Dealing with grief on the Western Front

Click on the image above to see a series of solemn images of battlefield funerals and graves from the Western Front. Captions have been taken from the original photograph album.

In 1914 most New Zealanders made sense of the costs of war through the idea of the good Christian death. This form of consolation and ritual could not prepare people for the scale and manner of death experienced during the war, particularly in France and Belgium. The great distances separating New Zealand soldiers from their families and communities back home and the absence of bodies or funerals added to the difficulties of dealing with grief.

Soldiers mourn their mates

When a soldier was killed, his comrades formed the primary circle of mourners. It fell to them to carry out any rituals, but there is little evidence in the letters and diaries of New Zealand soldiers that they allowed themselves to mourn.

Surrounded by death every day, many New Zealand soldiers seemed callously indifferent to the deaths of comrades. Phrases such as ‘he’s had it’, ‘he’s taken the count’ or ‘he’s gone west’ were commonly used as a defence against feelings that men might otherwise struggle to control. Even so, the death of a brother or a particularly close friend could leave a soldier reeling.

Soldiers also wrote to the families of fallen comrades to provide comfort and, often, to relate the circumstances of a death. The idea of a valiant, just death, and the honour of sacrifice were central messages. As a letter to one mourning mother noted, ‘His boys said he met death with a smile and I trust his noble and heroic death will bring to you some consolation.’

Grieving at home

Back in New Zealand, the grief of mourning families was compounded by the absence of a body or funeral. In the case of those reported missing, families faced an agonising wait for news of their loved one’s fate.

The publication of death notices in local newspapers – often with heavy black lines around the entry and a banner reading ‘For the Empire’s Cause’ – informed the wider community of a family’s loss. Almost every newspaper in New Zealand also published the Roll of Honour, widening the community of mourning to the nation.

In addition to those killed in action, these rolls reported the missing and wounded, those who had died of wounds or disease, and those who had recovered. Uncovering the details of a loved one’s death was often extremely important. Many families tirelessly sought information throughout the war and afterwards.

The most formal public displays of mourning were Anzac Day ceremonies and the erection of war memorials. Imperial ideals of valiant death and glorious sacrifice were central to these public forms of mass grieving.

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