First World War memorials

Page 1 – Introduction

Lest We Forget: memorials of the First World War

The memorials register includes a list of more than 900 First World War memorials, organised by region. See the register map (large download)

New Zealand's First World War memorials are part of the fabric of our lives. Virtually every township has one, usually in the main street. Excluding the many honours boards and plaques in schools and churches, there are well over 500 public memorials to the soldiers of the Great War, 1914–1918.

The design of and details on memorials were the result of much thought and debate. Memorials aroused deep emotions and had to be acceptable to a wide range of people. The local war memorial says much about the beliefs and values of New Zealanders in the years after the Great War. They are a clue to what that terrible event meant to the people of this country.

More than 100,000 young New Zealanders served overseas and some 18,000 lost their lives during or soon after the war. Sacrifice like this meant grief on a large scale. Parents, lovers, siblings and friends wanted to have a memorial where they could lay wreaths at Anzac Day and contemplate their loss. Returned men wished to honour their mates. And people wanted to recall with pride the way 'our boys' had given identity to a nation.

The powerful emotions of sorrow and pride produced much creativity. No two memorials are identical and there is a rich variety of imagery in the memorials.

Soldier figures

Soldier figures comprise about 8% of these memorials. Most were sculpted in marble factories in Carrara, a city in central Italy. Nearly all were modelled on photos of a particular New Zealand soldier and they show a range of emotions: the Te Aroha one breathes fierce aggression; Oamaru's is in paternal pose as he comforts a young boy; the Inglewood statue evokes an angelic innocence and youth as he stands to attention with rifle reversed as at the burial of a mate.

Three outstanding sculptured figures were done by local artists who tried to capture the essence of the New Zealand digger. One bronze statue of an 'untidy soldier' is in Devonport (a second casting was used for the Masterton memorial). The sculptor, returned soldier Frank Lynch, served on Gallipoli and in France, where he modelled heads of his comrades in clay. All this practice paid off. His sculpture shows a Kiwi digger about to leave Gallipoli during the evacuation, looking back and doffing his hat to his dead mates. His clothes are creased, his buttons are undone, his socks are untidy and his bootlaces are untied. This is the mythic New Zealand soldier who failed the 'spit and polish' exam but passed the real test of battle - captured in bronze.

A figure at the base of the Cambridge memorial also shows a deliberate disregard for military appearance. This digger is stripped to the waist. He has been building trenches with sand-bags and is looking skyward, either from sheer exhaustion or contemplating the sacrifice of war. The sculptor was Richard Gross, who also did fine work on both the Wellington and Dunedin civic memorials.

A third locally produced soldier figure of note is on the Kaiapoi war memorial in Canterbury. Sculptor William Trethewey was a Christchurch monumental mason who had always wanted to mythologise New Zealanders in stone. When the war ended he produced 'The Bomb-thrower', which he exhibited in the hope that a local community might want it as a memorial. The sculpture was of a Gallipoli soldier about to hurl a grenade made from a bully-beef tin. His face is lean and strained and his clothes are in tatters. The realism was too much for Christchurch locals still wedded to an idealistic view of war. The people of Kaiapoi were interested and invited Trethewey to sculpt a New Zealand digger. The resulting marble statue is a magnificent piece, modelled on Starkie, the anti-hero of Robin Hyde's brutally realistic account of the Great War, Passport to Hell. When the memorial was unveiled on 26 April 1922, the mayor was enthusiastic:

The figure was a soldier in full kit, and his digger friends assured him it was complete in every detail, even to the broken boot-lace! The soldier was resting after a desperate charge; the torn sleeve and wounded arm showed what he had been through…. The face was lined and careworn, and bore the marks of what the soldier had experienced…. Yet there were indications of that tenderness shown to a wounded comrade, or even to a wounded enemy…. The figure was typical of the spirit that sent over 100,000 of our men from New Zealand - a typical Anzac.

Symbolic figures

William Trethewey also made New Zealand's finest sculpted war memorial, which stands outside the Christchurch Anglican cathedral. Beneath a large Portland stone cross are six bronze figures. The two on each flank are male - the figure of youth and the stern image of valour. In the middle are two female figures, of justice and peace. At the bottom with arms outstretched is the maternal figure of sacrifice. Above them all is an angel, nude to the waist, about to break the sword of war. The liveliness of the faces and the balance of forces in this memorial make this work an outstanding public sculpture.

Female figures are found on at least 13 New Zealand war memorials, proportionately more than in Australia. Sometimes, as at Whangarei or Gore, these are images of Victory carrying a laurel wreath in her hands. The memorial in Palmerston North is said to represent motherhood gazing northward to where her sons lie buried.

Other human figures on war memorials include two statues of King George V, both sculpted by an English migrant, W.H. Feldon. One at Matakana was done in Oamaru stone and is now badly weathered into a ghostly visage; the other sits atop a wonderfully rich memorial to the dead of Te Arawa at Rotorua. This memorial includes historic scenes important to Te Arawa and is surrounded by eight carvings, ngā pūmanawa e waru – the eight pulsating hearts or ancestors of Te Arawa.

Obelisks and cupolas

The most common form of memorial was the obelisk, a traditional cemetery symbol that comprised 30% of all monuments. Sometimes the obelisk was a stately column, as at Opotiki, or a broken pillar representing lives cut off too soon. Several communities chose cupolas as their memorial; Featherston’s was constructed from river stones to recall the fact that the first task for new recruits in the Featherston camp was to pick up stones. Akaroa's memorial included flying buttresses evoking a French cathedral, symbolising the French origins of the community.

Gates and arches

Reasonably common are gates and arches, many of them to be found at the entrance to schools or playgrounds where the young of the future could recall the deeds of the past. Some of these arches, such as the triumphant classical ones at Methven and Hawera, now look strangely out of scale amid the bustle of a small-town side street. Gates are common in the grounds of Taranaki schools. There are also bridges, ranging from the art deco Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch to the concrete bridge, now bypassed by the main road, at Kaiparoro in northern Wairarapa.

Towers

There are at least five clock towers, which are among the most beautiful of all memorials. Blenheim's was built with stones from different parts of Marlborough. The Italianate Taradale memorial clock was so loved that when it was damaged in the 1931 Napier earthquake more money was spent restoring it than it had cost to build in the first place. The National War Memorial in Wellington is a bell-tower - a carillon which was to be played and broadcast on national radio on the anniversary of important battles.

Useable memorials

Memorials such as bridges and clocks combined useful functions with a memorial purpose. Unlike Australia and Britain, New Zealand did not use memorials as an opportunity to provide for social amenities. There were few halls (under 5% of civic memorials) and only seven libraries. Hastings built a Soldiers' Memorial Hospital and Auckland built a War Memorial Museum.

New Zealanders felt that useful memorials would detract from their idealistic purpose and be out of keeping with the self-sacrificing spirit of war service. This was in striking contrast with the attitude after the next war, when central government provided subsidies for memorials on the condition that they were useful community assets such as halls or marae.

Natural features

Some memorials utilised natural features. At Piha Beach on Auckland's west coast, Lion Rock was co-opted as the local memorial. Each Anzac Day a memorial service is held at low tide, with wreaths washed away later as the waters flow in. Cave in South Canterbury chose a large boulder as their memorial. Sitting on a hill at the entrance to the township, the stone 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.' Further south, in the Waitaki Valley, some of the 400 oak trees which were planted in 1919 as a memorial avenue through North Otago still stand.

Windows

Outstanding memorial windows were commissioned after the Great War. Most are in schools or churches, such as the striking windows in St Andrews church at Cambridge which graphically records the landing at Gallipoli in 1915 and the scaling of the ramparts at Le Quesnoy in 1918. Equally fine is the huge window in the Arts Centre in Christchurch (formerly Canterbury University College) which depicts soldiers defending British civilisation against the dragons of 'brutality and ignorance'.

Inscriptions

The words on the memorials are often distinctive. The first memorial erected to commemorate the war dead was unveiled at Kaitaia on 24 March 1916. Mr L.T. Busby of Pukepoto had been the moving spirit behind the memorial. Beneath the typical cemetery angel, the words were written in both Māori and English.

HE TOHU WHAKAMAHARATANGA TENEI MO A MATOU TAMARIKI WHANAUNGA HOKI. NGA MEA KUA MATE NGA MEA E ORA ANA MAORI PAKEHA O ROTO I TE KAUTE O MANGONUI NEI. KAORE NEI RATOU I RUARUA KI TE TAPAE WHAKARERE I O RATOU TINANA HEI MEA E AWAHINE AI RATOU I TE KINGI I TE EMEPAEA I TE KORORIA HOKI O TE ATUA I ROT I TENEI PAKANGA WHAKAWEHI I ARA NEI KI NGA TAKIWA O OROPI I TE MARAMA O AKUHATA, 1, 14, HOROPA ATU ANA INAIANEI KI NGA TOPITO O TE AO KAUPIA E TE WHANAU NGA NGARU TUA TEKO TE MAONA-NUI.

In loving memory and in honour of our sons and relations both Maori and Pakeha, dead or living from the county of Mangonui who willingly offered to sacrifice their lives to uphold the honour of the King and Empire and for the Glory of God in this terrible war which began in Europe in August 1914, and has since spread over the greater part of the world.

Splashing through the mountainous waves of the Indian Ocean our brave lads uphold the names of your noble ancestors, seek to avenge the deaths of your relations that have fallen. God will give victory to the righteous.

Te reo Māori language is not common on New Zealand war memorials. Latin appears more frequently, on almost 10% of memorials.

Some of the inscriptions are biblical quotations: 'Greater love hath no man'. Others are from poets such as Rudyard Kipling or Rupert Brooke, such as on the memorial shrine at Christchurch Boys' High School: 'These laid the world away, poured out the red sweet wine of youth'.

Names

The lists of names show a variety of practices. Over 80% of New Zealand's war memorials confined the names to those who had died. This is in contrast to the practice in Australia, where over 80% also name those who served. Where all who served are listed, the dead are sometimes marked by an asterisk or a cross.

Most communities listed the dead in alphabetical order in the belief that this expressed an equality of honour. In some places the chronological order of death is given; in others, men are listed by reinforcement number. Over a quarter of memorials included ranks and over 10% noted decorations earned. Nurses generally came at the bottom, along with names added later when relatives found that their loved one had been left out.

Icons

The iconography carved on the memorials is typically a Union Jack or the New Zealand ensign, which appear in approximately equal numbers. Sometimes there are symbols of empire, such as a crouching lion, or of New Zealand identity, such as the fern leaf or the lemon-squeezer hat.

Further sources

  • This article is adapted from J. Phillips, 'Unforgettable War Memorials', New Zealand Defence Quarterly, 24 (Autumn 1999), 27-31
  • Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips, The sorrow and the pride: New Zealand war memorials, Wellington, 1990
  • Jock Phillips, To the memory: New Zealand’s war memorials, Nelson, 2016
How to cite this page

'Interpreting First World War memorials', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/interpreting-first-world-war-memorials, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Dec-2021