Thursday, June 5

the face of war (sandy callister) - part 1

An image from Sandy's book The  Face of War
My mum, Sandy Callister, came down to Dunedin the other weekend to give a talk at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on her book The Face of War in the context of the acclaimed New Zealand artist Laurence Aberhart’s ANZAC photographic series of World War One memorials. I asked Sandy to send me the transcript of her talk. Below is the first part and I will post the next parts soon. 


There is a certain serendipity in this. I have loved Laurence’s work for a life time. I live with two of his incredible images.

Those of his images memorialising the dead of World One War have always exerted a certain emotional pull for me. Not just for the beauty and sadness of the images in the here and now. His project of documenting NZ’s World War One memorials is the most recent expression in a long history of remembering and memorialising the dead of this war, and contextualising his work in this wider history is important. Lest we forget!

In a very real sense his images of cemeteries and of the Great War memorials, are the most recent markers on the landscapes of our personal, family and collective memories of this war. As markers they also serve as signposts directing our attention to some other narrative of loss, suggesting, as Francis Pound has observed, ‘a persistent strain of mourning’.

So today I thought it might be interesting to examine this long history, beginning with Lawrence Aberhart’s work and then looking back in time; almost 100 years, to the war years themselves - and I thought it would be good to look at a number of specific photographic projects that sought to remember, memorialise and commemorate those that died in this war. I thought too, that, I would focus on a very local history and bring to your attention those images that would have a special meaning and poignancy for the people of this place – Dunedin, Otago and Southland.

I count myself as one of those people with an affection for and interest in this local history. I lived in Dunedin while doing my doctorate, which morphed into my book The Face of War. I did my doctorate through Auckland University, my main supervisor was Jamie Belich. When I announced we were moving to Dunedin he pointed out to me that Dunedin had rich historic archives that I would be able to access. He was so right. The Hocken was a treasure trove. What I also discovered is that the early beginnings of a history of photography in this country have a very strong Dunedin focus. There was the wealth and interest in new technologies to ensure that the photographic archives here, at the Hocken and at the Otago Settlers Museum, are fantastic resources.

Let’s begin with two Aberhart images. These photographs are both of the Great War memorial at Katea, near Owaka, Southland; the first taken in 1980, the second taken 19 years later.

‘War memorial, Katea, near Owaka Southland 1980’ 
[Note: the other image shown was ‘War memorial, Katea, near Owaka Southland 19th April 1999’.]

These images were my introduction to Aberhart’s World War One memorial project. I first saw them in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s Where Shadows Dream of Light catalogue, based on a body of work he undertook as a visiting artist’s project to the gallery in 1999.

My doctorate and my book have as their primary focus the 1914-1918 time span. Two dates and the dash in between. I think, however, Aberhart’s work is a powerful reminder that this war cannot be neatly contained. In the course of my research I examined a rich array of visual images—including studio portraits, the soldier with his camera taking tourist ‘snaps, family albums, official photographs, medical imagery and battlefield photography. I was interested in what these images showed, their content, and their passage through time as material artefacts. And in considering these images complex afterlife, it made me profoundly aware of the connections between the home front and battlefront, civilian and soldier, wartime and peacetime. In fact, one of the observations I would make is that wars do not have borders. And as Aberhart’s project testifies, they also spill out over time. This has implications for us because it raises some issues about what it means to see war. Do we see war as an action, a time, a place, or a political and social process? This is important because how we answer this question dictates how we see the after effects of this war.

But first I need to make some important points about the war to give context to my later remarks. I want to say something about what makes this war so haunting. And why does it still fascinates so many of us. I want to talk about the number of casualties; and the way in which this war disrupted pre-war death rituals. Third, I want to say something about what historians know and don’t know about post war grief. And finally I want to argue the case for the ways in which photographs help us to picture the loss of New Zealand families and communities.

So why are so many of us still in the grip of the Great War?

Around 25,000 books and scholarly articles have been written on it since 1918. The arguments have been conducted with forensic intensity and unwavering moral passion. This fascination with the war, which exerts its grip most powerfully in the “Anglosphere” countries, is justified. At least 10 million men died in the conflict; more than twice that number were seriously injured. Those who bore mental scars for the remainder of their lives are uncounted, as are the civilians who died or who were damaged by bereavement or dislocation.

For the first time, but not the last, the organisation and technology of sophisticated industrial societies were seamlessly and lethally joined. The war destroyed empires (some quickly, some more slowly). Created fractious new nation-states, gave a sense of identity to the British dominions, forced America to become a world power and led directly to Soviet communism, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and the Holocaust. The turmoil in the Middle East has its roots in the world it spawned. As Fritz Stern, a German-American historian, put it, the conflict was ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang”

Endlessly fascinating, hugely complex and charged with emotion, this is the catastrophe that shaped the modern world.

Let’s start with the NZ numbers

We sent 100,000 men, some 9% of the population, over 40% of all men of military age, to fight in the Middle East and on the Western Front. This war exodus was a historic first, a vast outflow of New Zealanders to the other side of the world over a concentrated period of time and for a purpose that New Zealanders understood to have imperial and national significance. So if you think about it some 100,000 men were potentially at risk of dying; and this is what played on the minds of those at home.

Death in World War One

In fact, between 1915 and 1918 some 18,166 New Zealand men were killed, an extraordinary number of deaths at a time when the country’s population was some 1,158,149. [If we adjust the ratio to today’s total population over 72,000 New Zealanders would be dead. Incomprehensible. Virtually every person in New Zealand had a close relative or friend killed and wounded. Some families faced multiple bereavements.

Unlike previous wars in which sickness exacted a huge toll on combatants, the majority of men who died in the Great War died violently, their bodies being subjected to mutilation and dismemberment. And yet the total number of dead at the end of the war obscures the way in which death was encountered by the home front community as-it-happened. Those at home had to struggle with both an imagined war taking place
some twelve thousand miles away in unfamiliar environments and with the arbitrariness of death itself.

Death did not necessarily approach with a measured pace. During the Gallipoli campaign some 2721 died within nine months. On the Western Front, the numbers spiked dramatically during key offensives. In the second phase of the Somme offensive of September 1916, 1560 were killed. The New Zealanders’ participation in the Third Years offensive, beginning on 4 October 1917, while deemed a military success, incurred high casualties. Worse was to come. On one day, 12 October 1917, 845 men lay dead or dying at Passchendaele qualifying it as ‘a tragedy without equal in New Zealand history’. By February 1918 another 500 had been killed. Death came in waves, fits and starts in the casualty reports leaving hope the worst was over, hopes that took years to come home.

The mass death of young men also altered the natural order of death. It fell on parents and other older community members to mourn the death of young adults.

Jay Winter, one of the foremost specialists on the impact of this war, has used the concept of ‘communities of mourning’ to convey the sheer scale of mourning after the Great War. With some ten million combatants dead, he points out that the scale and magnitude of those who grieved is hard to imagine. Different but overlapping people mourned: frontline solders, widows, orphans, parents, friends and neighbours. While Winter’s research focuses on Britain, in a smaller country such as New Zealand it is even more likely that people belonged to a number of overlapping ‘communities in mourning’.

But it isn’t just about high death counts.

Mourning was further complicated by geography. Their bodies did not come home to be buried by their kin. In many cases there were no bodies to mourn, since it was frequently impossible to locate or identify bodies. Trench warfare tore bodies apart. Relatives could not visit dying men. Men typically died alone, often in great anguish. An unrecorded number of New Zealand families experienced multiple bereavements. A point I will pick up on. By the end of the war some 16,697 New Zealanders were buried in foreign lands of which 5325 had no known resting place.

We keep photographs of parents, special people in our lives who have died. Photographs are the last visual traces of people we love. For many families and friends the photographs they had of these young men took on a deep significance as the last visual traces of the people they loved.

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