The Lottery Grants Board may have done Auckland a favour in refusing to fund a grandiose war memorial at the Domain

Auckland was to have marked Armistice Day this year – 100 years since the end of World War I – with an elaborate, $3 million extension of the War Memorial Museum. Rows about the appropriateness of the design, fears it would look like a concrete skateboard park, and the Lottery Board’s refusal to help fund it have sunk any prospect of meeting the November 11 deadline. 

Instead, standing there will be a raw, emotional reminder of exactly what this country gave up during those four years. A white cross for every single one of the 18,277 New Zealand soldiers who died – and every cross named. Eleven will be marked with the Star of David. Most of the crosses will face the museum on the grassy slope below it; off to the side by a Lone Pine which will be floodlit red, will be a section for The Brothers. Its 1505 crosses will represent the 685 families who lost more than one child. Poppies will surround them, some as transfers flowing from the steps of the museum and some in the fields. It will be the first time in New Zealand such a stark memorial has been laid out. 

People will be welcome to drape flowers or leis, attach photographs, walk through the rows and at the end of the display, take their relative’s cross home. 

The display has been organised by the Fields of Remembrance Trust, made up of the New Zealand and Auckland RSAs, and the Passchendaele Society. It is a dramatic conclusion to the work it’s been doing in the country’s schools and early childhood centres, where fields of named crosses have been planted, and competitions run to send high school pupils to Flanders Fields. 

Graham Gibson is the Trust’s vice-chairman, and President of the Auckland RSA. He says the Trust’s work is not about glorifying war – “that’s the furthest thing from my mind” – but about making it relevant to young people. He believes the increasing attendances at Anzac Day dawn parades over the last few years is about those young people dragging their families out. There has been a huge buy-in from the schools and the Ministry of Education, he says, with the project not just being about providing crosses. “From functions to poetry – it’s just blown me away.”

The Vietnam veteran says the whole experience has been a huge journey for him, one that has not only opened his eyes to the history of the Great War but to the stories behind it – especially those involving the mothers who lost so much. “It’s women and children who suffer most in fields of conflict,” he says. “In the theatre of operations and war zones it’s always the young ones who suffer .. then they’re the ones left on their own when a solider dies.” 

A greater understanding of what happened at Passchendaele has also come from the work. “It’s always been the bridesmaid to Gallipoli where we lost 3700 men – yet we lost 12,000 on the Western Front and another 50,000 were wounded.” 

The project has been backed by hundreds of organisations and companies in contra or donations – “not one person turned me down”, he says. He thought he was going to get his first refusal at Soar Printing when the owner held up his hand and said “stop” – only to go out the back and produce his grandfather’s war diary. “He’s been wonderful.” 

Gibson thinks people will be blown away by the sheer numbers of crosses, and “if you want to sit down in the field and have a good bawl, then do it”. 

He also hopes that by November 11, the museum will have added to its memorial walls the names of the 17 New Zealand soldiers who have died in conflicts since the Vietnam War. 

Photo: Fields of Remembrance Trust

There doesn’t appear to be too much angst at the Auckland Council over its failure to deliver a monument in time for the Armistice centenary. Mike Lee chaired the group organising it until he was kicked off by Mayor Phil Goff, who replaced the council committee dealing with it with an advisory board. Lee says the Lottery Grants Board has done the people of Auckland a favour in pulling the pin on the extra $2m the council was seeking to build its “concrete edifice”.  

“It was going to be expensive given the amount of concrete and earthworks involved. The whole committee was of a mind to put this to one side – it really was a flawed and unhappy process. It’s better to not do anything, than to do harm.” The ‘doing nothing’ has so far cost about $250,000, mostly in internal costs including resource consents – a lot of that “unavoidable”, says Lee. 

“Simply speaking we have a war memorial … we were simply aiming to enhance what we already have. Thankfully (the original plan) doesn’t seem to be happening.” 

Christine Fletcher, the councillor who is now the advisory group chair, says something will happen, but obviously not by 11/11/18. She describes that deadline as having been “unrealistic”.

The Council’s million dollar contribution is still there and ring-fenced for a project, what ever that may end up looking like. She says the Lottery Board’s denial of funds was more to do with this being “a big year for the Christchurch Cathedral”, rather than it shying away from a politically fraught project. “I wasn’t unduly unhappy about the decision,” she says. 

“From my perspective there were some practical design issues,” Fletcher says. There was originally intended to be stone of enduring quality in the design but for practical reasons it couldn’t be used and the concrete alternative wasn’t seen as attractive.

Fletcher says it’s not right to rush it: “The Domain is sacred to a lot of people and the (planned) memorial would have had an element of controversy.” She says putting off the completion date in no way diminishes the Council’s desire to commemorate the impact of war on Aucklanders. 

The project’s name is Te Takuahi – The Hearth – aimed at marking not just the sacrifice of soldiers, but of nurses, women who stayed home and the families who lost so much. It has special significance for Fletcher who was close to her great aunt, Agnes Paterson (later Clarke), who was a Red Cross nurse in the war. She points out, in defence of the memorial’s delay, that some of those nurses didn’t come home from war until 1920 – they were still working offshore. 

In the 1970s when the family was looking for a care home for her aunt, she expressed a desire to go to the Ranfurly Veterans Home, but it declined to accept her because she was a woman, and not a soldier. “She wept all the way home,” says Fletcher. The experience has informed her desire to see an inclusive memorial that reflects peace, not just war. Peace Day in New Zealand was celebrated over three days from July 19, 1919, so that’s the next deadline being aimed at. Then there’s the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, in September 2020. 

“When we deliver – and we will deliver – a project for Aucklanders,” Fletcher says, “we want it to be done respectfully”. 

Gibson would back that, saying the whole process of The Hearth was flawed. 

“When you start doing these things, you can’t do them for yourself, you do them for the right reasons – for your fellow citizens. I think they’ve had a wake-up call.” 

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