Nearly 150 names were added to the Auckland University College Roll of Honour in 1917 by a committee of five students. By the end of the year, the majority of that group would themselves be in camp.1 Having spent much of their spare time maintaining the details of the 551 Collegians on active service, including the 31 Collegians who ‘made the supreme sacrifice’ that year, the committee members were under no illusions about the cost of the war.2
Willis Thomas Goodwin Airey was one of the 1917 Roll of Honour committee members exchanging the university’s lecture halls for the army’s parade grounds. Airey enlisted in April 1917 aged 20; three months later he packed his university notes and reported to Trentham, having made arrangements to sit his finals in camp. Bill, as his friends and family called him, was following in the footsteps of his older brother Frederick Arthur Airey, who had gone into camp in late 1916.3 The older Airey had graduated from Auckland University College (AUC) with an M.A. (Hons) in English and French in 1915, and after narrowly missing out on a Rhodes Scholarship, became a master at Auckland Grammar School.4 By August 1916 he was engaged to Muriel Wilson.5 Fred’s enlistment decision was easier than Bill’s because his studies were finished. Writing to a mutual friend, Fred described Bill’s dilemma. Should he volunteer early or wait to be conscripted in the hope of seeing out the academic year? ‘Poor old Bill is worrying – it is hard to know what to do. His College work will be messed around however it goes. He writes me most dolefully and seriously.’6
Their father, Walter Henry Airey, an Inspector of Schools, had died in 1896 aged 39, leaving Margaret Airey with seven children, including four-year-old Fred, and a baby on the way. Bill was born three months after his father’s death.7 The Airey siblings were brought up to work hard, value higher education, and contribute to the communities of which they were part. Fred was remembered by his Grammar School ex-pupils and fellow masters as an exemplary young man, ‘everything he did was characterised by method, neatness and good style’. Taking a potshot at the Rhodes selection committee which had passed Fred over in 1915, the Grammarians also noted that ‘in the opinion of those most qualified to judge, Fred Airey, combined in an unusually high degree all those qualities of intellect, manhood and leadership which Rhodes had in view when he founded [his] scholarship’. A lover of music and literature, and a dab hand with a cricket bat, Fred was a stalwart of the University Literary and Cricket Clubs, sub-editor of Kiwi and a president of the University Students’ Association.8
Bill Airey’s interests were decidedly literary; he was majoring in English and Latin for his Bachelor of Arts. Bill served as the editor of Kiwi, student chairman of the Literary Club, vice-president of the Men’s Common Room Club and was on the executive of the Students’ Association.9 Perhaps because of his age, or perhaps because of Fred’s shadow, he had less of his brother’s social grace. The brothers’ mutual friend Phil Ardern described Bill as a reserved young man just coming to maturity, ‘swatting [sic] to excess … but in the intervals he has shown much more social agility – just beginning to develop I suppose’.10
Though convinced of the war’s pointlessness, Fred was content enough to answer the 1916 call for more volunteers. ‘We sail sometime – and hugger mugger’, he wrote from Featherston camp, ‘for which one rejoices, although one recognises its futility, as all the world will know’.11 He was of a ‘philosophical temperament’, and had taken the decision to award the Rhodes scholarship to another candidate with good grace.12 Despite having been very young when his father died, Fred felt a close bond with him, and becoming a teacher like his father may have softened the blow.13 ‘Everything will sort itself out for me I feel quite sure – I am full of a strange confidence … I feel my faith stronger every day.’14 He left with the 22nd Reinforcements in February 1917 on the troopship Mokoia. During the voyage he taught classes in French and English to his fellow soldiers and edited the troopship magazine, The Nomad.15
Death was on Bill Airey’s mind in late 1917. On 10 September, Phil Ardern dropped in on the Airey household in Mount Albert, Auckland, to find the family stricken. Fred had received a gunshot wound to the head fighting with the Otago Regiment in Belgium. This was the third time he had been hurt in action, and his mother looked ‘tired and troubled’. An official cable saying that his condition was improving provided only temporary comfort; on 30 September 1917 Fred died, aged 25, in a Canadian casualty clearing station. Mrs Airey, still dressed in black to mark the death of her husband twenty years earlier, now mourned father and son.16 In due course, after Fred’s broken watch was returned to her, Mrs Airey gifted it to Ardern as a keepsake by which to remember her son.
Bill kept a copy of his brother’s obituary with his papers until his own death in 1968. He felt Fred’s death deeply. In his papers there is a long document titled ‘The Laughing Fellow Rovers’, in which he tries to formulate the rules for a fellowship of men dedicated to his brother’s memory: ‘This is carrying on his life, he would have approved.’ All Rovers were to be as brothers, ‘able to look one to another for help, advice and sympathy’. A detailed description of the Rovers’ coat of arms followed. The fellowship did not become a reality but in Airey’s imagery we can see him grappling to make meaning out of his brother’s death.17
He tried to be a comfort to his mother, apologising for not sending her anything on Fred’s birthday and assuring her he did not forget the day. Writing from Sling camp on the Salisbury plains to his ‘dear, brave, little Mummie’, he told her not to worry about him, ‘I scarcely notice what I go through while I have my memories and dreams and your love’. No drafts were going to France for several months. While he professed to dislike hanging around in camp, ‘it is like standing still to me’, he supposed she would be glad to hear he was safe in England for a while longer. ‘I am very happy here, Mummie. It is a beautiful country. The flowers are a joy to me always – the bluebells are out everywhere.’ He enclosed a pressed stem of the flowers for her.18
Bill's own military service was relatively uneventful. He had sailed for Liverpool on the Maunganui in May 1918, and from there travelled to Sling camp, having been promoted to Lieutenant Corporal. In mid-September he left for France, joining the 1st Battalion, Auckland Regiment, in the field on 23 September. There were only seven weeks left of the war. Airey’s military records do not indicate how he spent those weeks or how much fighting he saw but in late November, following the Armistice, he was transferred back to Britain. After a few months working with the army’s Education Department in London as a temporary sergeant, he embarked for New Zealand, arriving in Lyttelton on 22 April 1919.
Bill Airey made good on his academic promise and did his brother proud. He went back to Auckland University College and completed an M.A. degree in English and Latin, gaining second class honours, then in 1920 went to Merton College, Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. There he switched to the study of history; this change of intellectual tack, along with the loss of his brother, was the chief impact of the war on him. Michael Bassett, who knew him as a lecturer in the 1950s, attributed the newfound interest in history to a desire ‘to understand war, its causation, and the national and personal tragedies it could inflict’.19 On his return to New Zealand he secured a position teaching history and English at Christchurch Teacher’s Training College. In 1925 he married Isobel Chadwick, a secondary school teacher who he had met while she was a student at Auckland University College. The couple had three children.20
During the interwar years Airey wrote extensively on international relations, concentrating on the question of how to achieve a lasting peace. With J.B. Condliffe, the Professor of History at the University of Canterbury, he founded the League of Nations Union. He was also active in the Student Christian movement, attracted perhaps by its prominent place in New Zealand’s interwar peace movement. Germany’s invasion of Russia swung him towards support for the Second World War. To the end of his life, Airey remained an active and vocal advocate for peace; following the end of the Second World War, he took a leading role in the New Zealand Peace Council and Anti-Conscription Federation, later known as the New Zealand Peace Council, campaigning against nuclear weapons, and opposing New Zealand’s involvement in the Korean and the Vietnamese wars.21
Lecturing and writing
By 1929, Bill was back in Auckland, newly appointed to a lectureship at Auckland University College where he taught until his retirement in 1961. His partnership with Condliffe survived the move; in 1935 when Condliffe was preparing a revised 5th edition of his Short History of New Zealand, Airey was asked to contribute two chapters. By 1953 and the 7th edition Airey had chief responsibility for the volume, Condliffe having left New Zealand for a job at the University of California, Berkeley. The book ran to nine editions and was a staple text in New Zealand high schools for decades.22
In the 1930s, Airey had another radical change of intellectual direction. As early as 1927 he had criticised the ‘fetish of Empire’ in New Zealand23; by the mid-1930s he was an avowed Marxist. Depression-era suffering played a part in his conversion, so too did disillusionment with Christianity, and an eye-opening trip to China, Manchuria and Japan in 1931. By 1941 he was arguing that a durable peace could only be achieved if social and economic conditions within and between states were radically restructured.24 A prolific writer of letters to the editor and magazine articles, he contributed to Tomorrow, Here & Now, Landfall, Political Science and the New Zealand Monthly Review.
Keith Sinclair and Robert Chapman, two ex-students who went on to become University of Auckland professors, remembered Airey as tempering his views in the classroom; getting his students thinking, not telling them what to think. ‘To young men and women who had grown up in an atmosphere of stodgy, genteel conformism, of Empire Day, of Anzac Day and compulsory school cadets, the discovery of the variety of views that could be held of their world was genuinely exciting.’25 Still, Airey’s views were controversial. In 1947, he ended up in hot water after it was alleged that he had told an adult education class in Tauranga that the most pressing international issue was ‘the people against the ruling classes’. The controversy reached the floor of the House of Representatives where Frederick Doidge, the National M.P. for Tauranga, denounced Airey’s views and questioned why such ‘pernicious teaching’ was allowed in institutions upon which the government spent thousands of pounds each year. A row about the limits of academic freedom erupted, with the Lecturer’s Association defending Airey’s right to free speech and conservative members of the College Council moving a motion disapproving of his statements. Council did not formally censure Airey, but did refer the matter to its Adult Education Committee suggesting that it consider closer supervision of courses such as Airey’s.26
Airey taught at the University of Auckland until 1961. He travelled extensively, visiting China and Soviet Russia, trying to understand the rift between China and the USSR. Even after retirement he continued to teach a course in Russian history. In his Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry on Airey, Michael Bassett credited him with a considerable influence on the direction of the New Zealand historical profession. ‘In training many historians of the next generation, and supervising numerous theses, he was responsible for Auckland’s prominence in New Zealand historical research. Airey taught his students to think independently and to question assumptions.’27 This, and four decades of peace activism, were the legacies of Airey’s war.
- The Kiwi: Official organ of the Auckland University College (Kiwi), August 1917, p.5.
- Kiwi, August 1917, p.5.
- Kiwi, August 1917, p.24.
- New Zealand Herald (NZH), 8 October 1917, p.6.
- Kiwi, August 1916, p.58.
- Fred Airey to Phil [Ardern], 4 February 1917, Featherston. W.T.G. Airey papers, MSS & Archives A-201, Box 25, Folder 60. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries & Learning Services. Philip Ardern joined the English Department staff in 1912 and became an Associate-Professor in 1940.
- Auckland Star, 13 October 1896, p.5; Margaret Airey lived until 1938. She was survived by five sons and two daughters; NZH, 4 August 1938, p.16. One son died in infancy, NZH, 35 April 1892, p.5; and another was killed in the First World War.
- Lieutenant Frederick Arthur Airey, Auckland Grammar School Chronicle (AGGS Chronicle), 5, 2, 1917, p.10.
- Kiwi, August 1917, p.49.
- Phil [Ardern] to Fred Airey, 31 August 1917, Airey papers, MSS & Archives A-201, Box 25, File 60.
- Frederick Airey to Phil [Ardern], 4 February 1917, Airey papers, MSS & Archives A-201, Box 25, File 60.
- AGGS Chronicle, p.11.
- Frederick Airey to Phil [Ardern], 25 May 1915, Airey papers, MSS & Archives A-201, Box 25, File 60.
- Frederick Airey to Phil [Ardern], 4 February 1917, Airey papers, MSS & Archives A-201, Box 25, File 60.
- 'Airey, Frederick Arthur - WW1 30102 - Army [Original Paper Personnel File]', R7881239, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; The Nomad: A Magazine appertaining to the Affairs of E. F. & G. Coys. 22nd Rfs, N.Z.E.F. Troopship 77, [S.S. Mokoia], Capetown, 1917.
- Casualty Form –– Active Service, 'Airey, Frederick Arthur - WW1 30102 - Army [Original Paper Personnel File]'.
- Willis Airey, Miscellaneous war writings, Airey papers, Box 25, File 62.
- W.T.G. Airey to Margaret Airey, 14 August 1919, Airey papers, Box 25, File 60.
- Michael Bassett, Airey, Willis Thomas Goodwin, 1897–1968’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, accessed 16 August 2018.
- Robert Chapman and Keith Sinclair, eds, Studies of a Small Democracy: Essays in Honour of Willis Airey, Auckland, 1963, p.2.
- W.T.G. Airey, Onward? A Study of the League of Nations and the Principles of International Co-operation, Christchurch, 1929; Bassett; Chapman and Sinclair, p.3.
- J.B. Condliffe and W.T.G. Airey, A Short History of New Zealand, 7th edn, Auckland 1953, p.v; Bassett.
- Chapman and Sinclair, p.4.
- W.T.G. Airey, An Agenda for Peace, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Pamphlet 10, Auckland, 1941. See also Airey’s other contributions to the series, Peace Through a Concert of Victorious and Associated Powers, Auckland, 1940 and Peace Through a League of Sovereign Nations, Auckland, 1940.
- Chapman and Sinclair, pp.4–6.
- Keith Sinclair, A History of the University of Auckland, 1983–1993, Auckland, 1993, p.190.