Topic: Cenotaph

Topic type:

A history of the Wairarapa Soldiers' Memorial in Queen Elizabeth Park

Wairarapa Soldiers' Memorial 

The Wairarapa Soldiers' Memorial, the 'cenotaph', overlooks the town, the soldier atop the marble plinth looking out towards the west.

Proposals for a fitting memorial to "those gallant fellows who have gone to the front" were first aired in April 1916, and gathered momentum during the last years of the war.  There were various ideas about the form the memorial should take.  The Cameron brothers, Donald and Robert, thought a sports ground was a suitable memorial, and purchased the old showgrounds in lower Dixon Street.  This was later developed as the Cameron and Soldiers Memorial Park, and administered by its own trust board, in a repetition of the process used that established the Masterton Park.  It was to be dedicated to sports with the Wairarapa Rugby Union as the major tenant.

The district also felt the need to erect a suitably impressive monument, and a competition was called for designs.  In the end the committee opted for a casting of sculptor Frank Lynch's 'The Last Anzac'. Guy Lynch was born in Melbourne but largely raised in New Zealand.  He served in the New Zealand forces during the war, and spent time in Egypt and England studying different sculptural practices.  He married in England, but by the time he returned to New Zealand in the early 1920s, he was a widower. He established a studio in Auckland, with his brother Joseph, who was a cartoonist whose career flourished in Melbourne.  Joseph was the model for his brother's most famous piece, the soldier on the beach at Gallipoli.  Unlike many war memorial statues, which tend to glamorise soldiery, Lynch's work shows an unkempt soldier, waiting to be evacuated.  He is tired.  His bootlaces are untied, his tunic is undone, and he has taken his hat off to pay respect to the fallen comrades he has left behind.  He encapsulates New Zealand's image of its soldiers - perhaps not the most polished in appearance, but nonetheless the man you want alongside you when the going gets rough. It was obvious the memorial needed a commanding position in the town and it was quickly decided the Masterton Park was the obvious place.

In May 1920 the Masterton Borough Council agreed to work with the committee planning the memorial to find an appropriate site in the park.  The issue was finally decided in August 1922, when the site "immediately where the German gun now stands" was chosen.  The "German gun" was a Howitzer, offered to the council as a war trophy by the central government in 1920.  The local branch of the Returned Soldiers' Association wrote to the council, urging it be placed at the base of the proposed monument.  When it was later moved, the council thought about putting it to the side of the monument, where the old fountain had once stood, but it was banished to the back of the park.  It was later buried in the northern stopbank on the Waipoua River.  It was discovered in the 1980s, when a member of the borough council staff was using a metal detector to find a hidden manhole cover.  Not much of the gun remained - the wheel carriage had disappeared and the rest was in poor condition.  It was rescued and stored at the borough yard in Bentley Street.  Under threat of being sold for scrap, it was instead sold to Featherston military collector Ivan Keast.  It remains unrestored in his collection. Work was soon underway to place the war memorial appropriately in the park. 

The entranceway from the Pownall Gates was widened and the grand monument built. A decision was taken to include only the names of those who died in the service of their country, rather than all those who had served. Names were chosen from the entire Wairarapa region, it being the district's memorial, the committee asking citizens to forward names for consideration.  There was no government policy on those who should be memorialised, and no central list of names the committee could draw on. The names were not restricted to those who died overseas.  Those who lost their lives in the influenza epidemic while serving were included, as were other soldiers who died of wounds after being repatriated.  The list was submitted to the local branch of the Returned Soldiers' Association before being finalised, but subsequently the local monumentalist, TG Hoar, added extra names, usually at no cost to the borough, who assumed control of the memorial.

The memorial was dedicated during an impressive ceremony on September 16 1923 when over 2,000 people congregated in a windswept park.  Among those who marshalled the parade was Flight-Lieutenant George Hood, later to lose his life in a failed attempt to cross the Tasman Sea with John Moncrieff. A short religious ceremony started proceedings, before Mayor Pragnell addressed the crowd, telling them nothing could add to the glory, courage and sacrifice of the 400 men and women whose names were engraved on the marble.  He pointed out the Maori Peace Statue nearby, reminding the crowd Maori had been as keen as pakeha to enter the war. William Downie Stewart, the Minister of Internal Affairs, was delegated to unveil the monument.  He said the district was well-known for the support it gave the many thousands of soldiers camped in Featherston during their training.  He said those who were called to lay down their lives did so gladly, knowing they were doing it for their country. He said if the courage, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness and bravery of the New Zealanders in action were reflected in the lives of those left behind everything would be right with all men, "and should the occasion arise again, New Zealand's answer would be spontaneous". He unveiled the monument "to the Grace of God and the memory of the fallen". Colonel Herbert Hart spoke on behalf of the returned soldiers, expressing their gratitude to the people of the district who subscribed the money to erect the monument to their fallen comrades.   He said the path of the army was marked by wooden crosses in Egypt, Gallipoli and France.  They were proud of the way the fallen had fought for King and country. Two local politicians, George Sykes and Sir Walter Buchanan also spoke, Sykes saying it was recalled with pride how the boys answered the call to arms, and later the great deeds they had performed.   The mothers of the country's soldiers deserved the country's thanks. Buchanan pointed out the war service of Downie Stewart, saying he had returned disabled from the war to take up other service for his country.  He was proud to think there were many monuments erected in New Zealand, and also in France, Gallipoli and Constantinople - all carefully looked after. After the speeches the Last Post was sounded and the ceremony concluded with the National Anthem, 'God Save the King'.
The following is engraved on the monument: "They whom this monument commemorates were numbered among those who. At the call of the King and country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men, by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.  Let those who come after them see to it that their names are not forgotten.  They died for freedom and honour"