Anzac Day

Anzac Day: Gone West

On a quiet and empty Anzac Day, Sandra Coney looks forward to the time when the unique memorials of her beloved West Auckland are once again places where people gather to remember.

West Auckland was possibly the first place in New Zealand where April 25 was commemorated – at five minutes after midnight, when those assembled to farewell a local Titirangi man drank a toast to “the Anzac Boys”.

The young man in question, Jack Bishop, died at Passchendaele. His younger brother, Will, died at La Signy Farm in 1918, and a third, Gus, suffered a massive shrapnel wound to his thigh and came home on crutches.

The great tragedy of the First World War was the lives lost and damaged. Families often had a portrait of their soldier son taken before they embarked, and the immense pathos of the Great War strikes you powerfully through these images. These were beautiful young men, the pride of their families and communities. They were thrown into the world’s first industrialised war, and faced a ghastly arsenal of killing and maiming weapons: machine guns, grenades, powerful artillery, attack from overhead and toxic gases.

Clarence Tarlin was injured and then taken prisoner during a raid into German territory in early 1917. He died as a prisoner-of-war and is commemorated in the Titirangi Soldiers Memorial Church. He was 19 and had worked in the waterworks near Titirangi. Photo: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

There was little dignity in their deaths and injuries. At Gallipoli, men’s bodies could not be retrieved for several years and were often past identification when that task became possible. The grassy slope at Chunuk Bair Cemetery contains the remains of some of the more than 300 Kiwi men who died in that valiant but doomed action. 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 moving words: “A soldier of the Great War – Known unto God.”

The official figures given for the New Zealand casualties of the First World War are around 18,500 dead and over 40,000 wounded. This was over half of the 100,000 men and women who went from New Zealand to the war.

Lieutenant Jack O’Neill of Te Henga beach led the machine gun crew for the Maori Contingent on the Western Front and died during the 1st Battle of the Somme. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Caterpillar Valley Memorial. Photo: courtesy of Waitakere RSA, re-photographed by Liz March

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

The Imperial War Graves Commission, predecessor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, initially a private body, took on the task of creating cemeteries, caring for graves and erecting memorials at the battlefields. Although not without opposition and controversy, the commission determined that no bodies would be repatriated, arguing that this would create a class division between men whose parents could afford to do so 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 and regimental numbers.

Wreath-laying at Piha’s Lion Rock memorial. Photo: Gregor Nicholas

New Zealand largely went along with the British approach. Of course, it would never have been practical or affordable to bring fallen soldiers back on such a long journey. Unlike the Australians, British and Canadians, the New Zealand Government also denied parents any kind of personal message on tombstones, so the graves of New Zealand soldiers are the most austere of all.

This is the context in which communities throughout New Zealand discussed how to commemorate their fallen sons. There was quite a lot of debate about how to do this, and, in some places, acrimony.

The argument came back to the functions of the memorials. While some argued they should have a practical function, such as a hall, bridge or library – the approach that prevailed after the Second World War – there was a strongly held view that memorials should be solely commemorative. The Minister of Defence (and acting Prime Minister in 1919), Sir James Allen, was of this view, as was the newly formed Returned Soldiers’ Association (later the Returned Services’ Association).

The purpose of the monuments was to enable communities to gather in public rituals of collective mourning. The monuments acted as surrogate graves and the act of wreath-laying paralleled the laying of wreaths and flowers on individual graves. New Zealand’s response to the Great War was a mix of pride and sorrow: pride in the courage shown by New Zealand soldiers and the nation’s role in the war – which is sometimes talked about in terms of New Zealand establishing its nationhood – and sorrow at the loss of life.

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Aside from Rolls of Honour, there are over 500 Great War memorials throughout New Zealand, usually erected in public places such as streets, schools or parks. Waitakere is no exception, as communities looked for ways of remembering their fallen sons and daughters buried on the other side of the world.

There are a number of features that distinguish the war memorials of Waitakere. First, they were almost entirely community driven. Local people carried out the fundraising and determined the design. These “village memorials” stood in contrast to what author David Crane described as the “institutional commemoration of the war cemeteries or the official language of imperial mourning”.

The obelisk at Waikumete Cemetery on Anzac Day 2015, the 100th anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Photo: Sandra Coney

The only memorial that could be called an official or government one was the Waikumete Cemetery obelisk, which started as a project of Auckland City Council but was paid for and erected by the Auckland RSA. In fact, it holds a unique status, as the RSA was generally not given to erecting war memorials, preferring practical support for returned soldiers.

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 person – soldier, angel, symbolic figure – or animal, usually a lion, most of 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. A number of memorials feature a rock-hewn base.

Wreath-laying at Piha’s Lion Rock memorial. Photo: Gregor Nicholas

They appear to rise – or even erupt – out of the earth itself, as a kind of marker or something that breaches the natural order, as war has done.

Memorials were often in the shape of an obelisk, making up a third of all memorials nationally. The obelisk was an Egyptian form, its shape based on the sun’s rays. Its metaphor was of regeneration and of striving upwards.

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 in 1915, probably as a spontaneous act that needed no fund-raising, for Lieutenant Harry Morgan, killed at the Second Battle of Krithia on Gallipoli, the first New Lynn officer to die in the war.

In 2015 New Lynn School erected a memorial under this oak tree which had been planted in 1915 when Harry Morgan, the first officer from the district, died at Gallipoli. Kaumatua Bobby Newson led the unveiling ceremony. Photo: New Lynn School

Locations for memorials have been carefully chosen: for some, an inspiring elevated place or by the sea, to encourage peaceful contemplation of the fallen. The memorial itself, representing loss and transience, is set within the context of the enduring power of nature, the vastness of sky and sea, and the seasons with their dominating moods.

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, spear-headed by Emily Bishop, the mother of the fallen Bishop boys, 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.

Fundraising for the Titirangi Soldiers Memorial Church was led by Emily Bishop who lost two sons in the First World War. Opened in 1924, it commemorates 14 local men who died in the war and still hosts services, weddings and funerals for the local community. Photo: Sandra Coney

The Waitakere memorials generally do not feature much overt symbolism in the way of imagery. On most, the words are the feature, and in particular the names of the people commemorated.

Spragg Memorial on the north coast of the Manukau Harbour commemorates Royal Flying Corps pilot who died in Egypt in 1918. His father gave 308 hectares of parkland now part of the Waitakere ranges Regional Park. Photo Sandra Coney

The Spragg Memorial, facing the Manukau Harbour entrance and the setting sun, bares the words “Gone West”, a colloquialism for ending or death. A successful business man, Wesley Spragg erected the memorial and gifted 308 hectares of parkland, in memory of his son Neal Spragg, a lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, who died in a flying accident in Egypt on 1 January 1918 aged 23 years. Wesley’s two other sons had died as infants so Neal was his last surviving son. The memorial commemorated not just Neal, but “all the boys” who died in the Great War.

Most of these memorials, like similar ones up and down New Zealand, have been in place for a century. Ruggedly built, they have survived weather and the elements to remind us of the sacrifice made in wars. While we should take some time this Anzac Day to join in one of the remote or virtual commemorations planned by RSAs and communities, we can look forward to a return to our traditions in 2021, centred on our enduring memorials.

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