Anyone with a nose for military history could be excused for believing we are a warlike lot. Walk the streets of post-Second World War New Zealand suburbia and the names of famous battles and the men who fought in them spring back to life.
Maadi Street leads to Freyberg Terrace past El Alamein Road and then on to Kippenberger Crescent just past Sollum Grove and Upham Street. The Western Desert isn’t forgotten.
Canterbury has its Mount Achilles to honour the New Zealand cruiser whose guns blazed in anger in the Battle of the River Plate, and Auckland remembers with Achilles Point above Mission Bay.
They are all names to remember. To be sure, Maadi wasn’t a battlefield, just a wasteland base camp not far from Cairo, but a lot of New Zealanders passed through it, and it hasn’t been forgotten.
The other names are part of history, but New Zealand in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t breaking new ground by giving them a new lease of life. The same phenomenon occurred after the First World War when patriotism ran high and the names of famous battles were emblazoned on street signs from one end of the country to the other.
Menin Road, Gallipoli Place, Ypres Street, Anzac Square and a dozen other names from the mud and pain of Flanders Field, the disaster of the Dardanelles and the dust and heat of Mesopotamia revive fading memories of New Zealanders at war.
The pattern for such things was well established long before New Zealand had military forces of its own. Pakeha settlers brought their own memories of campaigns long past with them, and were determined that they would not be forgotten.
Auckland’s Ponsonby commemorates Captain Ponsonby Cavendish who commanded a brigade at the Battle of Waterloo, and Marlborough takes its name from John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. Blenheim, the provincial capital, recalls his most famous victory at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. Naseby also recalls a bloody period of British civil war. It was at Naseby that the Royalists were defeated by Cromwell.
The Scots dug even deeper into the past when they named Bannockburn in Central Otago. The battle of Bannockburn was fought in 1314, and the Scots never forgot it. Neither did they forget Robert the Bruce who led them to victory against the English. His name survives in Bruce County in Otago and in Mount Bruce in the Wairarapa.
India was still the Jewel in the Crown when New Zealand was identifying itself as the new colony. Auckland’s Khyber Pass is still a reminder of the historic and often glamorised North-West Frontier, gateway to Afghanistan.
Napier takes its name from “the greatest and best Indian Captain,” Sir Charles Napier, but it didn’t end there. The streets of the garrison town became an index of the garrison’s Indian connection—Simla Terrace, Delhi Road, Hyderabad Road, and Havelock Road after Sir Henry Havelock, the leader who survived the Indian mutiny and went on to raise the siege of Lucknow.
Hastings was no less influenced by British adventuring in India. The town took its name from Warren Hastings, first governor of Bengal, and nearby Clive was named for soldier-statesman, Baron Robert Clive, who effectively planted the British flag on Indian soil.
Hongi’s Track at Rotorua is a reminder of a turbulent time in our own history when Hongi Hika with 1200 warriors dragged canoes overland to attack and defeat the defenders of Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua.
The New Zealand Wars added their own dimension to New Zealand place names. Auckland’s Blockhouse Bay, originally Avondale South, reflects settler fears of attack during the Waikato war.
Gate Pa began as the gateway to Church Missionary Society’s land, but is better remembered as the site of the Battle of Gate Pa, in which General Cameron suffered the humiliation of seeing his imperial troops, complete with artillery, routed by the small force of Rawiri Puhirake. The chief had learned what General Cameron had not. He constructed bunkers and underground tunnels as defences as he adapted to the changing demands of gunpowder war.
Other battles of the New Zealand Wars are remembered in such names as Rangiriri, the place of the angry sky, and Orakau, where a 300-strong Maori King Movement force led by Rewi Maniapoto made a stand against the 2000-strong British troops in 1864. Despite the numerical disadvantage, Rewi and his supporters made a dash through the fire to the safety of the King Country.
But those names were in place before the coming of the Pakeha. Perhaps the day will come when their significance in the struggle for New Zealand is given the attention it deserves.