Waitakere’s way of honouring its fallen soldiers

Ninety-nine years after the end of WWI, Sandra Coney looks at what makes the simple and rustic war memorials of Waitakere unique

On 11 November, communities throughout New Zealand will mark the 99th anniversary of the Armistice that came at the end of World War One by gathering at war memorials to remember the fallen.

Spragg memorial at Huia on the Manukau Harbour will have one such commemoration. This memorial was erected by the father of Neal Spragg, a Kings’ College old boy and Royal Flying Corps pilot, who died when his flimsy canvas and wood bi-plane fell out of the sky. His parents’ only living son when he died, Neal is remembered on a soaring granite column, along with “all the boys” who gave their lives. There is an inscription headed “GONE WEST”. In popular idiom it meant dying, going towards the setting sun.

The great tragedy of the World War One was the lives lost and damaged. These young men - the pride of their families and communities - were thrown into the world’s first industrialised war where they faced a ghastly arsenal of killing weapons and toxic gases.

There was little dignity in their deaths. At Gallipoli men’s bodies could not be retrieved for several years and were often past identification when that task became possible. On the Western Front, bodies disappeared into battlefields which were repeatedly shelled and blown up. Others were never identified and so had one of the many tombstones inscribed with Rudyard Kipling’s words: “A soldier of the Great War - Known unto God.”

Neal Spragg, third from left, with his Royal Flying Corps colleagues. Photo: Special Collections, Auckland University Library

The official figures given for New Zealand's casualties are around 18,500 dead and over 40,000 wounded. This is more than half the 100,000 men and women who left New Zealand for the war.

There was considerable debate about how to honour the dead. In Britain there was pressure to bring them home so grieving families could erect a tombstone and create a place to mourn.

Unlike the Australians, British and Canadians, the New Zealand Government denied parents any kind of personal message on tombstones, so the graves of New Zealand soldiers are the most austere of all.

The Imperial War Graves Commission, predecessor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, initially a private body, took on the task of creating cemeteries and erecting memorials at the battlefields. Although not without controversy, the commission determined that no bodies would be repatriated, arguing that this would create a class division between men whose parents could afford it and those who could not. It was argued that, as the men had fought together, they should lie together in death. Further decisions determined that officers would not be separated from their men and that there would be uniformity in headstones and memorials. Those missing on the battlefield would be remembered on a series of monuments inscribed with their names.

New Zealand largely went along with this approach, though it buried its fallen together. Unlike the Australians, British and Canadians, the New Zealand Government denied parents any kind of personal message on tombstones, so the graves of New Zealand soldiers are the most austere of all.

An Armistice Day ceremony at Spragg Memorial in 2007. Photo: Supplied

This is the context in which communities throughout New Zealand erected monuments to enable public rituals of collective mourning. The monuments acted as surrogate graves and the act of wreath-laying paralleled the laying of flowers on individual graves.

Aside from Rolls of Honour, there are more than 500 Great War memorials throughout New Zealand, usually erected in public places. Waitakere is no exception.

There are a number of features that distinguish the war memorials of Waitakere. Firstly, they were almost entirely community-driven. Local people carried out the fund-raising and determined the design. These “village memorials” stood in contrast to the “institutional commemoration of the war cemeteries or the official language of imperial mourning”. The only memorial that could be called an official or government one was the Waikumete obelisk, which started as a project of Auckland City Council but was paid for by the Auckland RSA. It holds a unique status, as the RSA was generally not given to erecting memorials, preferring practical support for returned soldiers. It is credited with being a very early example of the use of the silver fern.

It is as if these communities did not want something flashy and grandiose, or even polished and urban, but something simple and direct to express their grief.

The second distinguishing feature of the Waitakere memorials is their rustic nature. While many memorials in other parts of New Zealand often have a finely-sculpted feature, such as a figure, the Waitakere memorials are of simpler design. The Lion Rock Roll of Honour at Piha is the exemplar, where, embedded in the base of a striking volcanic feature, the memorial becomes part of the rock itself. The Glen Eden School memorial is particularly rugged, made of heavy black basalt blocks, the only finely-crafted feature the globe on top. Glen Eden’s memorial has no names on it, but the township has the distinction of having six men from one family. Widowed Alice Wood sent all but one of her seven sons away. Five came back – Charlie died of disease in England – but all her boys had ongoing health problems after the war, from injuries and gas.

Piha soldiers. Photo: Supplied

New Lynn School’s oak tree, planted very early in the war, is unusual, as trees were generally not favoured because of their impermanence. The tree was planted for Lieutenant Harry Morgan, the first New Lynn officer killed in the war. He died at the Daisy Patch on Gallipoli, rescuing injured men. The tree planting probably occurred as a spontaneous act that needed no fund-raising. The school was following the war very closely under its patriotic headmaster, who had himself tried to enlist, being rejected as too old. Three of his sons went away.

Of course, the simple nature of the memorials is in part a function of limited resources and small populations which would have found it difficult to finance a grander memorial. But even where a major project was taken on, such as the Titirangi Soldiers’ Memorial Church, the design is simple and durable - in this case, unpainted concrete blocks. It is as if these communities did not want something flashy and grandiose, or even polished and urban, but something simple and direct to express their grief.

These memorials have come down to the present as reminders of the cost of war, and on Armistice Day, they provide an opportunity to be thankful that in this generation, we do not have to send our children to wars in “a foreign field”.

Photo: Sir George Grey Special Collection, Auckland Libraries

Sandra Coney will launch her book Gone West: Great War memorials of Waitakere and their soldiers on Armistice Day. She is an award-winning journalist and was the first chair of Auckland Council’s WW Political Steering Group.

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