Neill Atkinson: WWI is as close as history gets

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Photo / Kellie Blizard
Photo / Kellie Blizard

Brian Rudman's column (Forget WWI, Owen Glenn has got it right), asks how a "big spend-up reliving the slaughter of millions of young men and innocent civilians in a battle of empires in Europe 100 years ago, is going to help bring New Zealand communities together".

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which is leading centenary commemorations of New Zealand's involvement in the First World War, is happy to provide some reasons for remembering it.

Despite its massive global scale, it's important to remember that this war was not just something that happened somewhere else, in faraway Turkey or Europe. Its impact was as close to home as history gets.

Just over 100,000 New Zealand troops served overseas from 1914 to 1918, from a population of barely one million. Of those, about 18,000 died and 41,000 were wounded.

This missing or damaged generation of men had a profound impact on our economy and society over the succeeding decades. The events of 1914-18 touched nearly every family, every community, every school, every workplace and every club or group, as seen in cenotaphs and memorials around the country today.

While no one would wish to "relive the slaughter", let's not be afraid of acknowledging and understanding the significance and impact of what happened.

The centenary commemorations will honour the service and sacrifice of those who fought, but will also tell the stories of the great majority of people who remained at home.

With a generation of men overseas, women took on new roles that began to change our workforce and society. At a time of intense pressure to conform, the courage of those who opposed the war - including conscientious objectors - must also be acknowledged.

Brian has previously warned against a four-year "celebration" of war and bloodshed. Although myth-making is a staple of every culture, few historians today would make simplistic claims that New Zealand's "unique" national identity was forged on the blood-soaked slopes of Gallipoli. But for better or for worse, we changed.

The First World War challenged and fortified our sense of shared responsibility and confidence as citizens of New Zealand and, at the same time, our nation's maturing status as a committed but equal member of the wider British Empire.

At the end of the war New Zealand had a seat at the table to sign the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, and took a place on the international stage through the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations.

Alongside major international and national events, some of the most meaningful commemorations are likely to be those organised at the local level. The centenary, it is hoped, will encourage families and communities to pass on their memories and tell their stories.

Whether they reflect on the horrors of war, remember family members who served, visit a memorial, or think about the history of their street name or events long ago, it is an opportunity to better understand our past - and how it still shapes us today. For recent immigrants this is a chance to find out more about their new home and its history.

History is a responsibility we carry with us now and into the future. The burgeoning numbers commemorating Anzac Day events each year suggest that New Zealanders strongly believe that the past matters.

* Neill Atkinson is chief historian for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

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