How we remember them

Photographer Laurence Aberhart's new book, Anzac, honours the war memorials scattered around the country, many of them now ignored or forgotten

Te Aroha, Waikato, June 1982. Photo / Laurence Aberhart
Te Aroha, Waikato, June 1982. Photo / Laurence Aberhart

They stare aimlessly into the distance, ignored, slightly sad, timeless, peculiarly inactive - Laurence Aberhart's Anzac diggers seem a long way from the energetic "mates" they were once erected to represent. They have been transformed from men struggling to survive in the muddy trenches of the Western Front into static marble figures in a landscape. And while the messages on the gates which enclose them or the pedestals which support them proclaim "Their name liveth" or "We shall remember them", the overwhelming sense is of figures who have been forgotten, left to weather and fade from memory, unable to fend off the encroaching environment.

Gallery: Laurence Aberhart's Anzac photographs

Sometimes the surrounds dwarf the memorials - dramatic swirling skies, the broad expanse of a football ground, the sweep of a beach.

More often the surrounds have grown up and begun to invade the "sacred place" the memorials were once intended to create. Trees originally planted as subordinate tributes have branched and now overawe the memorial - their leaves condemning the memorial to perpetual shade or trunks grown thicker than the marble pedestals.

While the environment invades, people apparently ignore the monuments. By my count there are only two people to be seen in these photos ... even the landscapes which stretch out behind a number of these images are deserted, not only of people but even of sheep or cattle.

The sense of desertion and encroachment is in striking contrast with photos of these monuments in the 1920s when almost all were originally built. Many of the photos we have from that period show them on the day of unveiling or on Anzac Day. The grounds are crowded with people. There are returned soldiers and politicians; there are mothers with slightly mystified kids in hand; there are bands playing; flags flying and wreaths being laid.

It was understandable that people should flock to the new memorials. Until the 1920s both New Zealand and Australia had few public statues to give a sense of history and possession to their public spaces; and those who travelled to the old world would return and complain about this absence. Both countries had put up a tiny handful of statues to pioneers and noted politicians; they had honoured the Queen on her diamond jubilee; and after the South African War erected a few marble troopers. In New Zealand several figures of Zealandia were put up.

But in most small towns and cities the marble and bronze statues that graced more established societies were notably absent. The memorials of the Great War thus helped give a sense of history to societies that had long felt deficient in the graces of civilisation. They gave colonising people a sense of history in a new land, which previously - in New Zealand at least - they had believed belonged only to the indigenous people. Many at the time made the point that while the older civilisations memorialised heroic individuals and generals, the new nations of the south memorialised the ordinary digger.

Far more than this, the memorials of the Great War went to the heart of the war experience for the people at home. Some 60,000 Australian men and 18,000 New Zealand men had died in foreign fields. All were lying in graves, marked and unmarked, across the other side of the globe. Grieving relatives at home needed a surrogate tomb, a place which they could visit and remember. The words on the memorials, those phrases in high diction - "The Glorious Dead", "Greater love hath no man" - served to give comfort and meaning to the bereaved. There were also those who treasured these monuments as nationalistic tributes to the Anzacs, and who liked to visit them as sources of pride.

In the 1920s and 30s soldier monuments, indeed all war memorials, were much visited and treasured places. They had to be centrally placed, so that everyone in the community could easily visit, and their surrounds needed to accommodate large numbers of people on ceremonial occasions. Their immediate environments were cared for and protected.

As these images reveal, they did not remain loved centres of community life. Why was this? It was partly that the memorials did their job so well as surrogate tombs. Once erected and invested with heroic rhetoric, the monuments did indeed give relatives a sense of consolation and the pain slowly ebbed. Eventually the surviving family died. Another war transformed 1914-18 from "the Great War" to just one of a sequence - World War I; and when people came to memorialise World War II they decided that monuments were an unnecessary tradition and preferred utilitarian memorials such as halls or swimming pools.

The original war memorial sometimes had the names of the dead from the next war added to their pedestals and, if Anzac Day ceremonies were held, they came briefly into their own for an hour or so. But as large cities grew and the small town became a backwater, even Anzac Day ceremonies were often abandoned.

So memorials became increasingly ignored and forgotten objects, presences in the landscapes that were taken for granted and just passed by. It is this period of slow loss of community consciousness that Aberhart's photographs capture so superbly. The approach of the anniversary of the Great War has begun to revive memories and a new awareness, but for the half century after about 1950 the digger memorials faded from people's consciousness.

Landscapes changed as buildings and roads imposed their ugly presences on the surrounds, leaded letters fell out and were not replaced, rifles were broken or stolen, trees were not trimmed, grass was left unmown. At Ongaonga in central Hawkes Bay the heart-shaped garden which had once been carefully tended by veterans became, as in Aberhart's photo, merely unplanted earth. Some statues were eventually taken down and buried as beyond repair.

It is this period when soldier memorials became ignored and unloved and deserted that Laurence Aberhart documents. He is exactly the right person to do the job. For the past 40 years Aberhart has travelled the small towns of New Zealand capturing the physical reminders of a vanishing community life. We have seen halls and masonic lodges; meeting houses and churches. He has highlighted the love and artistry, and also the distinctiveness of the culture - which went into the creation of these ritual places of small-town New Zealand.

The very fact that the images have been consistently in black-and-white, and taken in a traditional format, positions them in a disappearing past. Occasionally in previous work Aberhart has turned his lense on war memorials.

Who can forget that eerie image of Farrier Sergeant Turner's memorial from the South African War in Amberley? The face is peppered with bullet marks and the words below read 'To thine own self be true'. So he is the perfect photographer to evoke what the Great War memorials became. Almost without exception - apart from a few suburban sites - they are almost small-town memorials, reflecting those communities which economic prosperity in the city passed by.

This story - of memorials which were originally designed to keep alive memories and names forever, and which then became forgotten - is but one, but an important one, of the messages that can be found in these engrossing photos.


An edited extract from the introduction by historian Jock Phillips to Anzac: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart (Victoria University Press $60). A touring exhibition is at Dunedin Public Art Gallery until August 31.

- NZ Herald

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