The first memorial was actually erected while the war was still in full cry. In January 1916, scarcely a fortnight after the evacuation of Gallipoli, one L.T. Busby, a Maori from Pukepoto, west of Kaitaia, wrote to the minister of defence stating that locals had decided to erect a memorial in Kaitaia. Despite a lack of government enthusiasm for the project, the community went ahead, unveiling their handsome creation on March 24, 1916.
As soon as hostilities ceased, the subject of war (and peace) memorials came up for widespread discussion. What form should they take and what messages might they carry? Local communities, always short of facilities and now somewhat depleted of manpower, generally favoured utilitarian constructions. Halls, libraries, swimming pools, municipal chambers, even schools—all were mooted. Such practicality was strongly opposed by others, including the acting prime minister, Sir James Allen, and his son-in-law, William Montgomery, who was an important figure in both the army and the Ministry of Defence.
Two days before the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Montgomery wrote: “. . . there is a danger that unless the government takes up the matter as national policy our parochial feeling will erect unworthy memorials of a utilitarian nature, which will fail to commemorate adequately the great national effort which has been made, the spirit in which our soldiers fought in this great war, and the sacrifices which they have made.” He claimed that useful memorials would simply become useful buildings and the heroic events they were supposed to mark would be completely forgotten. Only ornamental memorials could be trusted to keep sacred memories alive. He also loftily stated that monuments would bring a stronger sense of solid European civilisation and values to the raw frontier towns of a young New Zealand. In May 1919, Allen claimed that buildings could never represent the lessons of the war. Artists alone could capture “the principles” for which men had died.
Returning soldiers were not particularly enthusiastic about ornamental statuary, but their views were swept aside in the stampede for this new moral high ground. Not only were the monuments to be ornamental, but they were also to reflect the highest artistic standards. Montgomery spoke approvingly of France, which had a minister of fine arts to ensure standards were maintained: “In no place is such a minister more required than in New Zealand—the land of the galvanised iron makeshift.” He urged that no local artists be employed, as they could not “be entrusted with a work of such importance,” and there were suggestions that the government subsidise memorials that met appropriate artistic standards. In the event, no overseas artists were imported and only a couple of projects the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Hawke’s Bay Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital—secured public money.
Despite the official disdain for useful memorials, a few did sneak through. Among the approximately 500 memorials constructed, there were 23 halls, seven libraries and a handful of other utilitarian structures. Curiously, after the Second World War, central government took the opposite approach, providing subsidies for memorials only if they were useful assets such as halls.
Although the soldiers had left with a swagger and dreams of glory, the grim realities of trench warfare soon dispelled any notions of glamour. Relatives of those killed or disabled in the fighting also felt little enthusiasm for combat. Consequently, many were anxious that the new memorials should not glorify war, nor draw future generations of youngsters under its sway. Against these were arrayed traditionalists keen to uphold the splendour of empire and the high calling of dying for country and motherland. Hence Lord Jellicoe, unveiling the Temuka memorial in 1920, pronounced it would “serve as an incentive to future generations to uphold the Empire in the same degree as those who have fallen in the Great War upheld it and did their part for King and Country.”
There were a few much more grandiose schemes for remembering the war than either ornamental monuments or halls. Christchurch architect Samuel Seager suggested that the state construct a concrete road from Bluff to Auckland featuring commemorative milestones, with monuments at intersections where side roads would lead into cities and yet-to-be-created “garden towns.” Although the idea found some favour, it was never adopted. The closest it came to realisation was a modest planting of memorial oaks along some highways in north Otago, although arid conditions have since put paid to most of these.
Memorials were generally paid for with money acquired through public donations or fund-raising activities. It was argued that taxes should not be used, because men had given their lives for their loved ones and communities, and those communities should show their appreciation by giving in their turn. Generally, mayors and councils helped provide the organisation and leadership required for effective fund-raising campaigns, as well as being involved in deciding what form memorials should take and where they should be sited.
The mayor of Carterton, W. Howard Booth, once explained what he had done to raise money when appeals to the community had fallen on deaf ears. He wrote letters to the local paper under noms de plume, first praising the project (which still failed to elicit funds), then criticising the mayor’s stance on the memorial. Next, he called a public meeting on the matter, which many attended in expectation of a lively row. In fact, Booth managed to raise £1500 from his meetings. In general, people gave about 10 shillings a head in small towns and rural areas but rather less in the cities.
Debates over the siting of memorials were often intense and prolonged. To be suitable a site needed to be central, prominent, and have sufficient space for an Anzac Day service. Should the memorial be an entrance gate or arch at the local rugby park? There were suggestions that rugby players had been the first to enlist and had done more than their share of the fighting. Then again, wouldn’t a site outside the town hall be more central, or one atop a local hill more prominent? In Ashburton, haggling over a site went on for eight years, and decisions elsewhere often took almost as long. In Palmerston North, where the debate was bitter, someone facetiously suggested mounting the memorial on wheels so it could be moved about and therefore satisfy more people.
Choosing among competing designs could also prove time consuming. Often a local committee would invite ideas and then have difficulty in deciding between them. In Coromandel, 17 designs were put on display for several months and then a vote taken at a public meeting. Elsewhere, a committee or prominent architect might be given the fraught task of making a decision.
The memorials that finally emerged were many and varied. The most common form was the obelisk, a symbol popular in cemeteries. Indeed, 30 per cent of all memorials were obelisks of one sort or another. The upward-pointing shaft could be seen as signifying victory or perhaps indicating a consoling movement of the departed in the direction of heaven—although detractors were prone to view it as a phallic symbol. In Opotiki, the obelisk became an elegant classical pillar, in Wanganui a tall tower on the skyline. In Taradale and Blenheim, the obelisk shape was elaborated into a handsome cupola bearing a clock, whereas other communities deliberately left their columns with a truncated look to symbolize lives prematurely cut short. In Featherston, the first task of new recruits at the army camp had been to gather stones from the river, and these were used to make a cupola in recollection of the fact.
Gates and arches were other popular forms, accounting for about 20 per cent of the total. Schools, parks and playgrounds—where the young of the future could recall the deeds of the past—were favoured sites for these constructions. Gates and arches were especially popular in Taranaki, and also in the Auckland suburbs of Epsom and Onehunga. Grander arches, such as the triumphant classical examples in Methven and Hawera, today look incongruous amid the bustle of small-town side streets.
Figures were frequently incorporated into monuments of the Great War. Most common were soldiers, although surprisingly few adopted a combative stance. A soldier shooting from the hip at Te Aroha was the most bellicose; much more common was a man standing at attention. Most of these figures were sculpted in the marble factories of Carrara, Italy, and although they assume a wide variety of postures and express a considerable range of emotions, they were modelled on photographs of just one New Zealand soldier. At Oamaru the soldier is in paternal pose, comforting a young boy; at Inglewood he radiates youth and innocence as he stands at attention with rifle reversed, as at the burial of a mate.
Several of the best figures were produced by local sculptors, in spite of the government’s lack of confidence in their abilities. William Trethewey was a Christchurch monumental mason who created a fine memorial at Kaiapoi. At the end of the war he fashioned a sculpture of a Gallipoli soldier about to hurl a grenade made from a bully-beef tin, his clothes worn to rags, that he hoped might be purchased as a war memorial. For people still wedded to an idealistic view of war this was too much. Nonetheless, the citizens of Kaiapoi invited Trethewey to sculpt a more restrained New Zealand digger, with magnificent result.
At the base of the memorial in Cambridge is another digger, stripped to the waist and gazing skyward as he pauses for a moment from the toil of sandbagging trenches. This was made by Richard Gross, who also carried out impressive work on both the Wellington and Dunedin civic memorials.
On the Devonport foreshore, in Auckland, stands a bronze of a bedraggled Gallipoli infantryman glancing back in a final tribute to his dead mates before he departs. His uniform is a mess, his buttons are undone and his bootlaces are untied, but he’s fought well and toughed it out. Frank Lynch, the sculptor, was himself a returned serviceman who saw action in both Gallipoli and France and modelled heads of his comrades in clay during idle moments at the front.
In addition to soldiers, there are at least 13 female figures on memorials, eight of them in Otago and Southland. The woman on the Palmerston North memorial is said to represent motherhood, gazing to the northwest, where her fallen sons lie. Sorrow and triumph are embodied by a wreath in one hand and a New Zealand ensign held high in the other.
Outside the Christchurch Anglican cathedral stands the finest sculpted memorial of the many that were created around the country. This was also the work of William Trethewey. Six bronze figures are arrayed below a large stone cross. Two young male figures, Youth and Valour, flank the female forms of Justice and Peace. Beneath, with arms outstretched, is the figure of Maternal Sacrifice, while above is an angel about to break the sword of war. The faces, full of vitality, and the dynamic symmetry of the composition make this work one of New Zealand’s most magnificent pieces of public sculpture.
George V was depicted on two memorials, the more notable at Rotorua erected by Te Arawa. Below the king are a series of carvings showing episodes significant to the tribe, including the Arawa canoe and its guiding star, Rahua, the arrival of missionaries, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as ancestors of the Arawa people. Another striking Maori memorial was St Mary’s church in Tikitiki, near East Cape, erected by Ngati Porou as a memorial to local Maori who died in World War I and recently refurbished (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 59).
Quite a number of schools and churches installed memorials to those who had perished in the war, usually either plaques or stained-glass windows. Particularly striking are the windows in St Andrew’s church in Cambridge, which graphically record the landing at Gallipoli and the scaling of the ramparts at Le Quesnoy in the last days of the war. Equally fine is the great window at the Arts Centre (formerly Canterbury College) in Christchurch, in which soldiers defend British civilisation against the dragons of “brutality and ignorance.” Crosses, the commonest form of war memorial in Britain, were not much used in New Zealand.
One memorial, near Flock House, the agricultural college not far from Palmerston North, honours a horse. Bess was born in 1910 in the Wairarapa and given to a Captain Powles when he left for the war with the Main Group in 1914. With Powles, Bess went to Egypt as part of a detachment of mounted ANZAC troops, then to Sinai, Palestine, France, Germany and England. She was the only Main Group horse to be returned to New Zealand, and when Powles later became principal of Flock House, he continued to ride her. Bess died in 1934.
A few communities adopted features of the landscape as memorials. Plaques were attached to Lion Rock at Piha Beach, on Auckland’s west coast, and Pohaturoa, or Long Rock, in Whakatane, declaring them memorials. The South Canterbury settlement of Cave placed a large boulder on a hill at the entrance to the town as its memorial. An inscription reads: “So long as the rocks endure and grass grows and water runs, so long will this stone bear witness that through this low pass in the hills, men from the Cave, Cannington and Moutakaika Districts rode and walked on their way to the Great European War 1914–1918.”
The majority of memorials—85 per cent—record the names only of those who perished, usually listed in alphabetical order. The remaining 15 per cent list all who served, with a cross beside the name of each person who died. Curiously, in Australia, the numbers are reversed, 80 per cent of memorials listing everyone who went to war.
Fewer memorials commemorating the First World War were embellished with oak trees and roses—traditional English motifs—than those erected after the Boer War. Fern fronds quietly appeared on 28 of them. On a few, oak leaves and ferns were intertwined, indicating that although New Zealand was bound to Britain, New Zealanders were becoming more conscious of their national individuality.
It took time for towns and communities to build consensus on the delicate matter of memorials, and an economic recession in 1920 did nothing to assist fund-raising. Most memorials were completed in 1922–23, but quite a few were not unveiled until 1927–28, ten years after the war had finished. Still, even these were well ahead of the Wellington carillon and cenotaph, opened in 1932, and Christchurch’s Cathedral Square memorial, unveiled in 1937.
For grieving relatives it had been a long wait.