When We Go To War started flat and ended flat. With its focus on New Zealand’s efforts in Gallipoli, the series promised a lot but ultimately failed to deliver in the first and final episodes. However, the series’ inclusion of more controversial aspects of the war throughout the remainder of the series still make it a worthwhile watch.
A six-part series, When We Go To War follows a seven strong middle-class New Zealand family and Maori brother and sister during the Gallipoli campaign. Separated into three distinct narratives – that of headstrong and opinionated nurse Bea Smith (Esther Stephens) and her tumultuous romance with Dr William Chambers (Tom O’Sullivan) while caring for the wounded in Egypt, the Gallipoli campaign’s effects on lawyer-turned-officer Charles Smith (Ido Drent) and his ‘black sheep’ brother Harry, and finally family friend Manaaki Kokiri (Alexander Tarrant), who struggles not only with his move from preacher to soldier, but also with his stubborn sister, Awa (Shavaughn Ruakere) – the story was framed around letters that six of the central characters wrote home and from home.
The series’ focus on character, rather than on action, was what made it a slightly better watch than Gallipoli and one of the reason’s why I continued. I wanted to know what happened to the characters and if the war changed their outlooks in any way. The fact that the series was told through a succession of letters by members of the Smith family and Manaaki allowed the audience to truly understand the characters and invest in them.
This was particularly the case for Charles, an Auckland Territorial keen to do his bit for king and country, who became a man disillusioned with the war.
The shows ability to delve into controversial and oft forgotten aspects of World War I, including shell shock, conscientious objectors and anti-German hatred, made it a truly worthwhile watch. The series also briefly touched on homosexuality through the youngest member of the Smith family, James (Leith Towers) and his feelings for best friend George. The series also did not neglect to touch on, albeit briefly, the vulnerabilities of many women left behind on the home front and this was done, rather successfully, through Cissy Smith (Freya Milner), whose desire to comfort Manaaki on his return from the front result in her being in the ‘family way’.
Through Manaaki’s horrible experience of putting his best friend Harry out of his misery after being horrifically injured, to seeing visions of him – almost acting as the darkest parts of his conscious and a visual representation of the war within himself, preacher versus solider – served to paint a humbling picture of shell shock, what is now termed PTSD.
And Harry’s mother’s determination to not let another son die explored the controversial, and less known, existence of conscientious objectors, a group I did not learn about until Year 11 History.
The fact that George’s father, a well-respected watchmaker and repairer, was imprisoned just because he was from Germany, and James’ turning his back on his best friend, served as an exploration of anti-German hatred in New Zealand and the fact that both sides in the war were affected.
My favourite character was Bea (not just because I love a good love story :P). She would not let herself be ruled by a man and scoffed at a woman’s ‘proper place’ being in the home as a bit of a ‘blue stocking’ (and now, come to think of it, reminds of Molly Dawes in Our Girl, although being a century apart). Although she got herself in to a pretty sticky situation having an affair with her lecturer, Dr William Chambers, she had the tenacity to get herself out of it – albeit having to give up her dream of becoming a doctor – returned to nursing.
Altogether, a well-rounded series. If you can ignore the rather disappointing first and final episodes, When We Go To War is a series well worth the watch.
You can catch full episodes here: