New Zealand troops in London
New Zealand troops, led by an army band, marching through a London street after the First World War. © Alexander Turnbull Library

Anna Maguire reflects on the activities of New Zealand troops in the capital and the London and the First World War Conference, organised by IWM and the Centre for Metropolitan History (IHR). London, the imperial metropolis and ‘mother country’, had great significance for the visiting colonial troops during the war. The capital had much to offer the visiting soldier and official guidebooks aimed to direct their tourist gaze and help them do proper justice to the opportunity, quite possibly the only visit to the capital they would ever make.

Blighty Handbook
Guides for soldiers on leave produced by the New Zealand YMCA. Held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Focusing on the main historic sights, the Colonial’s Guide to London (1917) deliberately promoted a sense of cultural belonging for the visiting dominion soldier: ‘in the shadow of the Abbey or the White Tower, we are Londoners all.’

A guidebook map of 'New Zealand's London'
Where the soldiers’ could go and feel at home – the guide’s version of ‘London’.

For the most part, the New Zealanders kept to this itinerary. Alfred Olsson wrote home that London was ‘the world's greatest city’. ‘What I consider the most magnificent building I have ever seen is St Paul's Cathedral which contains the remains of so many of England's most famous dead.’[1] But in E. M. Ryburn’s papers, London was inadequate substitute for home. We passed Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, Horse Guards and all sorts of things so well known by name to us on the way, and these places lose a lot of their romantic interest, I think you could call it, by seeming to fit so naturally into their surroundings. I found this strike me with regards to all the so-called 'sights'. Ryburn thought Westminster Abbey beautiful, but claustrophobic and unfulfilling, and Madame Tussauds ‘a fraud’ in its inauthentic representation of Britain’s illustrious history. Disillusioned with war and far from home, he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the capital as the older but more recently enlisted Olsson.

When Ryburn looked for New Zealand in London, his experience was more satisfying. In October 1916, he went to the museums in South Kensington: Gave it up in the end and I asked one of the numerous bobbies about if they had any Australasian exhibits. Seemed they didn’t go in for stuffed animals etc. and he directed us to the Imperial Institute not far away. I wanted to see a bit of N.Z. Made our way to Australasia and found that the N.Z. exhibit was humiliatingly small. However, there was any amount of interest in what was there and we filled in the morning. Coming to the exhibition allowed him to feel at home in a way that historic sights of London had not. Though the guides attempted to create a sense of belonging for the visiting dominion troops, the Mother Country’s capital was not always enough. Being able to sightsee in London, despite its imperial significance, was small compensation for the continuing hardships of military service, an imminent return to the front and the absence of home and family. This paper was given at the London and the First World War conference, which turned the spotlight on the metropolis, considering how the changing circumstances of war affected the capital: the national salvage campaign, crowding on public transport, German governesses. The Empire View panel, served to give a real sense of the war’s global reach in the imperial capital in discussing both New Zealand and Australian troops in London (Elise Edmonds) and the place of African and Caribbean troops in London’s victory marches and memorials (John Siblon). Podcasts of the papers given will be available. Details here.

[1] Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, MS Papers 7899/2, Letters from Alfred Olsson to his family, 14 June 1917.