The First World War (1914–1918) was one of the most significant events of the 20th century, and had a deep and lingering impact on New Zealand. Just over 100,000 New Zealand troops served overseas, from a population of barely one million. Of those, more than 18,000 died and over 40,000 were wounded. Most were young men, and nearly one in five who served did not return.
But the events of 1914–1918 affected more than those who served overseas — they touched nearly every New Zealand family, every community, school, workplace and club or group. One indication of how wide-reaching this impact was is how many New Zealand communities, large or small, have a memorial marking the First World War.
The growing attendance at Anzac Day ceremonies in New Zealand, and the steady increase in visitors to battlefields in Turkey and Europe, demonstrate a continuing interest in the significance of this period. The New Zealand Government has developed WW100, a programme to mark the First World War centenary from 2014 to 2018.
WW100 is a shared identity for First World War centenary projects and activities, from official ceremonies to community initiatives. The WW100 symbol is designed to be used widely to identify New Zealand centenary activities and projects (though you have to first register to use it, as the Clan Matheson Society New Zealand branch has done).
WW100 offers every New Zealander the chance to find out what their First World War story is. Whether you reflect on the nature of war, remember family members who served, visit a memorial, or think about the history of your street name or events long ago, it’s an opportunity to better understand our past — and how it still shapes us today. For recent immigrants it’s a chance to find out more about your new home and its history.
The centenary commemorations will honour the service and sacrifice of those who fought, but will also tell the stories of the great majority of people who remained at home. With a generation of men overseas, women took on new roles that began to change our workforce and society. At a time of intense pressure to conform, the courage of those who opposed the war — including conscientious objectors —- must also be acknowledged.
Finding out more about those who served is a common activity. What stories can you write of how your family or your community was involved? According to a recent survey 40% of New Zealanders know of a close relative who served in the First World War, such as a grandfather or great-uncle or one generation earlier (great-grandfather or great-great uncle). Some 80% of those want to know more about their family’s involvement in the war.
Now is a good time to start finding out about your family’s involvement in the First World War. The WW100 website has a useful guide to websites and other sources to get you started.