hints that local and public expectations were prodding Adkin’s sense of duty.
Adkin was silent on the matter of his non-participation in the war until mid-October, when one evening at church he received ‘Black looks from people who think I should enlist.’
While Adkin obliquely hinted that he might appeal his conscription when this occurred (in September 1917) these are the only places in his diary where he touched on the issue of his non-enlistment.
So what can we do with black looks and silence? Bart Ziino’s recent article ‘Eligible men: men families and masculine duty in Great War Australia’ provides a useful touchstone for this dilemma.
During the First World War, men had to weigh up doing their military duty for the Empire against fulfilling economic and family obligations. Ziino’s article considers how the ‘demands of martial manhood collided with the priorities of a male breadwinner’, especially if the latter prevailed and a man stayed at home, which meant he risked being labelled unpatriotic and a ‘shirker’.
This was the situation that Adkin found himself to be in when war was declared. Adkin was keenly aware of his masculine duty as a future husband and breadwinner: he had for some time been courting Maud Herd (see above), but had deferred his engagement because of his poor economic situation.
Still, in September 1914, after assessing Adkin’s financial situation, the couple announced their intention to marry with both families’ approval. (William and Annie Adkin are pictured below.)
But as the war dragged on through 1915, Adkin was expected to prioritise family duties, over and above his commitment to Maud. Adkin worked on his father’s farm and his parents were against him marrying because of the ‘continuance of the war and how it might affect them’, as Adkin put it. (Although nothing was said – or least recorded – about his parents’ expectations of his military service.)
Ignoring this protest, the couple married in December 1915 and set to work establishing a home together.
This served as a tangible statement through which Adkin publicly asserted his primary duty: his commitment to being a loving and responsible husband who would provide for his new wife.
The house that Leslie built
Adkin engaged an architect in July 1915 and the build began in November. In March 1916, three months after the couple married their new home, ‘Woodside’, was ready. All through its construction, Akdin recorded the selection of construction materials – such as asbestos for the interior lining and rubberoid for the roof – and proudly showed off its progress to friends and family.
He was also very invested in creating a comfortable home for himself and Maud. Before their wedding, Adkin shopped for furniture with his mother in Levin, where ‘prices and quality were equal to Wellington firms’; although he and Maud preferred to select their wallpapers, pressed metal ceiling designs; fireplace tiles; and ‘door furniture’ in the capital.
The dream that came true
Adkin’s joy at finally occupying their home is evident in his diary entry for 6 March 1916: ‘Spent our first night in our little blue bedroom’. And three days later, after the floors had been stained, he was thrilled that he and Maud could finally ‘get our furniture + pretties arranged now.’
Here is the first photo taken of ‘Woodside’: Leslie and Maud Adkin are standing on the verandah. Adkin’s title for it was ‘The Dream that came True’. This is an apt description of the modest wooden bungalow’s meaning and its power to realise the words Adkin could or would not write.
‘Woodside’ was the culmination and architectural declaration of Adkin’s devotion to Maud. It spoke volumes about where his sense of duty lay. To observers, the house couldn’t help but be seen as a solid but silent foil to unspoken claims that Adkin was ‘shirking’.
Anthony Dreaver, An Eye for Country: The Life and Work of Leslie Adkin, VUP, 1997.
Bart Ziino, ‘Eligible Men: Men, Families and Masculine Duty in Great War Australia’, History Australia, 14, 2, 2017, pp. 202-17.
David Littlewood, ‘The dutifully reluctant: New Zealanders’ appeals for exemption from conscription, 1916-1918’, New Zealand Journal of History, 50, 2, 2016, pp. 26-43.
[This is an extract from ‘Materialising Dissent: Using Artefacts to Locate the Limits of Loyalty During War-time New Zealand’, a paper delivered by Kirstie Ross on 1 September 2017 at the WWI Dissent conference, Stout Centre for New Zealand Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.]