Memory and amnesia, Giovanni Tiso

To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials
Jock Phillips
Potton and Burton, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947503024

Think of it as a road guide to New Zealand of sorts, one that maps your route both spatially and chronologically: for almost every town has its own war memorials, and they all have their own peculiar histories. Being educated on how to interpret these markers becomes, therefore, a useful skill for anyone wishing to read into the landscape information about the past.

This past is seldom simple. Jock Phillips’s To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials highlights this complexity and makes it visible by educating the reader on the ideological underpinning, and the often lengthy negotiations associated with, each category of site, from the monuments dedicated to the Pākehā soldiers and the Māori loyalists who died in the New Zealand Wars, to the increasingly frayed and abstract memorials to all wars of more recent times. Phillips’s history is therefore both social – in its chronicling of the people and movements for and against successive projects – and political – for every one of the major stages of memorial practice reflects the dominant paradigm and power structures of its time.

The balance to be struck in telling this double history is a tricky one but, as we might expect from an eminent historian who is also a committed divulgator, Phillips pulls it off elegantly. To the Memory is a work of serious scholarship accessible to the general reader, or a rare reference book that keeps you turning its pages. While I have some reservations about the limits of its inquiry, which I’ll get to later, the book succeeds in what it sets out to do. And that is by no means a small feat.

Briefly, then, the book is divided into six chapters. These cover the memorials to the New Zealand Wars; the South African War; the Great War; the architects and sculptors of the Great War memorials; the “living memorials” to WWII; and, finally, contemporary memorials, along with the recent revival of interest in war commemorations. Its central preoccupations are the politics of each successive wave of memorial-building, and the development of distinctive New Zealand forms for a practice that had been imported wholesale from Britain and that continued to rely on European symbolism and craftsmanship for a remarkably long time.

From the very first chapter, it is clear that this history will be a highly contested one. The memorials to New Zealand’s civil war, which either acknowledged the sacrifice of soldiers fighting on the side of the colonial government alone, or othered non-loyalist Māori using the trope of the gallant foe, set the stage for the war memorial as an explicit site of imperialist propaganda and national myth-making. One of the functions of these early memorials – such as the monument at Moutoa Gardens in Whanganui – was to recognise the work of loyalist Māori in order to encourage others to do the same; another was to serve as a testimony to the sacrifice of British troops and reinforce the bond with mother England and the empire. This latter intent is even more transparent in the memorials to the South African War which, as a Napier member of parliament put it in 1906, might “teach the boys of the future to do the same as the boys of the past”. As Phillips pointedly remarks, “the memorials of the South African War were in every way a preparation for the conflicts ahead.”

Even as they served this double function, war memorials were, from the start, places not just of memory, but of amnesia: most blatantly, for the way they excluded Māori fighting to protect their lands from being the subject of equal recognition (or, in most cases, any recognition at all); but also for the way they reduced the representation of the South African conflict to a set of heroic tropes, while the actual experience of the poorly equipped troops was one of privation and disease. As Phillips reminds us, of the 230 New Zealand military casualties, less than half were actually killed in battle.

This sets the stage for the greatest season of the monumental war memorial, during and following WWI, and for the arguments that accompanied it, as the rhetoric of sacrifice in the name of King and Country, or pro patria (for the nation), clashed with the cynicism and disillusionment of the surviving soldiers. Sorrow became the bridge between the real experience of the troops and auxiliary personnel on the front lines – which could scarcely be represented – and the requirement to have any memorials at all. Quite simply, beyond the propaganda goals of a nation not 100 years old, people needed markers around which to grieve, as a full tenth of the population would have been a close relative to at least one of the dead soldiers, the vast majority of whom were buried overseas – a third of them in unmarked graves.

This is the era of the cenotaph, of thousands of names etched in stone and of the “triumph of the ornamental memorial”, as the initial consideration given to utilitarian alternatives was soon discarded. An era in which the vast majority of the statuary was still imported from overseas, on commission from England, or most often from the Italian marble town of Carrara, resulting in human figures that didn’t quite resemble New Zealanders, but were more like everyman soldiers. Phillips notes that the memorials to WWI are the largest act of artistic patronage that the country has ever seen, yet the use of local practitioners was – perhaps ironically – resisted: partly due to cost considerations (imports were cheaper), but mostly, it seems, due to a basic lack of human capital and local expertise. To the Memory devotes a separate chapter to a handful of exceptions, such as the architect William Gummer and the sculptor William Trethewey, and is at its best in telling their stories, or that of the indefatigable champion of memorials, Edith Statham.

The time between the two wars, culminating in the construction of the War Memorial Museum in Auckland and the planning and partial construction of the National War Memorial in Wellington – was to be the high point of the monumental memorial. WWII, as Phillips chronicles, saw the advent of the utilitarian or “living” memorial, along with a growing sentiment against the sanitised image of the conflict projected by the monuments, and a critique of the notion that war should be memorialised at all. In the decades following 1945, even as a second, restorative wave of memorials and plaques to the New Zealand Wars were erected, and the country became dotted with hundreds of memorial halls and libraries, the old sites became the theatre of new battles – signally during the height of the opposition to the Vietnam War, and the Māori protest movement.

This is also the period during which the National War Memorial in Wellington was completed, then expanded with the building of the Arras Tunnel and of Pukehau Park, and that saw renewed interest and mass participation in Anzac Day celebrations. Here is where I think that the book’s explicitly delimited scope prevents it from reaching a stronger, more satisfying conclusion. Phillips set out to document a very specific set of physical sites, with the exclusion not only of museums such as Waiouru’s, but also of vigils and parades, and of memorial practices such as Māori whakapapa and stories. This was a sensible, necessary choice when it came to cataloguing and presenting the contents, but a difficult one to sustain in a time like the present, when physical monuments interact with more and more sophisticated forms of performance, and in which war itself has become hypermediated. The massive Dawn Service for the centenary of the Gallipoli landing at the newly inaugurated Pukehau Park, for instance, coincided with the opening of two striking and ambitious exhibitions down the road at Te Papa and in the War Memorial’s own buildings, both of which feature strong experiential elements, all of which calls to mind the line by American essayist Thomas Ferrill – quoted elsewhere in the book – about the “beautification of butchery” inherent in these representations.

Collectively, this spectacle, which closely followed the announcement by Prime Minister John Key that New Zealand troops would be deployed to Iraq, would seem to close off the option of focusing on the memorials in isolation, and cries for the kind of critique that Phillips devotes to earlier practices. To the Memory finishes, instead, on a formal note, praising the finally distinctive character of the monuments honouring the dead of the past, without quite explaining how it might successfully underpin our aspiration “to a future in which such deaths would be no more” (the book’s final words). It’s an unsatisfactory note in an otherwise fine book, but perhaps also a fitting example of the uneasy relationship that we are bound to continue to have with our surviving monuments to an horrific past.

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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