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 will reflect on the impact of Gallipoli or the Western Front and consider the impact on their family perhaps or the nation itself. Some will accept the notion that this event defined us as a nation while ignoring events much closer to home which also shaped who we were or who we became.
The First and Second World Wars dominate 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 over 1000 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. They may reject such notions as shared grief or collective loss. 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. It is worth noting that 40% of Aucklanders were not born in New Zealand 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? This would seem a risky approach as celebration will be be seen by some as a glorification of war but could it help move us beyond the solemn, funereal tone of traditional remembrance to focus on a more positive legacy. 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 remember their comrades honoured 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. This is not to say ‘all-our-wars-have-been-wars-for-freedom-and-democracy’ but can the centenary of the First World War give us the opportunity to celebrate our efforts to help, for example, the French and Belgians? Is it a chance to celebrate the peace we (mostly) enjoy today or the good relations we now have with former friends and foes alike? Can we use the context of the First World War to celebrate our support for the United Nations and the rights of small nations? Can we celebrate the lessons that we might have learnt from our military past?
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 845 New Zealanders were killed at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917, our nation's greatest loss of life in a single day. 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.