A century ago communities around New Zealand gathered to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hostilities had ended the previous November, but now the official terms of the peace had been locked into place, the worst of the deadly flu had passed and many loved ones had returned home from the front. It was time to take to the streets and celebrate.
I wasn’t initially planning to write this post but was prompted by Dr. Stephen Clarke to participate in the centenary of the commemorations. To mark the occasion I’m sharing three different collections of private snapshots taken during peace celebrations in Masterton, Christchurch and Temuka. Most of these images won’t have been seen before, so it seems fitting to share them on the anniversary. This is also a time for us to mark the end of five years of First World War centenary commemorations, reflect on what went well – what didn’t – and where we should go from here. So I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on that as well.
The first series of photographs I’m going to share are some personal ones, from an old family album that belonged to my great grandfather Dudley Bannister and show the peace celebrations in Masterton, in the lower North Island. He celebrated his seventeenth birthday earlier that month – he had been too young to serve overseas, which was a stroke of luck for my family. Perhaps I wouldn’t be here now if he had been old enough to be conscripted. I’m not sure if he took these snapshots himself or possibly they were taken by another family member, but either way it’s neat to be able to see some candid views taken a century ago of the peace celebrations in their hometown.
One of the floats in the parade attracted considerable attention.
What better way to celebrate the peace than with a life-sized representation of one of modern warfare’s latest technological horrors. The ‘tank’ float in Masterton’s celebrations was particularly popular with young boys – and I imagine my great grandfather, who had a strong interest in engineering, would’ve been one of them, adding weight to the probability that he was the photographer as the tank features heavily in this series of snapshots.
Another even more ambitious float that took part in the Masterton parade was a replica of the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS New Zealand.
The construction of the HMS New Zealand had been funded by the New Zealand Government as a gift to Britain. Nothing says I love you quite like a battlecruiser. She was launched in 1911 and toured New Zealand in 1913 – where she and her crew were welcomed with a barrage of civic receptions and crowds. She served during most of the major naval engagements of the war, including the Battle of Jutland. This float was the centerpiece of Masterton’s parade.
An estimated six to seven thousand people gathered at the Municipal Park to hear the mayor read the King’s Proclamation and then at noon the crowd stood silently with heads bowed for five minutes in memory of those who had fallen. Afterwards some of the vehicles took a concert party to the hospital where they played to the wounded soldiers who hadn’t been able to attend the commemorations. The day of festivities ended with fireworks – perhaps a questionable decision considering the recently returned veterans in the crowd.
The second series of images I’m going to share were taken at the commemorations in Christchurch. Scanned from my personal collection.
You can see the cathedral towering over proceedings on the left. The commemorative arches in the centre of the photograph were illuminated at night in a display that must’ve been particularly spectacular for the time.
The details in these photographs are fantastic, people wearing their Sunday best, the tramlines overhead, the banner in the background reads ‘Peace by the might of right’, the little girl in the foreground with Union Jack over her shoulder.
If you look closely in the upper left of this image you can see two young men setting up a couple of chairs on the fire escape for what looks to be the best seat in the house.
The last collection of images I want to share are a series of candid snaps from the celebrations in Temuka – a small town on the Canterbury Plains.
Here mounted troops ride through the decorative arch. So many of the rural lads had opted to put their horse-riding skills to use by joining the Mounted Rifles. They served without their mounts at Gallipoli, but rode them through Palestine.
I really love this last snapshot of locals from Temuka, a small Canterbury town about as far away as you can get from Sarajevo, Gallipoli or France, celebrating the end of a conflict that took such a toll on communities like theirs. The joy on the faces in the back of the wagon is real though. At long last the war was over.
Five years ago I wrote this blog post about a fancy dress ball held in Ashburton for the Fairfield Freezing Works – held the same week that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the countdown to world war began – one of the last moments of peace in this small community before the lives of so many were shattered. So it seems appropriate that this post commemorating the peace celebrations should end in another rural Canterbury town, less than 60 kilometers from where that fancy dress ball was held. So much had happened in those five years – and nothing would ever quite be the same.
Sadly this wouldn’t be the last war either. Young lads from towns like Temuka would again join up to fight, although not on horseback this time. Some of the young boys who clambered over the fake tank in Masterton likely served in the Second World War too. The promise of peace hadn’t lasted as long as most had hoped.
The HMS New Zealand – the real one, not the Masterton parade float – visited our shores again the month after the peace celebrations, this time as flagship for Admiral Jellicoe on a tour that had strategic ambitions but was pretty much a victory lap of the dominions. The battlecruiser was scrapped just three years later in 1922. New Zealand finished paying for her construction twenty-two years later in 1944. Ouch. The United Service Hotel in Christchurch, where the cheeky lads once climbed up the fire escape for their vantage spot, was demolished in 1990. The cathedral still stands, sort of, largely in ruins after the 2011 earthquake.
Nine years after the peace celebrations there was another much smaller celebration in Masterton, not one for the history books but of personal importance – my great grandparents welcomed a new addition to the family – my grandfather. It’s neat to look through these old photos and get a small glimpse of the place and time that he was born into. I hope others find these snapshots interesting as well.
This is a good time to acknowledge all the work that so many people and organisations have put into commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Here in New Zealand the WW100 team have deactivated their social media accounts and archived their website after years of diligent work supervising and encouraging commemorations and discussions. I’m sad to see them go – they did a brilliant job. My library is bursting with a selection of some of the excellent publications that have been published on topics relating to the First World War. We’ve had some moving and thoughtful commemorations, one of my personal favourites was at the Dunedin railway station where so many young men left to not return. It’s been a personal journey for me as well, exploring social history through some of the items in my collection and collating the family records to tell the story of my great great uncle Tom Gillanders, who lost his life during the landings at Gallipoli. I consider myself very fortunate to have met so many knowledgeable and talented people during these last five years of commemorations and it has been such a privilege to have had the opportunity to collaborate with museums, publishers, archives, researchers and fellow storytellers.
So where to from here? Now that the First World War commemorations have come to a close? Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more focus given to New Zealand’s earlier history – I’ve been critical in the past of the lack of attention given to the 150th anniversaries of some of the key campaigns and dates of the New Zealand Wars – a missed opportunity and disappointing considering the amount of funding and effort that went into the First World War commemorations. The good news is that at long last this is a steady but sure resurgence of interest in this difficult but important chapter in New Zealand’s past. I hope that continues and I hope we’ll see more books, more documentaries and more exhibits that explore this.
I’m also extremely excited that we will soon be living in the twenties! How cool is that! I hope that some of the excellent work (and funding) that has gone into digitizing First World War collections – making them more accessible for research and reuse – will continue and perhaps more emphasis given to collections from other decades – the twenties included.
Apologies if this post was a little rushed – I only decided to throw this together at the last minute but felt it would be amiss to not share these snapshots a century after they were taken. I’ve been a little busy lately but there are more Edwardian glass plate negatives to be shared and plenty of other posts in the works. In the meantime I’m also sharing more photos, postcards and ephemera from my personal archive over on the History Geek Facebook page and also over on Twitter – so feel free to join me there as well if that sort of thing floats your battlecruiser.
P.S. WE GET TO LIVE IN THE TWENTIES!?!?!?!?!!
© Lemuel Lyes