23 Jul 2014
Ngā mihi ki a koutou katoa
This year New Zealand looks back a hundred years to the outbreak of the First World War on 5 August 1914.
As part of the British Empire, New Zealand found itself at war when King George V declared war on Germany. We were willing to participate for reasons of sentiment, economic interest and security.
For many of us there is a personal association beyond the national and public commemorations. When we examine our whakapapa or family trees, we find a number of the branches in the male lines stop somewhere between 1914 and 1918. Nearly all of the fallen rest near where they fell “in the corner of some foreign field.”
With my ancestor Private Norris Wainwright in mind, I recently saw the Maurice Shadbolt play Once on Chunuk Bair, written in 1982 about the Wellington Regiment’s brief ascent to the Chunuk Bar Ridge during the Gallipoli campaign. Doing a play actually set on the battlefield is inherently difficult as it asks the viewer to suspend disbelief to a very high level. It was a powerful production, very well realised. The experience left the audience both pensive and appreciative; certainly I felt wrung out.
Our changing identity
One unexpected delight from the play was that we in the audience experienced a 1982 perspective on our national identity and at the same time, a 1982 take on a 1915 perspective of the same thing.
Our views about identity have changed enormously. I was surprised to discover last year, after a bit of research via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that my great uncle is buried in the British Ribecourt Cemetery. I had expected our dead would rest with their countrymen in a national memorial. As I read more I discovered many of the New Zealanders who went to war absolutely saw themselves as both British and New Zealanders. This dualistic identity is characteristic of recent immigrants and I guess was consistent with an imperial ideal; so alive in 1914 but which, post-World War Two, morphed into the Commonwealth ideal. Perhaps Norris considered himself more British than New Zealander. I can only imagine he thought of Wellington as home, as he had never left the Capital until he left for the war. The complex issue of identity and the meaning and feeling of home was a recurring theme throughout Shadbolt’s work, including Chunuk Bair.
We are fortunate to have artists to present us with different perspectives on important matters like our involvement in wars and help us understand who we are and what our ancestors did.
A new arts fund has been established which focuses on the effect of the Great War on our nation and its place in the world. The fund targets national and international organisations to commission new, large-scale, collaborative work with New Zealand artists as part of a wider government programme to mark the First World War centenary (WW100).
We can look forward to a range of further intriguing work over the next four years. As we do, we might recall the insight of Michael King in Being Pakeha Now reminding us that “we must be able to listen to our own voices and trace our own footsteps….we must persist in building our own culture with our own ingredients to hand.”