The lonely soldier, Peter Ireland

Laurence Aberhart (photographs) and Jock Phillips (essay)
Victoria University Press with Dunedin Public Art Gallery, $60.00,
ISBN 9780864739339

What to make of all the hoopla surrounding the centenary of WWI? Is it just one thing we’re commemorating – say, honouring “the supreme sacrifice” – or is it a whole bunch of stuff to do with fostering “national identity” (that three-legged beast with its tail at the wrong end), or even to do with pursuing commercial opportunity? After all, the fallen fell not only to defend motherhood and democracy, but the freedom to engage in marketing, too.

It’s something of a British tradition to celebrate failure, the ultimate victory in 1918 masking the earlier disasters of Gallipoli, Passchendaele and the rest. The ultimate disaster was the war itself, that it happened at all, the European protagonists rushing into a conflict expecting an overnight Guy Fawkes display, but getting a drawn-out Hiroshima, albeit of a non-nuclear kind. (It took another world war to produce that particular horror.) Because of its strong emotional and economic ties to Britain, New Zealand was drawn into joining this fundamentally European response to a fated entanglement of political alliances, historical animosities, and fears of German colonial and economic expansion. For its engagement, this country paid a large price, not just financially – the loss of so many of its young men had a huge, incalculable social impact for generations.

The desolation of all this is echoed poignantly in Laurence Aberhart’s 70 images of war memorials thoughout New Zealand and Australia. For 40 years now, his roving eye and doughty camera  have plumbed the shapes and spaces of public memory, and the forthcoming commemoration has been the occasion to draw together some of these images of WWI memorials for a touring exhibition and this accompanying publication. It’s a sobering project, and the book has an appropriately sober bearing in its layout and appearance. An avalanche of commemorative publications has begun stirring, many of those so far appearing opportunistic, lacking depth, with poor image reproduction and gimmicky presentation. With Aberhart’s weighty images, superbly reproduced, and Karina McLeod’s flawless design, ANZAC is very likely to remain one of the more enduring artefacts of this commemoration.

The title of the introductory essay by historian Jock Phillips, “The Lonely Soldier”, gives the only hint as to the criterion for the image selection. War memorials take many forms, but these Aberharts depict traditional monuments on which, at the top, stands a lone, sculpted soldier. There are only four exceptions: at Merewether in New South Wales, where, at either end of a wall, are portrayed from the waist up a soldier to the left and a sailor to the right, both with arms folded; again in New South Wales, at Lithgow, the memorial features two soldiers, the lower one hatless, fallen and apparently wounded; at Otahuhu, the soldier rides a horse; and the Te Arawa monument in Rotorua is surmounted not by a soldier, but by the reigning king, George V, perhaps referencing the special relationship between Maori and the monarchy, forged symbolically between queen and iwi in 1840.

Phillips is no stranger to this book’s topic, either. In 1990, with co-author Chris Maclean, he published, through Government Print Books, an account of New Zealand war memorials entitled The Sorrow and the Pride. The authors of this comprehensive survey pointed out that only about eight per cent of these memorials feature soldiers standing at their apex, and indicated that, while the majority of them were sculpted from marble at Italy’s Carrara, they’re mostly based on photographs of individual soldiers, so that, among the 70 depicted by Aberhart, and so apparently uniform in their representation, no two are the same. But, as Phillips observes here, there was never an intention to single out an individual soldier: the one stood for the many, just as each one had stood with the many. The monuments classically give form to public grief: the details of the standing figures revealing the sharper end of private anguish.

After WWII, as Phillips points out in his new essay, memorials took more practical form: halls, swimming pools, libraries and other civic amenities. Practically as well, lists of the recently fallen were added to WWI’s memorials, not new ones built. The grandsons of pioneers and the sons of this frontier culture probably died for practicality, too – the practical being a touchstone virtue when ideologies  roam free – but the useless WWI memorials littering this land are more powerful – albeit mute – testaments to the need to remember, a need as central to freedom as the right to vote and habeas corpus. Just think of those Stalinists armed with airbrushes, pursuing their crimes against collective memory.

The commemorative aspect of the structures Aberhart has recorded so ably determined their placing. Sites were prominent and respectful, but the overriding requirement was for a civic space adequate for large gatherings on Anzac Day: main streets and parks being the most usual locations. This practical requirement had symbolic effects. The space around not only accentuated the loneliness of the lone soldier, but emphasised the distance between the dead and the living. As generations pass and the living no longer have any personal connection with the dead, there is no private anguish to be assuaged. The sadness has been harnessed to the construction of national identity, so that Gallipoli is not remembered as a site for wasteful death, but imagined as a foundation of something called “New Zealandness”.

In concentrating on images of lone soldiers, Aberhart’s work eschews the more idealised figures of other memorials: “Victory” and “Grief”, angels breaking swords of war, the mini Greek temples of sacrifice, and the gates at parks and schools echoing those triumphal Roman arches glorifying conquest and returning victors. Singly, these boys signed up, and singly they have returned in spirit to stand alone, silently bearing witness to their sacrifice and our loss. Times change, and perhaps today’s young are less susceptible to political calls for patriotism and self-sacrifice. We’ll never know if the “boys” of 1914 would have been so eager to volunteer, had they been aware of the consequences. The young in 1939 certainly had more pause for thought, based on their fathers’ experience of WWI. In the second decade of the 21st century, the rise of the “selfie” sits uneasily alongside any notion of selflessness. A recent New Yorker cartoon features two soldiers in conversation, one saying to the other: “I can defend this hill for another hour, but then I really need to get to the gym.”

Times change in other ways, too. In 1914, New Zealand’s population was more evenly spread over the whole country, with the rural/urban balance almost exactly 50-50 at that time, and, with the dominant industries being largely agricultural, the culture generally retained a rural cast for a further 30 years, even as urbanisation occurred ever more rapidly. The continuing kaupapa was Littledene, not Auckland. Since their erection, these scattered memorials have come to commemorate more than the fallen. As rural communities have contracted, and in many cases simply disappeared – first the cottage hospital, then the school, the post office, the general store and, finally, the petrol station – what’s left is a dilapidated memorial hall and, beside it, the lone soldier atop his plinth gazing over an empty landscape, the last person present, unable even to switch off the lights: Rongahere and Dunrobin-Edievale in Otago, Okaiawa in Taranaki, and Katea, Menzie’s Ferry, Brydone and Mataura Island, all in Southland. A melancholy roll-call of rural depopulation.

ANZAC’s sequence of images includes six pairings depicting the same subject: both our view of the soldier and the soldier’s “view” of the landscape. It’s a clever strategy to link the living with the land so many young men eagerly and generously gave their lives for. However much the living may query this sacrificial aim, it was a central element in the mix of motivation. Perhaps the most poignant pair relates to the monument at the edge of the hilltop urupa behind Tikitiki’s St Mary’s Church – Apirana Ngata’s Ngati Porou “cathedral”. Aberhart’s signature magic light here illuminates more than a standard war memorial in a remote rural settlement. It brings together strands of our history in such a cemented skein as to make the shonky construction of a national identity not only superfluous, but doomed to lie in the deepest shallows.


Peter Ireland is a Whanganui-based painter, curator and writer on photography.


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction
Search the archive

More results...

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
Graphic novel
Natural History
Politics & Law
Short stories
YA Reviewers
Young adults
Recent issues: subscriber-only access

    Subscribe to NZ Books to access the issues above

    Search by category

    See more