On January 31, 2009 young vandals smashed more than 40 headstones in the Napier Cemetery. The outcry at this "repugnant" desecration from the Napier City Council and the public was loud and immediate.

On April 6, 2016 the Napier City Council destroyed memory to over 600 dead, many of whom had no known grave, by seizing Napier's beachfront War Memorial to commerce, removing the headstone rolls and flame of memory, and renaming the War Memorial,
"Conference Centre".

As with the Napier Cemetery vandalism, the outcry was loud and immediate, once the public became aware of what had been quietly done.

Read more: Les Hewett: War memorial story - insult to memory and city

In this case it was the mayor and council of the city with hammers.

There could be no courtroom accountability for those charged with overseeing and caring for cemeteries, or war memorials, but the responsibilities to protect both from desecration are the same.

In the case of Napier's War Memorial, its destruction to memory was wrought by those charged with caring for it, and those whose names it had carried for 60 years.


In 1957 at the "gala" opening of Napier's War Memorial the Prime Minister's message was that "the new memorial commemorates in a lasting and fitting manner the sacrifice of Napier's sons and daughters". Fitting, yes. Lasting, no.

Mayor Peter Tait's message to the future was, "I ask all who enter the memorial to respect the memory of those in whose honour it has been erected. I ask you to preserve the sanctity of the building and protect it from vandalism or ill-use. We will ever remember that this is Napier's memorial to those men and women who gave their lives."

This mayoral message has, and continues to be ignored by Napier's current mayor, who in over six months has resisted both that and overwhelming public pressure for memorial restoration, even though councillors themselves have recommitted to public consultation on the issue. They at least have had the courage to acknowledge that something has gone gravely wrong.

The 100th anniversary of our appalling Battle at Passchendaele losses has just passed. Its victims are listed on memorials throughout the country, including over a dozen once memorialised on Napier's former beachfront war memorial. It is worth taking stock of what these memorials mean to their communities.

The memorials do not just commemorate by name the tragic dead cut down in war before their time although they certainly do that. They function too as proxy empty tombs for the large number of lost local dead with no known graves. They also commemorate the living communities that provided their sons and daughters to sacrifice, and the pain of loss those families and communities felt, often individually carrying that to their own far-future graves.

Such memorials stand across historical time providing lessons to the future about the real meaning of war, and conversely, what sacrifice means in forging the bonds of local and national community.

This is why those who have visited the battlefield zones like Gallipoli, Messines or Passchendaele come back with deeper appreciations of the where and how the youth of the land gave their lives, and the importance of memorials to acknowledge what they gave to those left behind, and how in turn we acknowledge the gift of their sacrifice to our land and life today.

To stand in Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium with its vast sweep of 12,000 white grave markers, most unknown by name, with a further 35,000 unknown by name or grave on the back walls, is a deeply moving spiritual experience, almost beyond rational comprehension I understand.

War memorials are first and foremost places of spirit and memory. Their spiritual function will always be "memorial", whatever secular function may also be present, be it library, hospital, museum, or conference facility. To remove the names of the fallen, flames of remembrance, and name "War Memorial" is to destroy memory in that place. It is a desecration of a dedicated site to memory.

Whilst the major error of judgment surrounding the city's war memorial as yet stays unaddressed and uncorrected, it is the history of the city that has been attacked along with the memory of over 600 who went through the severe hardship of war and never came home. Ignobility at its worst!

The mayor and council have yet to apologise or personally address this issue to the citizens of Napier but, instead, seem to be relying on HB Today to "get their message" across.

Napier's mayor may have nothing to lose since he is not standing again, but it would seem he's prepared to throw his councillors under an electoral bus.

Les Hewett is president of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Association (Hastings Branch). Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz.