I took a trip down memory lane on my recent visit to New Zealand. The War Memorial Museum is arguably Auckland’s most iconic building – if you ignore that upstart Sky Tower with its money-laundering casino. Surrounded by 75 hectares of sculptured gardens, sports fields and semi-wilderness, the museum’s hilltop setting offers a tree-framed view over the harbour to Rangitoto and other islands of the Hauraki Gulf – these days marred somewhat by giant cranes and other paraphernalia of the port container terminal.
According to Wikipedia, the original building, opened in 1929, was constructed partly with the same English Portland stone used for Buckingham Palace and St Pauls Cathedral – requiring a six-week sea-voyage to the uttermost end of the Earth. Quite an expense for a tiny country.
The main hall on the museum’s ground floor is devoted to the indigenous cultures of New Zealand and its regional neighbours – the Māori and their Polynesian cousins who navigated the trackless immensity of the Pacific Ocean centuries before Dutch and English explorers “discovered” it. Taking pride of place in this section are a meeting house, and a 25-metre long war canoe carved from a single log of totara.
As a child I remember the effect of the elaborate carvings in the meeting house muted by a coat of dull red paint applied in the 1950s. Now, I am pleased to learn that a major project is under way to remove that offensive monochrome and restore the splendour of the originals.
A meeting house (wharenui) was the centre-piece of a Māori tribal village, a communal meeting place whose carvings and other works of traditional art recorded the history and origins of the people of the land. Living people shared the house with the spirits of their ancestors, and the house was given a name recognising this metaphysical dimension of its existence.
Auckland Museum’s wharenui is Hotunui, the name of an ancestor of the Tainui people who arrived with the great migration around a thousand years ago. The word can also be translated as “a great mourning, a yearning of the heart”, which may be significant in the light of what I learned of the house’s history. Apparently, it was one of two such meeting houses built in the 1870s by the Ngāti Awa people of Poverty Bay. The government had carried out large-scale confiscations of land after the Te Kooti uprising in the 1860s. According to Te Ara Encyclopedia, “The carving of both [houses] was led by Wēpiha Apanui and his father, Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho. Hotunui was, in part, a tribute to Te Hura Te Taiwhakaripi, one of the leaders in the wars of the 1860s. One of the poupou (uprights) in the porch is a carved representation and commemoration of Te Hura, so that the tragedy of the confiscation suffered by Ngāti Awa is memorialised in the meeting house.”
Little of this information, needless to say, is available to the public in the exhibition hall. It seems, by the early 20th century, Hotunui had fallen into disuse and a state of disrepair – not surprising, since the Māori themselves were in danger of disappearing as a race at that time – and it was removed to the newly opened museum in Auckland, to represent a world that no longer existed.
The canoe, Te Toki a Tāpiri (the Battle-axe of Tāpiri) is a survivor of days when Europeans were a small minority in the country. According to Te Ara, it was built by the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe in 1836, and passed through the ownership of several other tribes before “it ended up in the hands of the government”. The museum website is a little more informative, acknowledging that the canoe was confiscated by government forces during the Waikato War in the 1860s. Attempts at the time to blow it up apparently failed, and the canoe was left to slowly moulder away. In my school days the wars that were fought between various Maori tribes, the British Army and settler militias, were known as “The Māori Wars”. More recently, some have argued that it would be more appropriate to call them the Pākeha Wars, since the Pākeha (the Māori name for Europeans), were actually invading their country. These days a compromise seems to have been reached where they are referred to collectively as “The New Zealand Wars”.
Canoe and meeting house eventually found their way to the Auckland Museum, originally built to serve as a memorial to soldiers who had lost their lives in the First World War. The top floor of the building now commemorates all the wars in which New Zealanders have been involved since the country became part of the British empire in 1840.
Brief mention is given to those “New Zealand Wars”, including one particularly poignant quotation attributed to Te Ua Haumene, a Taranaki Māori converted to Christianity, in the early days of colonisation, by Methodist missionaries. With the increasing arrival of European settlers and land “purchases”, Te Ua turned to armed resistance, inspired by a visions of the archangel Gabriel who “assured Te Ua that he was chosen by God as his prophet, commanded him to cast off the yoke of the Pakeha and promised the restoration of the birthright of Israel (the Maori people) in the land of Canaan (New Zealand). This would come about after a great day of deliverance in which the unrighteous would perish.” A forlorn hope, as it turned out, but perhaps understandable in the circumstances.
The words of Te Ua displayed in the museum read: “Pākeha say, ‘Take our religion and our form of government, develop the economy and learn to read and write, and you will be citizens of the greatest empire in the world.’ We try to do all that. But when the British bring in a professional army to back up a faulty purchase of land, nothing of what we have been told appears true anymore. Pākeha seem to want to make the country theirs alone. The only thing we are expected to contribute is the land. Outnumbered, outgunned, unable to trust the law, we turn to religion.” Does that sound familiar?
The Boer War, 1899-1901, was the first where the New Zealand government sent troops to fight on foreign soil. The Auckland Museum’s display includes a quote from a local newspaper, The Waikato Argus, dated 31 January 1900. “It is the destiny of the British nation to spread good and just government over a large portion of the earth’s surface. Wherever her flag floats, equal justice [is] meted out to all . . . There is only one sentiment throughout the Empire – we must win regardless of the cost in man and treasure!”
Well, the British Empire did win, of course. According to a table on display, the British fielded 450,000 troops against the Boers 55,000. British casualties included 21,942 soldiers and 350,000 horses killed. The Boers lost 5,071 fighting men, and 27,921 civilians who died in concentration camps established to combat the guerrilla tactics of the outnumbered and outgunned Boers. In addition, 30,000 farms were burned, and 3,500,000 sheep were destroyed.
What is perhaps more interesting is that The Boer War, as it is known in general British histories, was actually the second war fought between the British and the Boers. The first, a relatively brief affair in the summer of 1880-81 had resulted in a humiliating loss for destiny’s Empire. Contrary to the Waikato Argus editor’s altruistic rhetoric, Wikipedia itemises three key factors for British interest in South Africa:
- The desire to control the trade routes to India
- The discovery of huge deposits of gold and diamonds
- The race against other European powers for expansion in Africa
So it goes – and that brings us to the next exhibit, and the original reason for the Museum’s construction: The First World War; known at the time as “The Great War”, and “the war to end all wars.”
I am currently reading a history of this war written by John Keegan, celebrated by The New York Times as “possibly the best military historian of our day”. The first sentence of Keegan’s book reads: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” So it’s a little sad that military and civilian casualties totalled 41 million, of which 18 million died. The New Zealand government despatched more than 100,000 young men (from its one million people) to battlefields on the other side of the world – and more than 18,000 never returned.
One item in the museum’s display asks the obvious question, “Why go?”, and gives two answers: “Loyalty to Britain was strong and people believed going to war was the right thing to do. The war was also a chance for a great adventure.” One returned soldier is quoted as saying, “it was a case of Duty.” A contemporary poster published in The London Times gave three further reasons: “To save [Britain’s] good name. To save her life and her Empire [and] To save the freedom of the people in all Europe”; and encouraged young men to “FIGHT then – for your life. FIGHT – for your honour. FIGHT – for freedom. FIGHT – for mankind.” So clearly propaganda played an important role.
What receives less emphasis is that not all young men were so gung-ho about participating in an Imperialist war. There were many who believed, and more who came to that belief during the conflict, that the war was being fought for economic reasons, and that the common soldier had more in common with his “enemies” on the field than with his own political and industrial leaders.
Once conscription was introduced, however, there was no option of refusing to go. In theory, conscientious objection on religious grounds was acceptable – but almost impossible in practice. Those men who did actually refuse were cruelly treated by their governments. Flogging as a means of enforcing discipline had been banned in Britain’s armed forces in 1881, but remained on the statute books until 1947, and was still used in prisons – where an uncooperative soldier could easily end up. Once in the army, desertion, cowardice or dereliction of duty were offences punishable by execution. Lack of enthusiasm for the war effort was a disease that couldn’t be allowed to spread.
Many servicemen from New Zealand and Australia had their first taste of combat on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey. Few of them could have located the place on a map. I, and most of my fellow citizens grew up with the legend of Anzac, commemorated every year on 25 April, the day when the invasion landings began. According to a laconic text in the museum display, “New Zealanders fight the Ottomans at Gallipoli . . . Their first campaign is a shambolic eight-month operation that ends in stalemate and evacuation.”
Shortly after first coming to Turkey, I went with a party of Turkish students to the cemeteries of Gallipoli and the town of Çanakkale, where an event takes place every year on 18 March commemorating the Ottoman success in turning back the combined naval fleets of Britain and France. You will search hard to find reference to this in British or New Zealand histories. From an Ottoman perspective, the British naval defeat was the critical event – the “shambolic” beach invasion a bloody exercise that had little chance of success from the outset. Was the result a “stalemate”? The British strategy (conceived by Winston Churchill) had been to bring battleships in front of the Ottoman Palace, force their government’s surrender, take them out of the war and establish a supply route to Russia. The aim was to strengthen the Russian military effort and force the Germans to fight on two fronts. In the light of that goal, the campaign must surely be seen as a failure.
That was then, this is now. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Are we any better off in the present age of information? So help us, God!
 The First World War, John Keegan (Vintage Books, 1998)