03 September 2014

75 years on - New Zealand declares war on Germany

At 11.30pm tonight it will be exactly 75 years since the New Zealand declaration of war against Germany in 1939, in response to the expiry of Britain's ultimatum for German withdrawal from its invasion of Poland, which had commenced two days earlier. Half an hour before midnight, the acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser issued the declaration with the following grim statement:

This is not an occasion for many words; it is a dark day in the history of the world ... It is with deep regret and sadness that I make this announcement on behalf of the Government, and the people will receive it with similar feelings. That will not, however, affect the determination of both Government and people to play their part.

Fraser himself had been directly affected by the last world war: he served 12 months imprisonment from December 1916 for the politicised charge of sedition, having opposed the introduction of wartime conscription.

New Zealand's newspapers recorded the outbreak of war the following day. The tiny Bay of Plenty Beacon, a slender eight-pager, contained the usual archaic format of a newsless front page dominated by print advertisements, several pages of rural news and adverts of interest to farmers ('Take care of your cows with Wallace super milking machines'), and turf news from the horse-racing scene. Not until page 4 did the hastily-composed but elegant editorial address the declaration, with the headline 'The Empire at war':

A humble news organisation serving a small rural community in one of the last outposts of Empire the BEACON hesitates to express an opinion on the subject that has already shaken the fabric of civilisation and filled the press of the world with forboding [sic]. Yet we feel that we have something to reflect in the way of local opinion in this tiny unit of Empire which in common with the whole of the Dominion is proud of its loyalty to the crown. In every Whakatane home over the momentous week-end just past, the apprehension felt at the possibility of armed conflict was offset by whole-hearted endorsement of the nations' desperate bid for peace and final decision to lay the bully of Europe low. This opinion is typical of the spirit of Empire in all parts of the globe. Britishers the world over will realise the task which lies ahead and can be relied upon to meet the call to arms in the same spontaneous manner as they have in the past.
- Bay of Plenty Beacon, Monday 4 September 1939

Wellington's Evening Post of the same day was twice the length of the Beacon, but even more back-to-front from a modern perspective, in that the humdrum adverts, Humphrey Bogart and Basil Rathbone cinema listings and non-war news occupies the first seven pages, and it's not until page eight that the full text of Mr Fraser's Monday morning follow-up statement is printed, with headings illustrating the martial motif: 'New Zealand's support - Britain ready - An appeal to all - Friendship rejected - Intentions disbelieved - Firm determination'.

Page nine is devoted to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's declaration address, the statement of George VI, and Germany's response to Britain's Polish ultimatum: 'Germany did not seek to destroy Poland but merely sought to rectify the frontiers'. 'Herr Hitler' was also quoted saying 'The British Government has let its mask fall and has proclaimed war on a threadbare pretext. Britain, driven on by those warmongers whom we knew in the last war, has done this despite the fact that Germany made no demands against any State to the west of the Reich, and despite Germany's offer of cordial understanding, and even of friendship'. A brief paragraph also noted the keen interest of the deposed former Kaiser Wilhelm II from his exile in Doorn, the Netherlands: 'the ex-Kaiser is following the war before a gigantic map of Poland, hanging in the great hall of the palace. He is methodically placing little coloured pins to indicate the army positions'. Finally, an official notice on page 11 reads:

Published by Authority
Wellington, Monday, September 4, 1939 
HIS Excellency the Governor-General has it in command from His Majesty the King to declare a state of war exists between His Majesty and the Government of the German Reich, and that such state of war has existed from 9.30pm, New Zealand standard time, on the third day of September, 1939. 
Given at Wellington this third day of September, 1939 
Acting Prime Minister

In a sign of things to come, the final page of the Post also contains a hastily-inserted column advising that 'numerous aeroplanes of unidentified nationality, believed to be part of a tremendous air fleet, skirted Holland shortly after midnight flying towards Germany'. New Zealand would go on to serve in many theatres of World War 2, and would suffer the loss of 11,928 lives in military action. Victory over Germany would not be declared until VE Day, 8 May 1945, nearly six years later.

See also:
History: 75 years on - Paddy the Wanderer, 17 July 2014
History: 100 years on - the Battle of Featherston St, 5 November 2013
History: 95 years on - Passchendaele, 12 October 2012
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