Building up to the solemn moment of remembrance

There’s definitely a First World War buzz around New Zealand at the moment, as the days count down to the centenary of the landings on Gallipoli.

The Wellington cenotaph amidst its new plaza, 2015.
The Wellington cenotaph in its new plaza, 2015.

Just last week the Wellington cenotaph upgrade was finally completed – a new plaza and stairway leading from the monument up the hill to Parliament buildings.

All is rolling towards D-Day – 25 April – when the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps pushed ashore near Ari Burnu on the Gallipoli peninsula. And it seems to be happening with just as much planning, industry and effort as went into the original campaign.

I’ve always thought it curious how both Australia and New Zealand remember their war dead on a day when we invaded a foreign country. But, of course, the moment is so thoroughly tied up in national sentiment for both countries that it’s hard to imagine things being any different.

And so there is a frenzy of work going on right now around New Zealand – and especially in Wellington – to prepare for the moment. It’s as if the entire four-and-a-half year war is being crammed into a single day, though from the public perspective I think that’s also quite true.

I’m prepared to bet that this day is going to be it, in the popular mind. Already there is talk of ‘war memory exhaustion’. By May, the whole thing will be old hat, and we’ll be on to whatever next our increasingly vacuous media decides can be made into news-o-tainment – stupid politicians being stupid, domestic incidents that get held up for public judgement, and so on.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxOnly the military historians will care about the string of anniversaries between now and November 1918, when I expect there’ll be another brief burst of public interest.

All that raises questions. Is this how we should remember history? As a succession of spectacular ‘anniversaries’ that capture public imagination – briefly – before they are gone again? Or are we better to look back steadily at the broader picture, at the context and meaning of what happened, and understand how those events built the fabric of our present?

More soon. Meanwhile, I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


2 thoughts on “Building up to the solemn moment of remembrance

  1. Anniversaries and centenaries are just ‘pou’, or marker posts, that remind us of events as we travel onwards through time. They don’t necessarily mean that we forget in between each marker – but they do bring the event to the fore from time to time.

    2015 is Gallipoli 100, Waterloo 200 and Agincourt 600. The closer anniversaries have more meaning ot us personally, but they all meant just as much to the people at the time. But the anniversaries make us think again in more detail about these events, and that’s no bad thing.

    The same goes with any aspect of history, not just battles. Centenaries of all sorts of things, major and minor, are our ‘pou’ to mark our journey in time further and further away from them.

    1. Absolutely true! Indeed, history – as a human phenomenon – is all about a deeper social journey that transcends the superficial narrative of moments. Though these moments are crucially important for those who live through them – and those who follow, for some time. All mark our journey from past to present; and these markers, I think, are understood. As you say – they are pou. (I should add that the dissonance between narrative markers and the deeper human truths, for NZ’s self-view of its war history, is a point I’ve tackled in this week’s ‘Listener’, my first feature there in some years.)

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