Story: Memorials and monuments

Page 4. Memorials to the First World War

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Sorrow and pride

Huge social energy and money was invested in memorialising the First World War. Over 500 memorials were built, and many honours boards and stained-glass memorial windows were placed in churches, schools and halls throughout the country. This was partly driven by a sense of pride in New Zealand’s achievement. It was widely believed that the country ‘came of age’ in the war, and this was cause for celebration.

Yet sorrow was a more powerful motivation. Over 18,000 New Zealand soldiers died in the war, and most were buried in foreign lands. Most New Zealanders knew at least one fallen soldier as a brother, son or friend. In the absence of a tomb close by, there was a need to remember the dead in a local memorial. The names of those who died were always listed, usually in alphabetical order, occasionally chronologically. In contrast with Australia, only about a fifth of memorials included the names of all those who served.


The memorials were funded by local communities without government assistance. Those who had raised patriotic funds during the war, especially women, often did the hard work.


Memorials needed to be in a central and prominent position – usually a square or crossroads – so relatives of the dead could visit and they could be used for public ceremonies, especially Anzac Day. However, location was usually a topic of fierce debate.

More heat than light

George Gould, prime mover behind the Christchurch war memorial, noted: ‘With an experience now fairly wide, I am satisfied that no subject on earth is more fruitful of controversy than war memorials. There is nothing in connexion with them, whether it be site, height, form or inscription that will not lead to argument and heat between the best of friends.’1


There were few functional memorials. Auckland built a war-memorial museum, Hastings a hospital. There were 23 halls, seven libraries, four clocks (of which the Taradale and Blenheim examples were especially striking) and a number of bridges, notably the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch. But most people believed a useful memorial was an affront to the idealism and sacrifice of those who had died.


Most memorials were ornamental. The most popular (about a third) were obelisks, familiar from cemeteries and well-suited to inscriptions and names. Over 50 communities chose human figures, most often a soldier but also some female figures representing victory or motherhood. Most were ordered from Italian sculptors, and only a few allowed local sculptors to express a New Zealand identity. These included Frank Lynch’s ‘untidy soldier’ with undone shoelaces at Devonport and Masterton, Richard Gross’s bare-chested figure at Cambridge, and William Trethewey’s magnificent digger at Kaiapoi and fine symbolic figures in Christchurch.

Other forms were the cenotaph, modelled on London’s Whitehall monument; arches and gates, which made up about a fifth of the memorials and were common at the entrance of schools or sports grounds; and domed cupolas in five towns. Only about 5% were crosses – these were far less common than in the United Kingdom.

Several natural features were also used as memorials, including the large rock at Cave in South Canterbury, and Lion Rock at Piha, west of Auckland.

Brave Bess

While a number of memorials, such as the Wellington cenotaph, include sculpted horses, there is just one memorial to a horse. The horse, Bess, accompanied Colonel C. G. Powles when he left New Zealand with the Main Body in October 1914. She then served with her owner in Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, France, Germany and England. The memorial, which includes an Arabic inscription, stands in the fields of Flock House, Manawatū.


Despite the nationalism supposedly stirred by the war, few national symbols are found on memorials – there are no kiwis, and just a few fern leaves. More common are wreaths, and British symbols such as lions and Union Jacks.


The inscriptions too contain little New Zealand content. There are classical phrases (about 10% have Latin), biblical quotations such as ‘their name liveth forever more’, and quotations from British poets such as Rudyard Kipling (most notably, ‘lest we forget’). The word ‘New Zealand’ is found on three memorials, but ‘Empire’ is on over 30.

National memorial

There was much debate about a national memorial. Eventually it was agreed that the government would provide £15,000 for a carillon tower to be grouped with an art gallery and museum in Mt Cook, Wellington. The carillon would be played on commemorative days and broadcast to the nation over the radio. The tower was unveiled on Anzac Day (25 April) 1932, and was one of the last memorials to the war.

In 2015 the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park was completed at this site. It commemorated the 300,000 New Zealanders who had served during wars and the 30,000 who had died.

  1. The Press, 4 March 1924. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Memorials and monuments - Memorials to the First World War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 26 Mar 2015