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Set in Stone

Book Review
To the Memory: New Zealand’s war memorials, by Jock Phillips (Potton & Burton, $60)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

tothememory-cover-001It is hard to believe that there are over a thousand public war memorials scattered around the country, commemorating over 30,000 New Zealanders who have died in wartime, and most of whom are buried overseas. This fascinating book gives an overview of the war memorials, showing how the commemoration of the casualties of war has changed over 150 years.

The author, Jock Phillips has been documenting war memorials for over 30 years, and the book is based on his detailed research, including the compilation of a database of all known war memorials. Because this is a topic that has been largely overlooked by past researchers, new information constantly comes to hand. In the opening paragraph, Phillips details his delight at finding a previously unidentified memorial obelisk in the Symonds Street cemetery as recently as September 2015.

An earlier version of this book was published in 1990 as The Sorrow and the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials by Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean. At that time there was little interest in military commemoration, and the book appeared an oddity. But in recent years there has been an awakening of interest in the commemoration of Anzac Day, and the centenary of World War 1 has inspired enormous interest in understanding New Zealand’s part in military conflict. This book is a completely new edition, incorporating the large amount of new information and interpretation that has become available over 25 years.

The book is divided into six chapters covering the memorials to the New Zealand wars, the South African war, World War 1, World War 2, and memorials constructed after 1945 (including the memorials at Pukeahu, the National War Memorial in Wellington).

Opening of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, April 2015, with the Australian memorial in the centre.

Opening of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, April 2015, with the Australian memorial in the centre.

The most impressive war memorials are those constructed after World War 1, and a separate chapter, ‘The search for a New Zealand style’, deals with the architects and sculptors responsible for many of them. Because New Zealand does not have much readily available ornamental stone, many of the memorials were imported from overseas – including widespread angelic figures constructed of Italian Carrara Marble. As a geologist, I regret the lack of information on some of the local stones that have been used. For example, the memorial at Cave in South Canterbury, illustrated on page 125, is almost certainly from the nearby Timaru basalt – and this would be a fruitful topic for further research.

The book is magnificently illustrated with over 200 photographs, with many of the best colour images taken by Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean. Although war memorials are static, they are not always easy to photograph because of shadows and changing light angles. The images that are reproduced reflect the patience and skill of the photographers.

After reading The Sorrow and the Pride over a decade ago, I became infected with what has been termed the war memorial bug. It has been a matter of fascination to track down war memorials around the West Coast. For me this has emphasised that our perception of memorials is ever changing. As time passes, older memorials are moved and modified, and a few new memorials are erected.

One of the major changes in the 21st century has been the online availability of the database of war memorials, initiated by Jock Phillips and now maintained by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/the-memorials-register. Travellers now have instant access through their mobile phones to information on war memorials throughout the country – and also the opportunity to add information to the database.

The appearance of To The Memory is highly appropriate during the period when New Zealanders are remembering the contribution of their ancestors to World War 1. It is a beautiful reference book, recording a largely overlooked aspect of our social history.