St Margaret’s College Year 13 students have been reliving aspects of World War I as they spent a term researching graves of soldiers who fell and the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Their work and that of several other Christchurch students forms part of an exhibition celebrating 90 years of the commission's work which runs until June 7.
We focused on different aspects of it, Emma Gardiner says.
We looked at the main purpose of why the War Graves Commission started up, Amy adds.
It was to bring about equality - the traditional (idea of) resurrection of the whole body was literally blown apart during war — so how were people going to cope with sending their sons and lost ones up to heaven? It was decided to make a grave for those soldiers to create peace for them. To create order out of chaos.
It’s something of a gruesome topic, but the students say it gave history a much more personal meaning.
I interviewed my granddad and it gave me a whole new personal perspective — finding out things about his family during the wars, she said.
The thing that most got me was a picture of a grave in Egypt and there was a poem on it. It read:
The precious dust of our lovely lad from England is hidden here. It kind of got me — it was quite moving.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission 90th Anniversary Exhibition;
They are Not Missing - They are Here
Date: 21 April — 7 June
From the chaos of death and dismemberment, the dirt and despair of two World Wars emerged the enduring work and legacy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
This exhibition is a partnership between the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Our City O-Tautahi, and features photographs from Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites around the world commemorating 90 years of service. It is accompanied by They are Not Missing — They are Here: personal stories and perspectives from our local people.
Comparison of pre-war Victorian graves, such as those in the Addington Cemetery with the post war graves also shed light on the way the soldiers were remembered.
With the Victorians, they had a lot of showiness — they wanted to display their wealth in their death. Once the war happened there was death on such a huge scale that you couldn’t possibly have an angel on every tombstone or a giant tomb — they had to be uniform and simple so they didn’t incur too much expense and so everyone was equal.
In the Victorian times there was a hierarchy — they couldn’t do that anymore.
At Ruru cemetery the contracts is quite stark.
No matter what the wealth or the rank, they are all the same.
It was photographs of graves and headstones that started the initial research.
I was focused on the rememberance side of it. One of the ones I chose was a modern one with a little boy — it shows how everyone is still affected by it.
It does actually change your perspective of ANZAC Day and why it’s a big deal, Amy says.
The students were surprised at how little ANZAC Day had been celebrated in the past — they cited an ANZAC Day newspaper column not long after the war that devoted just a few paragraphs to the remembrance. Their research had shown that the war veterans were now starting to talk about their experiences — a change from the past.
My great-grandfather was in France during the war and he never talked about it — not once in his entire life, Laura said.
Even if they had wanted to talk about it, no-one wanted to hear, Emma added.
The students say that it is important to remember all veterans of war, and that New Zealand troops have fought in many other conflicts.
Architecture of the memorials and the symbols that were used was a focus for Laura Saunders.
I found out the importance of the symbols and how they chose them. The New Zealand ones are either the fern or the kiwi. I also found out how they used crosses or other symbols for soldiers of different religions.
Most of the cemeteries had a cross of sacrifice that was in the centre of all the headstones. All of the Commonwealth War Graves are quite similar.
The war graves serve as a reminder that war on this scale should not be allowed to happen again the students say.
There’s such a shock of how many unknown graves there are. So many people lost so many loved ones and we don’t know where they are — we can only remember them by names on plaques on big war memorials.
The weapons and how they developed meant that soldiers were often buried where they fell, in unmarked graves.
The amount of technology development in the war — not before, not after — was huge.
How could people do this — flamethrowers, machine guns, grenades — my God. Amy Ryan says.
The students were very keen to have a look at the exhibition which contains their finished work. It runs until June 7.
The students were: Emma Gardiner, Amy Ryan, Laura Saunders, Amy Stockley-Smith, Olivia Brooks, Natalie Stagg.
View the panels as PDFs - click on the thumbnail.
View PDF versions of panels from the exhibition: