During the holidays my family and I biked the Rail Trail in South Otago. It was a great experience. It also exposed me to an important aspect of post war recognition to those who served for New Zealand in World War One. In every small town I passed there was a World War One memorial (this is the same around New Zealand as we saw in Ailish's recent bog). It’s still hard to comprehend the numbers of those that died from tiny towns of less than a thousand people at the time. The lists of the fallen often include brothers, sometimes 3 or four. It is also striking to consider the investment made in these monuments that have be beautifully maintained for almost 100 years. These permanent features are the common symbols of remembrance.
Although these monuments are symbols of remembrance, what I want to highlight in this blog post is that they are only one form of remembrance and that it is important to look beyond the monument and into the emotional and mental impact the war had on soldiers. They were built to create a lasting legacy throughout New Zealand for those that served and died. Since then local councils have invested in their maintenance. This has been worthwhile as we saw a few weeks ago when thousands gathered around them for the Anzac Day commemorations. However, what about those who returned home? Many survivors suffered from post traumatic stress and fell into alcoholism and suicide. What was the practicality of the memorial for those that survived? It is one thing to remember the deeds of the past… but what was done for them as they tired to return to their lives?
In this respect I want to comment on is a government scheme that was introduced after the war. This involved allocating land to returning soldiers for them to farm. A positive intention, however, the land they were given was mostly infertile, rugged and brutal, primarily around the area of what is now the Whanganui National Park. The land was very difficult to reap reward from and took soldiers, who were already mentally scarred, to far away places where little support was offered. It was almost as if they were sent away from the public eye to hide the true brutality and impact of the war, whilst keeping the beauty and glory of the monuments close at hand. This is a similar idea to the one that I highlighted in my last post about how after the war; the glorification of the soldiers sometimes contrasts the brutality that lay at the center of the war. Thus remembrance was more present than support and understanding for those that returned. It seems that the public could not deal with the truth of the war. It was a blot on the past full of grief andeverything involved had to be left in the past, including the returning soldiers… remembered greatly, but not supported. Investment was put into memorials but not into re-building the lives of the soldiers and the families of the dead. (Fortunately the RSA have helped compensate for this since that time).
The inability of communities to deal with returning soldiers has been an issue in every conflict and remains so today. In the USA over the last decades the support of the returning soldiers from the Gulf War has been controversial. A recent book on the subject estimated that $20 billion dollars is needed to support these soldiers, not a large amount compared to the hundreds of billions spent on weaponry upgrades and other military investments, yet this has not occurred and many thousands of service men and woman are suffering from post traumatic stress alone and unsupported.
What I am trying to highlight is that remembrance must not only be about remembering what they did, it must also be about understanding and accepting the impact this had on those involved, even if we cannot fully comprehend what they lived through, and providing support and help for how they live with it. In this way we can grow their legacy further. This was not realised immediately after the World War One as the essence of the devastation was hidden behind clean and glorious monuments and the suffering sent to the wide hills of Whanganui. I am not trying to blame the public of New Zealand for their lack of post war support for returned soldiers, as it was an understandable subconscious way of hiding the pain that was so fresh in everyone's minds. However, in relation to my blog, "Evolution Of Perception" I am suggesting that we can never have 100% clarity when it comes to what New Zealand soldiers experienced during and after the war. As a result, 100 years on perhaps the best remembrance is acceptance that they did something incomprehensible to a teenager of today, something that stayed with those that survived for their entire lives, something that shaped New Zealand's legacy for the future.