It’s difficult for us today to absorb the extent of the misery and heartache that was being experienced throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand 100 years ago, as “the guns fell silent” in Europe’s Great War with the signing of the Armistice in the Forest of Compiègne in the Picardy region of France, on November 11, 1918.
While that meant an end to the fighting and killing, it wasn’t the official end of the war – that didn’t occur until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, which took effect on January 10, 1920.
Almost 100 years on, New Zealand has no permanent or dedicated site in Europe to honour and preserve our legacy, no place to tell the many remarkable stories of bravery and sacrifice, and to remember the New Zealanders who fought and died for our freedom. The New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust wants to change that by establishing the first permanent New Zealand War Memorial Museum in the town of Le Quesnoy, a small French town that has special meaning and connection with New Zealand.
Acentury ago – in 1918 – families and individuals throughout New Zealand must have been reeling in bitter anguish at the atrocious and mindless slaughter that had taken place on the battlefields of Europe – thousands of miles away from New Zealand’s green and peaceful shores. The unprecedented and previously unimaginable carnage had taken the lives of thousands of their sons, husbands, brothers, fiancés and friends, and maimed and ruined the lives of many thousands of other young New Zealand men.
The war began on August 4, 1914 after a complicated series of events, all relating to international alliances from previous European wars, triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914 and Serbia calling on Russia for its support under their treaty. Europe’s large empires then mobilised their forces in accordance with their various treaties. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914 and on France two days later, and when Germany invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.
News of Great Britain’s declaration of war was received in New Zealand on August 5 and was announced to a crowd of some 15,000 people on the steps of Parliament by the Governor, Lord Liverpool. But because we were part of the British Empire, in effect we went to war with Germany on August 4, the day King George V made the declaration of war in London, and that’s the date that New Zealand officially recognises as the start of The Great War.
New Zealand’s population at that time was just under 1.1 million people, and about 243,000 of those were men of military age. In total, more than 124,000 men enlisted for war service, and around 100,000 of them served overseas – about 18,200 of them died during the war, while another 41,000 were wounded. About 16 New Zealand nurses who went to Europe to tend the sick and wounded, also lost their lives.
More than 16,500 of the young men who served overseas never returned – more than 3700 of them were never recovered, and simply vanished. Their names are recorded on New Zealand Monuments to the Missing at the various battlegrounds.
In recent years, the First World War has generally been regarded as a turning point in the creation of New Zealand as a nation. Herb Farrant – a military historian and First World War buff, and also general secretary of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust – believes that’s because the 104,000 men who went to The Great War was the largest contingent we’d ever sent abroad for a single purpose, who were recognised on the world stage as New Zealanders.