Soldiers and Social Change


Military personnel are rarely placed at the centre of analyses of social and political change in the twentieth century. The growing consensus that the wars of the twentieth century ‘laid the basis’ for important reforms, most notably the birth of the modern welfare state, has been driven almost exclusively by studies of the home front in war; too rarely have scholars investigated how citizens at the battlefront have affected change. This significant historiographical omission appears anomalous in the light of the central place occupied by the citizen soldier in the western democratic tradition.

By exploring the contribution of service personnel to New Zealand’s great experiment in social citizenship in the Twentieth Century, in a new paper in The English Historical Review, I take a step towards filling this gap in the historiography. The article outlines the contentious background to the 1943 New Zealand general election and investigates the role of soldiers, airmen and seamen in the Labour Party’s success. Labour’s victory ensured that party politics remained active and confrontational in New Zealand for the duration of the Second World War. With a strong majority, Labour had a mandate to run the country and the war as it saw fit; it was able to continue its social and economic agenda, including nationalisations and social and employment reform. This third successive electoral victory for Labour ensured that the balance in New Zealand politics lay firmly to the left. In the decades following the war, National (the opposition) adopted Labour’s social welfare agenda and became increasingly inclined towards a policy of full employment. So great was the significance of the victory in 1943, that Robert Chapman has argued that successive Labour triumphs in this period ‘set the terms of political debate and action [in New Zealand] for the next forty years’.

The election, however, was a very close affair, a much narrower contest than Labour’s ultimate majority of 12 seats indicates. In fact, with the civilian votes counted, it appeared that the Government was very close to defeat in six key seats. It was only when the armed service votes were added to the domestic totals that the Government survived by narrowly holding on to all six seats. Had National won these constituencies, the House would have been split evenly between the two parties and there is every chance that the Government would have fallen, with profound implications for the war effort and the shape of the post-war political economy of New Zealand. Peter Fraser, the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, later commented, ‘it was not only North Africa that the Second Division had saved’.

That the soldiers’ vote saved Labour in 1943 is well documented in the historiography. However, to date, in spite of a growing corpus of work on voting behaviours in New Zealand, there is no in-depth study of the factors that may have affected why the soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Labour. In a series of posts in Defence-in-Depth, I will engage with the key findings of my new article and argue that a spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the soldiers’ voting preferences.

In the first of these posts, I will outline one of the main outputs of the study – a social class profile of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF); the first statistically robust social class profile, as far as this author is aware, of any army in the Second World War. Such information is usually considered essential to understanding voting behaviours and social change.

In a second post, I will explore in depth the hopes, aspirations and political views of the 2NZEF. This will be done by using reports based on the censorship of soldiers’ mail and by studying the detailed returns that show the number of votes recorded for each candidate at each polling-place in the election. The weekly and bi-weekly censorship reports describe in detail the attitudes and state of morale of the 2NZEF. They were compiled from roughly 7 per cent of the total number of letters sent home by New Zealand soldiers during the war; thus, they provide a reliable documented insight into the concerns of the 2NZEF and can be considered analogous to sources such as Gallop Polls and Mass Observation studies in terms of their significance for historians of social and political change in the twentieth century. The detailed returns of each polling-place in the general election offer a rare opportunity to gain insight into the dynamics of the military, as opposed to the civilian, franchise at a key moment in the political and social evolution of a country.

War, as George Orwell wrote, ‘above all … brings home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual’. The posts on Defence-in-Depth to follow, will demonstrate that 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 to benefit from these dynamics than those which emphasised personal freedoms and the market economy. 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, 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 emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the future of New Zealand.

Image: Lieutenant General Edward Puttick accompanying Prime Minister Peter Fraser on a tour of the NZ Divisional Supply Company and men of the Divisional Petrol Company in the Volturno Valley area in Italy, during World War II. Photograph taken circa 30 May 1944 by George Robert Bull, via Wikimedia commons.

3 thoughts on “Soldiers and Social Change

  1. Very interested in this Jonathon as I am currently writing a new module for third year history undergraduates at the University of Suffolk on the changing relationship between government, military and society. It also looks at the effect the evolving character of conflict and national decision making had at a local level for the military posture and contribution of our county. Looking forward to further posts and reading your paper.


    John Greenacre
    University of Suffolk


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