The Detail‘s Alexia Russell heads to Auckland Museum to find out more about how we tell the stories of war – and why there’s been a surge in interest in those stories.

On Anzac Day, as it has most non-Covid years, the Last Post will play at the dawn service at the cenotaph at Auckland Museum. 

The cenotaph is an impressive memorial, with its symbolic empty coffin sitting on a stone pylon. It’s an exact replica of the design in Whitehall, London. 

While the focus will be on the apron of consecrated ground atop Pukekawa, the entire magnificent building behind it is a war memorial. 

The first part, constructed after World War I, was completed in 1929, with the aspiration that such an event would never happen again. 

Within a generation, it did. 

After World War II, the building was extended to encompass war memorials for the over 11,000 men and women who lost their lives in that conflict.

For The Detail‘s Anzac podcast, I take a tour with the museum’s director of collections and research David Reeves. We talk about how the stories of war are told, why there’s been a surge of interest in researching our war dead, and the horrific date that both our families have in common – October 12, 1917. Reeves’ great-uncle and my great-grandfather died on the same day, in the same battle, at Passchendaele on the Western Front – what is still New Zealand’s darkest day in military history. 

Strangely, that name is not carved into the museum’s outer walls, alongside other significant battles of both wars – although individual battles at Passchendaele are. 

“There was a sense that Passchendaele was so terrible, that at the time people perhaps wanted to forget it,” David says, “much to the grief of the families involved – yours and mine included”. 

“I think at the beginning of the war, there was probably still a great sense of adventure and possibility and the ‘doing it for King and Country’ thing. But by the end of the war people were just so worn out, and so despondent, just so relieved that it was over, that perhaps Passchendaele certainly wasn’t something to celebrate.”

So given 843 men died on that date, is April 25 the right date to remember our war dead? 

“It has become an incredibly symbolic date for Australian and New Zealand involvement in World War I, and it’s been written about many, many times that it was the first time New Zealand and Australia popularly were viewed as fighting together. And that landing day was chosen as a memorial day. But of course there have been many other battles since,” says Reeves. 

The rest of the world tends to focus on November 11, Armistice Day. 

Even though there are thousands of names etched in the World War I sanctuary and the World War II hall of memories – the cornerstones of the museum – they’re only the names of Auckland-enlisted fallen soldiers. However more recent conflicts, including Borneo, Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan, cover the entire nation, as the idea of provincial enrolments had by then been done away with.  

Reeves talks in the podcast about the returned soldiers, and families who had relatives involved in wars that New Zealand wasn’t officially a part of, who come to the museum asking for it to hold that information, along with medals and mementos. 

He says far from dipping in interest as our last veterans pass away, there’s been a surge of interest as the museum rolls out our national online cenotaph, with people researching their family histories accessing it for information. 

And he has a poignant story involving that tool, involving a Japanese woman who visited the museum seeking the father she never met. 

Hear more about Auckland Museum’s history – and the stories its collections tell – in the full podcast episode.

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