War and remembrance

Page 1 – Introduction

War has played a defining role in shaping our nation since we first sent troops overseas to South Africa in 1899. Over the course of the centenary of the the First World War (2014-18) many New Zealanders reflected on the impact of this war on their families or on our nation. At the conclusion of the official centenary programme 89 percent of New Zealanders surveyed felt that it was important to commemorate the centenary of the First World War and 82 percent believed that the First World War has been relevant in shaping our national identity to some extent

The World Wars were hugely significant moments in our history in the 20th century. More than 250,000 New Zealanders served in both of these conflicts, at a cost of 30,000 lives. A further 70,000 were wounded. The impact on the families and friends of those killed and wounded, as well as on their communities, was immense.

Acknowledging those who had served or died was an important way for communities to make sense of the human cost of war. One common expression of this collective grief lay in the building of memorials. Many of the nation’s 1000 public war memorials were built after the First World War. Typically they reflect our historic ties with Britain with references to fighting for ‘King and Country’ or ‘King and Empire’. Others stress the notion of fighting for some sort of ‘greater good’ and how many had willingly ‘lain down their lives’. Not all memorials are monuments to the dead. Second World War memorials tend to be more utilitarian or practical, as seen with numerous memorial halls, libraries, swimming pools, highways and parks.

Many memorials have implored us not to forget the fallen through inscriptions such as ‘their names liveth for evermore’. Our First World War veterans are long gone and there are fewer Second World War veterans to be seen at the various public commemorations such as Anzac Day. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the number attending dawn parades has increased in recent years. This suggests that remembrance remains important to New Zealanders. Maybe our war dead are not forgotten. But it is worth considering to what extent there is an acknowledgement of our collective loss as opposed to a commemoration of the individual. Who do we have in mind when we acknowledge the sacrifice?

Considering this topic with school students can be problematic. For those with a clear personal or family connection with war, remembrance may be first and foremost a private matter. It may provide an opportunity to share or learn more about family history. Opportunities might exist to talk to or interview family members, to examine family records or consult online databases such as Auckland War Memorial Museum's online Centotaph Database. Others may have no connection with war at all or at least no personal connection with what we might refer to as ‘our’ national experience of war. They may struggle to see the relevance of our memorials and rituals associated with remembrance. They may reject such notions as shared grief or collective loss. It is worth noting that with 40% of Aucklanders not born in New Zealand, many new settlers may have a totally different experience of many of the conflicts we commemorate. Their expereince of war may be more immediate and it may be something that has shaped them personally in a way other New Zealanders may not relate to.

A century on from the First World War, New Zealand is a vastly different country in terms of its ethnic make-up and world view. How we commemorate is largely a tradition imposed in a different era. The National War Memorial in Wellington for instance reflects the values and beliefs of a society that was decidely British and Christian in its outlook. A question which could be used to initiate a discussion on national commemoration and remebrance could be to askwe might do differently today if, for instance, our memorials were lost in a natural disaster. What – if anything – would we replace them with? This could be expanded upon to consider the differences between between remembrance and commemoration and patriotism and nationalism? More contensiously, is it possible to consider whether our commemoration of war has any room for the notion of 'celebration'? Celebration was identified as one of the four key national themes developed for WW100 Anzac Week communications in 2015. It recognised that those who have served in conflict areas in remembering their comrades honour them by celebrating what their sacrifice achieved and their contribution to what we have as New Zealanders today. This is not celebration like the kind of triumphalism that might have been pushed in the 1920s. Nor is it some sort of celebration of the Kiwi male’s ‘special aptitude for war’ as has too often been claimed.  

For teachers and students interested in looking at Anzac Day as part of a current event topic around 25 April, there are a number of activities available in the junior social studies and history section of the Classroom in the NZHistory website. It is worth remembering that as important as the Gallipoli campaign was, far more New Zealanders served and died on the Western Front in France and Belgium. The activities or suggestions which follow are therefore designed to not only reflect this but broaden the study to the experiences of New Zealanders at war. These activities  have been designed to provoke thinking as opposed to providing you with a list of tasks to complete in any linear fashion. You are encouraged to adapt these to meet your needs. Through such inquiry students can explore how war has influenced the ways in which different generations of New Zealanders have ‘seen themselves’. It has also clarified ‘their own identities in relation to their particular heritages and contexts’ (NZC statement Social Sciences). The context of war can also be used to examine places, sites and events of local, regional, national and international significance.

Much of the historical thinking and interpretation which follows needs context. The War and Society section of NZHistory is a good place to start for those seeking content on New Zealand’s wartime experiences, ranging from our own internal wars to the major conflicts of the 20th century. For some the New Zealand Wars might represent a 'bridge too far' but it is interesting to compare the memorials associated with these internal struggles and those commemorating overseas conflicts in which we have participated. NZHistory also has a memorials register which has details and images of New Zealand’s public war memorials. This is organised on a regional basis.

The Classroom contains a number of activities that explore our experiences of war including 'Why not Passchendaele Day?' which considers the possibility of an alternative national day of remembrance given that 843 New Zealanders were killed at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917, our nation's greatest loss of life in a single day. There is more on this here in the archived WW100 website which is worth spending some time familiarising yourself with if you haven't already. Another activity examines why our National War Memorial does not acknowledge our own internal conflicts of the nineteenth century as well as a number of other activities designed to support a visit to Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.


How to cite this page

'War and remembrance activities', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/war-and-remembrance, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 23-Mar-2020