The centennial of World War One is coming up, and a full programme of national and local activities will mark it here in NZ. Archival materials are being digitised for easier access, memorial activities are planned, and new histories and resources are being developed.

In some ways the commemoration seems superfluous, given that WWI is already one of our most recalled historical events. Anzac Day (our annual day of remembrance for those who served in our wars) developed out of a WWI campaign, and the war remains at its heart: memorial services at Gallipoli are a centrepiece of the day and are covered as such in our media; red poppies are worn throughout the country; and national commemorations are held at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a monument built in Wellington in 2004 to hold the repatriated remains of a soldier killed on the Western Front.

It has also become established in our national mythology as the event that marked our nation’s ‘coming of age’, providing the catalyst for our realisation that we could and should step out from under Britain’s wing to make our own way in the world.

That’s not to say we necessarily know a lot about the war, just that it’s an ongoing presence – a story we go on telling ourselves. Key features of the current narrative suggest:

  • The war had no meaning. Its origins are incomprehensible today and served only the purposes of Empire.
  • Most of our troops participated either under false pretences (imagining it was going to be a heroic adventure rather than a bloody mess) or as a result of conscription, and were consequently victims of the machinery of war rather than fully consenting participants.
  • Given that the troops on the other side were in much the same situation, it’s difficult to conceive of them as an enemy – they seem now more like an opposing team. Our real foe was the British military who sacrificed New Zealand soldiers through their incompetence and for their own ends.
  • The war was such a huge and pointless waste that commemorating it can be given a pacifist frame. At the same time, this context of pointlessness makes the valour and suffering of participants all the more honourable and poignant.

I suspect that some elements of the story would have sat comfortably with those who lived through the war, and others might have come as a surprise. Then again, there’s a sense in which this is our war now. Everyone who took part in it is dead. We might honour them, but we don’t have to be accountable to the participants themselves for what we project on to it.

For all the talk about our ‘coming of age’, there’s something adolescent in the easiness of our narrative and the way it allows us to feel sad and sorry without requiring anything else of us. Each year, someone suggests in the media that Anzac Day should be our national day instead of Waitangi Day because it does a more effective job of bringing us together. Its focus on WWI means there’s nothing really controversial to trouble us, no grounds for substantial disagreement. The Treaty of Waitangi, on the other hand, demands complex thinking, feeling and negotiation in terms of our history, present and future; coming of age requires coming to terms with this.

All of this raises some interesting questions for the centenary. Will it add complexity to our current narrative, or will it keep us comfortably in familiar territory? What will it reveal to us about ourselves? What will it transform and how? Will we exhaust ourselves on WWI – and if so, what might we turn to next?