First World War memorials

Page 1 – Introduction

Lest We Forget: memorials of the First World War

The memorials register includes a list of over 900 First World War memorials divided 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 debate and thought. 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.

Over 100,000 young New Zealanders served overseas and some 18,000 lost their lives during the war. Sacrifice like this meant grief on a large scale. There were grieving parents, lovers, siblings and friends who wanted to have a memorial where they could lay their 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 exactly the same and there is a rich variety of imagery in the memorials.

Soldier figures

Soldier figures comprise about 8% of all memorials. Most were sculpted in marble factories in Carrara, Italy. Nearly all were produced from 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 (although a second casting was also used for the Masterton memorial). The sculptor, returned soldier Frank Lynch, served at Gallipoli and in France where he would model heads of his comrades in clay. All his practice came to fruition. His sculpture shows a Kiwi digger about to evacuate Gallipoli, looking back and doffing his hat to the memory of his dead cobbers. His clothes are creased, his buttons are undone, his socks are messy 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 he is looking skyward, perhaps 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 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 local 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 far more than in Australia. Sometimes, as at Whangarei or Gore, these are images of Victory carrying a laurel wreath in her hands. The memorial at 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; another sits atop a wonderfully rich memorial to the dead of Te Arawa at Rotorua. The memorial also 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 became a stately column as at Opotiki or a broken pillar representing lives cut off too soon. Several communities chose cupolas as their memorial, such as Featherston which was constructed from river stones to recall the fact that the first task of new recruits to the Featherston camp was to pick up stones. Akaroa's memorial included flying buttresses recalling a French cathedral and the French origins of that 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 peculiarly common in the school grounds of Taranaki. There are also bridges which range from the art deco Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch to the concrete bridge, now bypassed by the main road, at Kaiparoro in northern Wairarapa.


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 province. 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 - the carillon - which was intended to be played and broadcast on national radio on the anniversary of important battles.

Useable memorials

Memorials such as bridges or 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 province 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 used natural features. At Piha Beach on Auckland's west coast, Lion Rock was coopted as the local memorial. Each Anzac Day a memorial service is held at low tide with wreaths washed away as the waters later 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.' Not far from Cave in the Waitaki Valley there are still some of the 400 oak trees which were planted in 1919 as a memorial avenue through North Otago.


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 at the Arts Centre in Christchurch (formerly Canterbury College) which depicts soldiers defending British civilisation from the dragons of 'brutality and ignorance'.


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.


In loving memory and in honour of our sons and relations both Maori and Pakeha, dead or living from the county of Mongonui 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.

The 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'.


The list of names shows 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 Australian practice where over 80% include 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 it expressed an equality of honour. In some places the chronological order of death is given; in others men are listed by reinforcement. Over a quarter of memorials included ranks and over 10% noted decorations. Nurses generally came at the bottom, along with names added later when relatives found their loved one had been left out.


There is also iconography carved on the memorials, such as a Union Jack or the New Zealand ensign, both used in equal numbers. Sometimes there are images of empire such as a crouching lion, or symbols of New Zealand identity, including 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
How to cite this page

'Interpreting First World War memorials', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Sep-2014