Mourning [a] son

Mourning [a] son

With both the 100-year anniversary of World War One and OUSA
Art Week in mind, Dr Sandy Callister – author of The Face of War – looks at the haunting realities of war for New Zealand communities and the importance of photography to the ritual of remembering.

Around 25,000 books and scholarly articles have been written on World War One. 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.

We sent 100,000 men, some nine per cent of the population, over 40 per cent 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.

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. It’s 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 12,000 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 2,721 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, 1,560 were killed. The New Zealanders’ participation in the Third Year’s 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 hopes that 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 10,000,000 combatants dead, he points out that the scale and magnitude of those who grieved is hard to imagine. Different but overlapping people mourned: frontline soldiers; 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.”

Mourning was further complicated by geography. 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 return to later. By the end of the war, some 16,697 New Zealanders were buried in foreign lands of which 5,325 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.

On 16 May 1917 the Illustrated Otago Witness published the first in an intermittent series of photographs, which had as their subject matter families with sons overseas. In one image there are three people in front of a large two-storied house; in the other are two people in front of a small cottage. The captions tell us that both homes were located at Momona on the Taieri Plains, Otago. For the readers, the people in these photos would be identifiable figures. If the features of the humans remain indistinct in the two photos what we see in sharp focus is the difference in socio-economic status of the two families as reflected in the contrasting homes. The title uniting both images tells us that these are: “Typical Otago homes which some of our boys have left for King and Empire.” What we are being directed to see is that in spite of the perceived differences, there is “equality of sacrifice.”

These images unite an audience in a shared imagining of absent sons. Ostensibly straightforward representations of waiting families, the photographs may well have conveyed a melancholy mood and an oppressive unease. The odds were against all of the sons returning unscathed. Not even the most optimistic reporting could hide the fact that the New Zealand casualty lists grew at an appalling rate on the Western Front from late 1916. It is the spectre of death which haunts these images and lends them their near palpable sense of foreboding. Thus in re-reading these representations we need to be mindful of the underlying cultural values that are being reaffirmed in the face of death.

On August 29, 1917 the Otago Witness reproduced two lantern slide images for its readers. Both images had been taken on a cold winter’s day in Dunedin outside the First Church of Otago. The two groups of women, young children and babies were suitably clad to ward off the chill, but more important, they had dressed with a certain audience in mind. The array of stylish hats, many of them plumed, the brooches at their necks, the fur trim on their collars and cuffs, the occasional muff and flower corsage all suggest that each of these women had given some thought to how she might present herself to the camera. Everyone wanted to make a good impression. Still, regardless of intentions, there is a certain raggedness in the overall composition of both images. Inevitably, someone looked away just as the shutter clicked, heads were tilted at various angles and one or two looked apprehensive. There were few smiles. Individuals appeared unsure about how to pose for the camera. Perhaps the photographer was intent on processing as many group shots as possible or perhaps his instructions were unclear. It is even possible that an event such as this was sufficiently unusual to provoke nervousness on the part of the participants as to how, exactly, they wished to be seen.

The caption published below the images reads: Groups of Mothers and Relatives of Otago Boys on Active Service – Reproduced from photographs taken by the Dunedin Photographic Society, with the object of providing Mr. Hughes, of the Y.M.C.A. with lantern slides for exhibition in the Y.M.C.A. hutments behind the firing line on the Western Front.

These photographs were published in the Otago Witness on 29 August 1917. They were the last of a series of 26 group photographs of women and children appearing in the paper in May and June of that year. They have a common subject matter – women and children – although one also notes prams, dogs and the occasional male presence, presumably a father. These photographs belong to an even larger body of images, some 200 lantern slides of approximately 300 soldiers’ mothers and other near relatives, destined to be viewed by a very different audience: Otago soldiers serving on the Western Front. Different, yes; but certainly not unknown to the women who gaze out from the photographs. For these photographs framed three interrelated communities: “Mothers and Relatives,” “Boys on Active Service” and the readers of the Otago Witness. No doubt the readers of the Witness could have named individual women and made further connections. They could have distinguished between the women who were married to soldiers and those who had mothered soldiers; pointed out which amongst them had been long separated from their husbands, recently parted, or had more than one soldier son; perhaps even noted mothers who had lost sons already. Perhaps, too, there were other bonds that linked these women.

A great deal of effort went into the project. The selection of mothers, wives and young children, largely to the exclusion of adult males, suggests that these photographs were intended for three distinct audiences. The women assembled for the photographs would have contemplated the circumstances in which their sons and loved ones might see the images; in turn the representations of these women must have evoked a complex set of responses for the soldier audience; and, finally, the caption of the photograph reproduced in the Witness asked readers to reflect on links between the soldiers and the women, thus extending out still further the community remembrance. The Dunedin Photographic Society’s lantern slides have not been transmitted to the future; in this sense, these slides have left less of a footprint in our history than some of the humblest photographs. The slides belong, along with the amputee and the facially wounded medical archive photographs, to a body of images that has been omitted from the iconography of this war. The project’s scale, its rarity and subject matter, mark its importance and challenge our conventional, battle-centred iconography of the Great War.

Some nine decades later, the lantern slide project which had attempted to give both concrete form and centrality of place to “Groups of Mothers and Relatives of Otago Boys on Active Service,” has disappeared from view. For a contemporary audience, lantern slides as a photographic practice represent an unknown archive, one rarely exposed to view, whose emotional resonance is extraordinarily difficult to recapture. Partly this is because they are “intractable objects,” neither easy to view nor display. The historical dilemma is almost insuperable: the poignant example of the Dunedin lantern slides reminds us that as one technology of seeing is supplanted by another, an entire field of vision and the world it attempted to frame invariably disappears from view. We have only the reproduced newspaper images as the trace.

The majority of these groups were posed outside churches. In these two images the background details indicate these women were parishioners of First Church and that these images were taken after the Sunday morning services. The wider First Church community consisted of some 500 families, from which 222 men and three nurses took part in the war. At the moment in time when the First Church women posed for their photographs they could not know that six of “their boys” would be killed at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917, and another would die soon after of the wounds sustained in the same battle. At the war’s end, five wives and 41 mothers would have lost their “Otago Boys.”

Three years later, just metres away from where these women stood, the names of the dead would appear on the honour boards which still adorn the east wall of the church. None of these people knew what we now know, that Passchendaele would claim the all-time record for the most New Zealanders killed on a single day, and that the war would not be over until the end of 1918. On 29 August 1917, the photographs were published as part of an ambitious attempt to serve the living, not the soon-to-mourn.

In the immediate aftermath of the war the Illustrated Otago Witness published photographs of Otago and Southland communities unveiling ANZAC memorials. The photographs of the unveiling ceremonies at Waiwera, Quarry Hills and Waikawa show women, but in these photographs they are a presence in a larger group commemorating the loss of specific communities. The Lovell’s Flat unveiling is exceptional in that the image shows two women alongside the memorial and the caption informs the readers that the woman on the extreme right, Mrs. Tweed, unveiled the memorial, having lost two sons in the war. By 1923, the two women depicted at the ANZAC ceremony at the Cenotaph in Wellington have, in the captioning, become typecast as those that grieve. The caption reads: “Tribute from the Mother of an ANZAC and from a sister, widow, or perhaps a sweetheart (?).” The women are relegated to smaller parts in a larger panorama. All too soon they disappear completely from the media coverage recording unveiling ceremonies and ANZAC commemorations.

Death’s attendant meanings are constructed by a culture. All these images allow us to see how death, mourning and grief were negotiated by a particular cultural group in a historical moment. Thus these representations help us see how a community saw its place in history. We get a glimpse of overlapping communities: farming families of the Taieri Plains; the readers of the Illustrated Otago News; the member of First Church; the people of Tapanui. Perhaps the Great War memorials will be subject to ruin and decay. Nonetheless, they will not be forgotten. What is forgotten is the way in which a body of photographs published during and immediately after the Great War played a complex role in the public and private representation of death and loss.
This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2014.
Posted 10:15pm Sunday 27th July 2014 by Dr Sandy Callister.