To spend years of your life tramping around the country looking for war memorials sounds mad. But that is what Jock Phillips and his helpers have been doing since the 1980s. The result is this wonderful collection of photos and stories, but also a deeper look at our history and our national consciousness.
The Australian historian of war memorials, Ken Inglis, argued that white settlers’ societies lacked a sense of tradition and roots in what was to them a new land. War memorials were therefore part of the creation of a national myth. I think that he legacy of the countries the settlers came from also plays a part.
Jock Phillips wrote an earlier book on this subject, Sorrow and Pride, published in 1990 when it hardly sold and there was little interest. Now everything is different. He recalls photographing the 1986 Anzac Day event in Auckland when there were perhaps several hundred attending. In 2015 the dawn service drew over 50,000. Social and intellectual attitudes have changes and now we look back with interest and respect for those who gave so much.
To the Memory covers not just the First and Second World Wars, but also the New Zealand and South African Wars of the nineteenth century. All the memorials have quite different histories. Those to the New Zealand wars took fifty years to emerge, while for the South African Wars building happened in the five years after the conflict. Given our distance from the conflicts of the World Wars, the memorials took on the function of surrogate graves where mourning families could gather.
I was surprised how much a book about memorials could become a book about our history and our response to that history. It is fascinating to see the different approaches that have been taken and how they have changed over time. The economic situation after the conflicts played a part and after WWI many memorials were bought, almost catalogue fashion, from marble monument makers in Italy rather than being commissioned from sculptors in New Zealand. Where there were commissions the results were far superior. The soldier beside the library in Devonport typifies the ANZAC attitude. Not formally turned out, but with his shirt unbuttoned and his boots unlaced, he has the gaunt face and brave attitude that typified the ANZAC spirit. And then we have one of the finest WWI memorials beside the cathedral in Christchurch. Its six bronze figures of astonishing detail and beauty represent youth, justice, sacrifice, peace and valour together with a winged angel above bending the sword of war. This was the last memorial built for the Great War and probably the best.
Attitudes changed after WWII and the focus turned away from monuments and statues to memorial halls and community centres. A place to hold a public meeting, a dance or indoor sports. A huge amount of passion and debate went into these projects and communities were often deeply divided about how best to honour their dead. In some places the names of all who served were included on the memorials and gradually others, such as nurses, were mentioned.
Coming from the UK, the whole concept of memorial hall, library or even museum was quite new to me, being more used to plaques, gates, crosses or cenotaph structures. Perhaps there are some halls, but I cannot recall them, and certainly there is nothing resembling the many rural community halls I have seen around the country.
To the Memory brings us right up to date with the great surge of repair and restoration that took place for the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015. The huge changes that have taken place in Wellington to the National War Memorial and the whole area around it, demonstrating that we will not forget and will continue to honour the fallen as such an important part of our national story.