In the centre of Devonport, Auckland, where I grew up, there stands a statue of a soldier of the First World War. Known colloquially as ‘the untidy soldier,’ the handsome bronze is fixed on a stone plinth, his uniform scruffy and bootlaces untied, hat in hand as he surveys the Waitematā Harbour. As a child, a story was told in my family that the statue had originally been intended for a township in Australia. Upon seeing the final design, however, the locals rejected it, on the basis that an Australian soldier would never allow himself to appear in such a state of undress. The pleasure of this story was two-fold: New Zealand soldiers were authentic battlefield heroes who did not care for the ‘spit and polish’ of the parade ground, in contrast to our neighbours across the Tasman who were more concerned with image than the nitty-gritty reality of war.

The story, now, seems an unlikely one. The ‘untidy soldier’ was, in fact, the work of Ponsonby sculptor Frank Lynch and commissioned by the Devonport RSA. Cast in London then shipped to Auckland, the statue was installed on April 13, 1923, at a memorial service dedicating it to the “fallen soldier citizens of the borough.” Attendants included the Devonport mayor Thomas Lamont, the Governor-General Earl Jellicoe, and Māori MP Sir Maui Pomare. Pomare delivered a poetic oration, in which he imagined the war as part of the “fusion” of Māori and Pākehā. “This monument may crumble into dust,” he declared, “but the memory of their deeds will endure forever… Their sacrifices ensure for us so abiding a unity that should even dread Armageddon be fought, our house shall stand together, and its pillars shall not fall.” Jellicoe emphasised unity with the British Empire. “We are here,” he said, “to do honour to these illustrious dead of Devonport who responded so willingly to the call of duty. Men and women, Pākehā and Māori, by land or sea or air, gave of their best and gave it willingly in those dark days when war threatened not only the stability of the Empire, but the very existence of civilisation.” The language of duty and sacrifice, on the Monday of Easter Week, was imbued with religious significance. Unveiled on the plinth were the names of the nearly one hundred Devonport men who died in the war, eulogised in the inscription: “Remembering these, let the living be humble.”


Over the past century, Anzac Day has provided a powerful and imaginative story for New Zealanders. This story has shifted over the years but retained central themes, such as sacrifice, integrity, duty, and service on behalf of others. However, Anzac Day’s history has not been an untroubled one. The day has been a cause for protest over time. While the ‘sacredness’ of Anzac Day has been invoked to shut down debate, its annual liturgies of communal observance have also served as a potent platform for public exploration of contemporary controversies. By tracing some of the history of this continuity and change, we can see how Anzac Day has provided a forum and a set of rituals, traditions, and symbols, to affirm our communities and—through a shared past—to negotiate and debate what it means to be a member of New Zealand society.

Commemoration helped secure welfare support for returned soldiers and their families, and shored up the bonds of community and society recovering from the violence of the war.

The ritual and speeches around the plinth of the ‘untidy soldier’ in 1923 linked the local world of the Devonport borough to a grand story of imperial glory and civilisation. As Pomare showed, this commemoration of war deeds could also be a chance to talk  about other stories, such as the encounter of Māori and Pākehā in the building of a New Zealand society. Indeed, the relationship between Māori and Pākehā was a common theme of this civic language after the war. Celebrating a joint sacrifice papered over deeper tensions, including the inequity faced by Māori soldiers upon their return home.

Pomare himself had supported the war effort and represented the complex position of Māori political leaders seeking to chart a course of building up Māori communities in a world dominated by Pākehā. Moreover, these stories appealed to a sense of self, often in contrast to others—Australians, for example—and shaped how people imagined and communicated their relationships to each other. This cultural memory created connections across generations. The eulogy of the Devonport statue, for example, expressed that remembering the sacrifice of the dead would provide a guide for living.

Dedication of the Carillon in Wellington, 1932 – Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

In the period between the world wars, monuments like the ‘untidy soldier’ provided sites to mourn, honour, and remember the war dead. The notion of sacrifice, for families and communities, society and empire, was a common theme of war memorials. Commemoration helped secure welfare support for returned soldiers and their families, and shored up the bonds of community and society recovering from the violence of war. Monuments were the ultimate expression of citizenship and the obligations of citizens to each other. Institutions of civil society like the RSA and leaders like Pomare and Jellicoe linked these soldier-citizens to notions of imperial and racial unity that provided a compelling story for much—though not all—of New Zealand society.

Auckland Anzac
Anzac Day service, Auckland Domain, 1955 – Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

After the Second World War, Pomare’s “pillars” of unity began to break down or shift in a number of ways. The first and most significant was the inexorable collapse of the British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s, and with it the complex set of political, cultural, and racial ideas which underpinned New Zealand settlement. If New Zealanders were happy to think of themselves as British, what happened to this notion of New Zealand as Britain’s farthest-flung outpost without the unity of empire? Alongside these changes, the experience of the First World War started to disappear through the decline of the ‘war generation’—especially the soldier-citizens who fought in the conflict.

Rapid and anxious social change also manifested in New Zealand society over the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Liberalisation’—first expressed in social and cultural terms, in the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and extended in economic terms by the 1980s—shaped how postwar generations thought about self and purpose. Public debate around the Vietnam War, to which the New Zealand government dedicated limited troops, was marked by deep divisions. For the first time since the world wars, politicians, military leaders, and the public were deeply divided about New Zealand’s involvement in war.

Anzac Day and its mythology of the soldier-citizens became a focal point of this debate. Over the late 1960s, Anzac Day was transformed from a site of unity to a site of protest. The peace movement, drawn from a broad religious, social, and political alliance, protested on Anzac Day against the Vietnam War. Networks of university students in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, and the radical Marxist Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) organised from 1967 to 1975. Over the period 1977-1987, small groups of feminists from rape crisis centres and collectives attended Auckland and Wellington Anzac Day ceremonies to decry rape in wartime. The Women’s Action Group’s protests competed with Māori and Pasifika groups who, taking their cues from the Black Power Movement in the United States, scuffled with veterans while carrying banners condemning “capitalist wars.”

Many activists saw their demonstrations as legitimate attempts at inclusion in Anzac Day; often incorporating the traditional rituals of the laying of wreaths at a cenotaph or memorial and marching in parades. The New Zealand Peace Council decided to organise its own “war victims remembrance ceremony” in Wellington, April 25 1972, which opted to imitate Anzac Day—laying wreaths at the national cenotaph, singing hymns, and speeches on the importance of peace—but specifically avoided conflict with the organisers of the official service by waiting until after the morning service had been completed. Student activists argued that participation in the Vietnam War was a betrayal of the Anzacs, offering that the soldier-citizens who faithfully marched on Anzac Day were being degraded by “the folly and cynicism” of political leaders.

The interplay of protest and patriotism opened up a public conversation in a way that people would not have otherwise had an opportunity to do so.

Public responses to the protests varied. In the lead up to Anzac Day, 1968, editors of The Press commented that a wreath “to the fallen in Vietnam” respectfully laid alongside wreaths commemorating the dead of two world wars “should cause no-one to take offence.” However, “a band of placard-carrying demonstrators asserting a ‘right’ to a place in an Anzac parade would as surely offend any reasonable standards of good manners and good taste and would justify prompt intervention by the police.” The New Zealand Herald Anzac Day editorial in 1971 similarly stated, “It is not out of keeping with the solemnity of the occasion to allow young people to pay tribute to the dead and dying in Indo-China.” However, “even to suggest that Anzac services perpetuate a spirit of militarism,” the editorial added, “manifestly distorts the truth.”

Police and RSA differed on how best to respond to the protests. In 1978, a memorial card dedicated to female victims of war was torn from a wreath at the Auckland Cenotaph by a police constable. The wreath had been laid by members of the Women’s Action Group, dressed in black veils, at the mid-morning Anzac Day commemorative service in the Domain. The memorial card read, “we remember all the forgotten women: all those who died in battle, those raped and mutilated, our sisters who have had their lives destroyed by the wars of this century.” Commenting that “ceremonies at cenotaphs are increasingly becoming the scene of emotional interaction between activist groups,” the Auckland District Chief of Police warned that “[t]he police have to do their bit to maintain decorum and the right atmosphere.” RSA president John Gardiner, in contrast, said he found nothing offensive in the Women’s Action Group’s message.

Others were more interested in disrupting Anzac Day than participating in it. The Progressive Youth Movement rejected many of the non-confrontational tactics and rhetoric of student groups and drew its membership from the radical Left. In 1970, three members of the Christchurch branch approached the Citizens’ War Memorial following the morning ceremony and placed a placard with the inscription “to the victims of Fascism in Vietnam” on top of the official mayoral wreath. After the official parade, the Christchurch mayor and Second World War veteran Ron Guthrey ripped up the wreath while other returned servicemen pushed and shoved PYM members who attempted to place a second placard. After police intervention stopped the fight, Guthrey vowed he would do the same thing again, and that “dumb long-haired louts who have nothing to contribute to our society – who damn everything we have ever fought for – must not be allowed to insult our war dead.” A similarly ‘militant’ form of protest developed among Wellington feminists. In 1980, a “squad” of women in their early twenties disrupted the dawn parade and the mid-morning laying of wreaths at Wellington’s Cenotaph. Wearing military style black costumes and berets, the protesters chanted during the minute of silence, “Women died, we care, women were raped, we are angry.” The group returned during the wreath laying ceremony with a mock coffin, inscribed “in memory of millions of women raped and killed by soldiers.” The antagonistic display was contrasted with groups of Wellington peace activists who had been holding an all-night vigil as “silent, respectful, but prominent observers.”

These protests were from different movements with wildly different aims, yet they all contributed to radically changing the conversation around Anzac in these decades. In the first place, Anzac Day became less about the soldier-citizens and more about the public. The New Zealand Council of Churches organised a survey, for the first time, asking members of the public, including young activists in PYM, what they thought should be commemorated on Anzac Day. New media such as televised Anzac Day services heightened the sense of public connection to commemorative practices and also the profane implications of, say, Marxists laying wreaths to the Viet Cong. The perception that this was a generational conflict reiterated the breakdown in the horizons of ‘old New Zealand.’

Members of the Progressive Youth Movement place a wreath dedicated to the Viet Cong dead at the Anzac Day morning service in Christchurch, 1972 – Photographer unknown, Canta, Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch, New Zealand
Conflict during Anzac service, Cathedral Square, Christchurch, 1972 – Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Societies need common moments of attention that allow the memories, arguments, hurts, and discontent present amongst us to come t the surface and be discussed openly.

Paradoxically, this made Anzac Day more important than before when it had been part of a broader mosaic of civic culture and a subset of religious practice. One New Zealand Herald cartoon depicted public reaction to Anzac Day as self-obsessed and opposed to sacrifice for the common good. The interplay of protest and patriotism opened up public conversation in a way that people would not have otherwise had an opportunity to do so, connecting local communities to emotional debates about national values and citizenship. Protests showed up the divisions of New Zealand society but also emphasised a common space, ritual, and language to negotiate those differences on Anzac Day.

These cultural, social, and political debates, amidst the ruins of empire, unmoored the story of New Zealand from its settler and imperial origins and left it adrift in a sea of change. A new generation of historians such as Keith Sinclair and Bill Oliver sought to chart a distinct national story, a “search for national identity,” that could provide a compelling basis of nationhood. The Anzac story became part of this, reinterpreted as a coming-of-age moment for the nation. Men such as the soldier-citizens of the Devonport borough were re-interpreted as the originators of a national spirit.

However, these postwar historians collided with another fracture appearing in the New Zealand story: the ostensible unity of Pākehā and Māori. The image presented in the 1923 Devonport memorial service, of New Zealand’s polite and amiable race relations, was coming undone by a growing Māori voice in society—expressed politically in the Waitangi Tribunal and the changing place of the Treaty in public language. This process broadened the focus of New Zealand history: Pākehā became a chapter in a longer story rather than the central protagonists. Moreover, the Tribunal and successive Treaty settlements in the 1990s placed histories of violence, displacement, land alienation, and cultural degradation at the centre of public record and public history.

While historians and the public debated the ‘great New Zealand question’ of finding a common identity and story of the nation, over the 2000s, Helen Clark’s Labour Government invested considerable effort to revitalise New Zealand identity. A key plank of this policy of ‘cultural recovery’ was Anzac commemoration. Clark, as Prime Minister and Minister of Arts, oversaw the renovation and establishment of an unprecedented number of international war memorials from Canberra to London. Policies aimed at national reconciliation included pardons for soldiers executed during the First World War, and culminated in the 2008 Crown apology to Vietnam War veterans and their families who had been denied welfare, in part due to the deep divisions that the war provoked.

Clark’s ‘cultural recovery’ agenda was a project of ‘nation-building.’ Historians, creative industry, artists, and museum  curators together would build “the spirit of New Zealand”  through “understanding the forces that shape New Zealanders,” as Clark put it in an interview in 2003.

In 2004, as a signal of this change, the Clark Government repatriated the Unknown Warrior. The repatriation was uniquely informed by a new appreciation for New Zealand’s ‘bicultural’ histories and the greater role of the state in Anzac commemoration. This was first and foremost seen in the naming of the Unknown Soldier as “warrior,” a term with historic links to empire and depictions of Māori as a martial race, and in the ritual and design of the tomb itself. Designed by the artist and sculptor Kingsley Baird, the new tomb was classically shaped with Pākehā and Māori iconography, and built into the forecourt steps of the Pukeahu National War Memorial. According to its designer, the tomb “is an expression of the nation’s memory and a cross-cultural language of remembrance [that] combines Māori and Pākehā ritual, symbolic, and visual elements…to express remembrance specific to New Zealand’s contemporary identity.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Photo credit: Andy Palmer/Manatū Taonga
The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Wellington – The Ministry of Culture and Heritage

Māori leaders were consulted as part of the repatriation process, attending the exhumation of the Unknown Warrior, and performing a pōwhiri as the casket arrived in New Zealand. Māori military experience was given a special voice through representatives of the Māori Battalion Association—reflecting the institutional recruitment of Māori in both world wars. Kaumātua performed a blessing at the ground-breaking ceremony for the development of the War Memorial site. The repatriation of the Unknown Warrior took account of pre-political spiritual realities. The funeral took place not in the secular space of the War Memorial, but the Wellington Anglican Cathedral under traditional rites of Christian burial. As in 1923 in the Devonport borough, this commemoration was imbued with a shared religious language of sacrifice and the central theme of the meeting of Māori and Pākehā worlds.

The rhetoric and symbolism of national healing was one that clearly resonated with media and public. 100,000 people lined the streets of Wellington to watch the funeral procession of the Unknown Warrior in what remains the largest civic service in New Zealand history. In her address at the memorial service, Clark declared that we are “here today to honour a warrior who has lain for close to 90 years in foreign soil, and who has now been called back to serve his country once more.” The Unknown Warrior, and the war he died in, was a part of New Zealand’s history and “one of the foundations of today’s society.” Like Pomare’s “pillars” in 1923, the body of the Unknown would provide the basis for a renewed, united House of New Zealand.

From the standpoint of 2018, we can see continuities and departures from the world  of 1923.

The community that raised the ‘untidy soldier’ was, in many respects, very different to the one which occupies the place in 2018. The Anzac story is now a postcolonial national story, rather than an imperial one, and the role of the state is vastly expanded in the storytelling, in place of the fraying former associative networks of civil society. Contemporary commemoration is invested with considerable political, emotional, and financial capital from Government, councils, and endless analysis from news media producers and commentators.

All this speaks to the power of the past: the stories, relationships, and meetings of the past energise us and give us direction in the present. Anzac Day remains one of the few occasions that brings us together as a society, and when we pay attention to our values as a public; what we think about ourselves, what we affirm or reject, what fills us with pride or shame.

“Remembering these, let the living be humble.”

This history also serves to remind us that Anzac Day can and should be open for discussion. Anzac in the 1920s helped heal families and communities after war; it also constrained and excluded those not part of the official imperial story. Critiques of Anzac Day in the 1960s and 1970s ranged from the day as an elitist glorification of violence to a tired symbol of patriarchy. Yet it was precisely this common repertoire of ideas, words, and spaces that could be reused, co-opted, or omitted to make a point. Anzac is an active remembrance, a living tradition. All of this points to the importance of attending to the meaning and memory of public commemoration. Commentary around Waitangi Day—our other national day—often contrasts the patriotism and unity of Anzac Day and with the ‘divisive politics’ of the Treaty Grounds every February 6. In fact, as we see from the history of Anzac, societies need common moments of attention that allow the memories, arguments, hurts, and discontent present amongst us to come to the surface and be discussed openly. This process can hurt. It’s hard to be confronted with different interpretations of the society we live in, and these discussions require earnest and honest engagement in order to be productive. What’s important is that we have those opportunities—the vital meeting of history and memory in public commemoration—to do so.

Rowan Light

Rowan Light

Rowan Light is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury and a historian of Australia and New Zealand, specialising in the Twentieth Century. His doctoral research explores imperial and post-imperial remembrance of the First World War; in particular, the emergence of postwar national commemorations from 1965 to the Anzac Centenary in 2015. Rowan’s history of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand will be published in 2019 and his work has been published in Australian Historical Studies, the Melbourne Journal of History, and the New Zealand Journal of History.