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SocietyMay 14, 2019

WW100 was great at raising WWI awareness. Understanding? Not so much

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The WW100 centenary programme was exceedingly effective at raising awareness of New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War. But did it leave any lasting impression?

At the end of April the commemorative body WW100 released its final report on New Zealand’s First World War centenary programme. Alongside the report were the results of a 2018 Colmar Brunton survey on the impact of the commemorations. The report some interesting questions. How successful was WW100 in achieving its goals for the centenary? And what effect has the centenary had on our long-standing national myths around the First World War?

Established in 2012 as a partnership between several government organisations, WW100 was designed as an umbrella under which New Zealand’s First World War centenary commemorations could be organised. In its own words, WW100 provided “a shared identity for all New Zealand’s First World War centenary projects, from the official national ceremonies and legacy initiatives to community and personal endeavours”. Running for five years, the WW100 programme’s “mission was to foster appreciation and remembrance of how the First World War affected our nation and its place in the world”. In attempting to achieve this, WW100’s primary goals were commemorating New Zealand service and sacrifice in the First World War and deepening understanding of the First World War in New Zealand.

Upon releasing its report and the results of the 2018 Colmar Brunton survey, WW100 has naturally focused on the positive takeaways. A list of key findings on the WW100 website emphasises, among other things, that 93% of New Zealanders aged 15 and up engaged with the centenary programme in some way; 83% say they have at least a basic understanding of New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War; 89% feel the centenary commemorations were important; and 82% believe the First World War was relevant in shaping our national identity. Colmar Brunton’s overall conclusion following their survey was that “New Zealanders’ knowledge of the First World War has improved over the commemorative period”.

It is true that since Colmar Brunton conducted its first survey into understanding of the First World War in New Zealand in 2012 the numbers have gone up. The 83% that claim at least a basic understanding of New Zealand’s war has gone up from 77% in 2012; and 39% stated in 2018 that they had more than a basic understanding, up from 31% in 2012.

These headline figures are all well and good, but when you go deeper and assess the full range of results from the 2018 survey the picture starts to become more problematic. While the numbers quoted might show that awareness of the First World War has increased in New Zealand, how deep does this awareness go? And has actual understanding of New Zealand’s role in the conflict increased over the course of the centenary?

In a question that asked respondents what first came to their mind when they heard the words ‘First World War’, the most common responses in both 2012 and 2018 were ‘Death’, ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Anzac’. Other terms such as ‘tragedy’, ‘waste’, ‘horror’ and ‘stupidity’ were also common responses. While references to the Western Front and battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele increased marginally in 2018, they were still nowhere near as widespread as references to Gallipoli or Anzac, and in Colmar Brunton’s graphic of results for this question there were no references at all to the campaign in the Middle East. Indeed, more respondents had ‘Hitler’ come to mind, in both 2012 and 2018, than the Middle Eastern campaign – New Zealand’s longest of the entire war.

New Zealand’s costliest campaign of the war was on the Western Front, yet the percentage of those respondents who believe Gallipoli had the highest death toll actually went up from 52% in 2012 to 57% in 2018. Although the number who know more lives were lost on the Western Front also went up nine percentage points, it still only represented 26% of the total – less than half the Gallipoli figure. This fixation on Gallipoli is not surprising when you look at the ways New Zealanders engaged with the centenary programme. According to the 2018 survey, by far the most popular WW100 projects in terms of awareness and attendance were the two Wellington-based exhibitions – Gallipoli: The Scale of our War at Te Papa and the Great War Exhibition at Pukeahu National War Memorial created by Sir Peter Jackson. The first of these exhibitions focuses almost solely on the Gallipoli campaign, and the second, although it covers a broader range of subjects, has a large stand-alone gallery for Gallipoli – the only campaign to receive this treatment.

Given one of the aims of the centenary programme was “to increase knowledge beyond the best-known facts, [and] to challenge some of the myths and bring a greater range of stories to light”, the above responses seem to call into question the extent  to which that goal was achieved.

Perhaps most telling are the responses Colmar Brunton received when it asked people to further analyse their answers to the main survey questions. WW100 is right to be proud of the fact 93% of respondents engaged with the centenary in some way, but when asked which aspects of their engagement left a lasting impression the most common response (44%) was ‘don’t know’. ‘Don’t know’ was also the most common response (49%) to the question of how the centenary commemorations evoked thoughts about the past, present or future. Of the 82% who felt the First World War was important in shaping New Zealand’s national identity, 26% did not know why, the second most common response behind the broad category “helped shape who we are as people, and how we think about ourselves” (27%).

What am I trying to say here? I do not want it to seem like I am dismissing the centenary programme out of hand. I’m not saying it was a waste of time and achieved nothing. As the headline figures point out, WW100 was very successful in engaging New Zealanders with the centenary and raising awareness of the First World War. But engagement and awareness are not the same as understanding. WW100 and Colmar Brunton’s statement that understanding of the war has improved in New Zealand over the centenary does not seem, to me at least, to be borne out in responses to the 2018 survey. As a nation, we still place disproportionate emphasis on the Gallipoli campaign, to the extent it perpetuates misunderstanding about the rest of New Zealand’s involvement in the war. We still fall back on generalised tropes of ‘suffering’ and ‘tragedy’ to describe the war, and when asked to go deeper into our thoughts about the war many of us are unsure.

Should WW100 feel bad about this? Probably not – after all, national myths are difficult to dispel, and a large nationwide commemoration programme is probably not the most effective way to educate people on the nuances and complexities of the First World War. However, what the 2018 survey results show us is how powerful those national myths of the First World War are and how, a century after the end of the war, they still have a strong hold on our understanding of history.

The quotes and figures in this article were drawn from WW100’s final report and the 2018 Colmar Brunton survey. The report, and the results of all the Colmar Brunton First World War surveys, can be accessed here.

Josh King is a postgraduate student in history at Victoria University of Wellington.

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