Known unto God

Page 1 – Introduction

Unknown warriors

The Unknown New Zealand Warrior interred at the National War Memorial in Wellington lost his life in France some time between April 1916 and November 1918.

One of the countless victims of the 'war to end all wars', he died on the Western Front, a vast arena of misery and suffering in which New Zealanders were slaughtered in unprecedented numbers. We will never know the circumstances of his death. Did he fall advancing towards the enemy after going over the top in one of the periodic big pushes or in the darkness and confusion of a minor trench raid? Did some random shell burst instantly snuff out his life or did he lie in agony for hours, even days, before his shattered body gave up the struggle to survive?

We do know that his body was found without any form of identification other than some indication that he was a New Zealander, perhaps a fragment of his uniform. He was buried in one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that dot the now peaceful countryside of northern France. His simple white headstone carried the words A New Zealand soldier of the Great War Known unto God. It was one of many such unidentified graves on the Western Front, for the unknown soldier was one of the sad features of the Great War.

The idea that victims of war should be honoured in named graves is a relatively recent development. From the dawn of time, those who fell in battle could expect only the anonymity of the mass grave – if they were buried at all. Only in the nineteenth century did the idea of recovering bodies and burying them individually emerge in Western countries.

In the Great War this was no easy task. The nature of the battlefields often made identifying fallen soldiers difficult, if not impossible. In the close quarters fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula opportunities to bury men who fell between the lines were limited. After the evacuation, three years would elapse before the Allies could return to the battlefield and seek out their dead. The Turks in the meantime had buried some in mass graves; others, buried during the fighting, lay in long lost temporary graves; others again lay where they fell in the scrub. On the Western Front the graves of many soldiers who had been buried were lost as the front advanced or receded, and shellfire pulverized the burial areas. When these men's bodies were found later they were usually unidentifiable. They became unknown soldiers.

But many of the fallen were never found at all. They may have disappeared altogether – blown to pieces by the huge shells that ravaged the modern battlefield. Or they may have been swallowed up by the earth, buried by a shell's or mine's explosion or sucked under by the mud of the quagmire created by incessant shellfire and destroyed water courses.

Memorials to the missing commemorate all those who have no known grave – both those whose bodies were recovered but never identified and those who disappeared altogether. The most imposing are at Thiepval in France, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate in Belgium, and Cape Helles at Gallipoli. With their column after column of names, each representing a private agony and a grief-stricken family, these bleak monuments of pain are a stark reminder of the cost of war.

New Zealand lost 2779 men at Gallipoli and 12,483 on the Western Front. Of these 67 per cent and 33 per cent respectively disappeared, were recovered but not identified, or were buried at sea after dying of wounds suffered at Gallipoli. All these men are commemorated on separate national memorials to the missing – four at Gallipoli and seven in France and Belgium.

In the Second World War, soldiers were still threatened with obliteration by high explosives. But more mobile warfare ensured that conditions at the front lines were less conducive to men going missing on land than they had been in the Great War. At the same time, many more New Zealanders fought at sea or in the air, arenas in which few could expect a named grave if killed. Many went down with their ships or were buried at sea. Those whose aircraft crashed at sea were mostly not recovered; nor were many of those who crashed on land. In all, 2892 New Zealand servicemen and women who died during the Second World War – of a total 11,625 – are commemorated on memorials to the missing.

Fortunately no sacrifice on this scale has been demanded of New Zealand servicemen and women since 1945. In a series of wars and peace enforcement operations in Asia, less than a hundred New Zealanders have fallen in battle. Only two have no known grave. Seamen lost during the Korean War, they are commemorated on a memorial to the missing at the UN cemetery in Pusan, South Korea.

New Zealand Service Personnel Killed On Operational Service – 20th Century

South African War (1899-1902)230
First World War (1914-1918)18,166
Second World War (1939-1945)11,625
Korean War (1950-1953)45
Malaya/Malaysia (1948-1966)20
Vietnam War (1964-1972)37
Peacekeeping operations (1990-2012)10  (overseas)
TOTAL 30,133
How to cite this page

'Known unto God', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/known-unto-god, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-Apr-2017