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Combat Cohesion to Social Cohesion

In the first of a series posts on my new article, ‘Soldiers and Social Change: The Forces Vote in the Second World War and New Zealand’s Great Experiment in Social Citizenship’, in The English Historical Review, I outlined how the soldiers’ vote won Labour the 1943 New Zealand general election. In a second post, I argued that there was no clear association between the social class status of New Zealanders in the armed forces and their voting behaviours in the 1943 general election. This conclusion is consistent with recent research on the voting behaviour of the urban working class in New Zealand. Miles Fairburn and Stephen Haslett have shown that the working class was by no means unfailingly inclined to vote for the left between 1911 and 1951.

If the social class of the cohort polled was not decisive to the forces vote, then we should ask whether other factors might have encouraged the forces to vote Labour in September 1943. One plausible answer to this question emerges if we look at patterns of voting across theatres along with information available in the censorship summaries. Together these suggest that the attitudes of the forces were in many ways affected by the experience of the war itself, and that it was this more immediate dynamic that had a decisive impact on voting behaviour.

Assisted by captured German medics, a soldier from the 2nd New Zealand Division brings in a casualty aboard a signals jeep, as the Eighth Army continues its advance towards the Po River. (Source: © IWM (NA 24239))

From data tabulated in the paper, it is clear that Labour’s share of the vote increased in line with one important aspect of the wartime experience: proximity to combat. Meanwhile, the censorship summaries indicate that the war made soldiers more aware of the limits of individualism and the degree to which citizens were dependent on their fellow citizens for prosperity, security and wellbeing. Almost every aspect of the soldiers’ lives required co-operation, sharing and teamwork—the more so the closer to combat they got; extreme individualism or selfish behaviour was not only undesirable and inefficient but potentially life-threatening. The censors, throughout the war, bore testimony to the ‘mutual trust, confidence and comradeship between all ranks’ in New Zealand units. Such comradeship was all the more powerful in battle, as ‘a stink’ as one soldier put it, could ‘do a lot to weld us together’.

Concepts of fairness and egalitarianism became deeply embedded in the 2NZEF. As an Other Rank wrote in May 1943, ‘all we want is a fair deal’. The troops railed against anything that smacked of privilege or ‘the old school tie’. Replacement officers arriving from New Zealand in 1943 had to revert to Non-Commissioned Officer rank upon arrival in the Middle East as it would not have been considered fair for ‘a chap with tons of desert service’ to take orders from a ‘rookie’. Those at the front were confident that the very specific and extreme experience of ‘fighting side by side’ had changed opinions and would lead to ‘closer co-operation’ after the war.

A soldier of 2nd New Zealand Division looks at a dead German at the foot of a smashed road sign at Celle, near Faenza, 20 December 1944. (Source: © IWM (NA 20879))

The censorship summaries demonstrate that there was an overwhelming sense among the troops that gross inequalities and unfairness at home, too, had to be addressed, and it was the responsibility of the state to do so. Equality of sacrifice was much more than a catchphrase; the men believed that they had the right to expect others to make a contribution comparable to their own. After all, they were fighting for a free, democratic and egalitarian society. The manner in which the respective political parties addressed issues of fairness, social justice and the role of the state (‘big Government’) was, therefore, the key to their winning support among the troops in the election. As much as elections can be a ballot on the performance of an incumbent, they are also about a vision for the future, and, in the case of the forces vote, a vision for which it had to be deemed worth fighting and perhaps dying.

War, as George Orwell wrote, ‘above all […] brings home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual’. Parties, such as Labour, which harnessed this ideal and emphasised the role of the state in arbitrating between sectional interests in society were better placed than those which emphasised personal freedoms and the market economy to benefit from these dynamics. For the soldiers who fought, and the communities they represented, the meaning of the war went far beyond victories and defeats on the battlefield. In the case of New Zealand, it can be argued that Labour’s great experiment in social citizenship in the twentieth century could have foundered had it lost the 1943 general election. The votes of service personnel politicised by their experience of the Second World War proved decisive. A spirit of social cohesion had emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the future of New Zealand.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Dr Jonathan Fennell is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He was awarded a Doctorate (2008) and a Masters (2003) in History from the University of Oxford after completing a History and Politics Degree at University College Dublin (2002). His research takes a multidisciplinary approach to the study of the British and Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War. He is a Director of the Second World War Research Group and is the author of Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (CUP, 2011). He tweets @jonathanfennell.

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