Monday, November 5, 2012

The fate of yesterday's guns (part 1)

(Link to Part 2, regarding Albert Park.)

This particular line of enquiry kicked off earlier this year when I spotted the above article and image from the Auckland Sun newspaper, 23 April 1927. This was almost the last time these guns would attract public notice, regarding their state at the Auckland Domain. Six years later, it looks like they were gone.

There is a link, I think, with the proposed plan for a grand Auckland Harbour Board war memorial, a plan replaced by the move to build the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The harbourside memorial was to have incorporated three war trophy guns at the apexes of a grand triangle. From 1920, however, with the idea going nowhere, the guns needed to go somewhere.

War trophies finding their way to New Zealand's shores wasn't new in World War I. I'll talk about the Albert Park guns in part 2, one of which had originated (so it is said) from the battle of Waterloo. The first to arrive here in Auckland from "the war to end all wars" however, came in 1916.

Auckland Weekly News, 22 May 1902, AWNS-19020522-2-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library
The Monowai, which arrived here this afternoon, brought the first war trophies for Auckland, in the form of two ancient mortars forwarded from the New Zealand and Australian Division Ordnance Depot, No. 2 Outpost, Gallipoli, by Sergt A. Gilmour, Auckland Regiment, and five other members of the division. Within the barrel of one of the trophies was a note in which the senders expressed wish that the two mortars be erected in some suitable park—Auckland preferred. The Minister of Defence has forwarded them, as desired, to Auckland, and the Works Committee of the Auckland City Council is to decide where they shall be placed.
Auckland Star 10 March 1916

By 1922, the set of guns left at the Domain were attracting attention.

(To the Editor.) Sir, As a returned soldier and citizen, may I be allowed to call public attention to the contemptible position of the War Museum guns at present in the Domain. Formerly they were stacked in front and around the public latrines; they are now stacked like so much rubbish, and rotting, just behind. Evidently the former position was considered too good for them. The guns are mementos of the greatest and bloodiest war in history, and denote the sacrifice and effort of some 17,000 of New Zealand's dead, and probably twice that number of maimed and wounded. I am sure, if the spirits of those dead and mutilated forms could arise from their burial places they would ask: Is it possible that the suffering and agony and effort of we thousands, in advancing, yard by yard, and taking those guns while living, would be forgotten so quickly and our sacrifice treated with such soulless contempt just a few years after, by having them placed at the back of public latrines to rot? Our best efforts won them: do the living's best efforts watch over them and place them in a peaceful spot worthy of our sacrifice? Even now the green creepers planted around the latrines seem to be growing towards those guns as if in shame, trying to cover such an insult to the dead by spreading their green leaves peacefully over them. In respect to the dead, the maimed and the living of the war let them be removed or dumped Into the sea where they will not be an eyesore to those who did their best in defence of their King and land.— I am, etc., ONE OF THE BOYS.

Auckland Star 9 December 1922

Now that the war period is being rapidly left behind much of the sentiment that clung to the old German guns that were distributed as war trophies throughout this, and other Allied countries has disappeared. Indeed it has been openly stated that the returned soldiers, particularly in the Old Country, positively resent the placing of those armaments in the public places where they are a constant reminder of the horrors through which the men passed, and which they wish to forget.

In New Zealand this attitude, if it exists, has not been followed by the "direct action” experienced in Britain, where the field pieces have been un-mounted and thrown into the sea. At the same time, the trophies have lost much of their attraction and, unlike the ancient muzzle-loaders which are still interesting because they are long out of date, they look incongruous in our quiet parks, making one feel that "every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."

If one may judge by the kiddies’ pranks on the armaments in the Auckland Domain, these guns are proving useful toys to the youngsters. No one grudges the boys their run, but it would be well if the authorities, having placed the guns where they are easily accessible, made some attempt to reduce the grave risk of accident that exists. In Britain serious injuries have been caused to children by reason of the fact that certain parts of the guns were left movable, with the result that the limbs of the little ones were so badly hurt as to necessitate hospital treatment.

Boys will be boys, and it is not surprising that our local youngsters find great fun in "working” the guns for all they are worth. But danger lurks in the trail-guide, a heavy piece of metal and wood, which can be swung one way and another. With half a dozen lads, whose ages range from five to eight years, clustering all over the weapon, it would be the easiest thing possible for one of them to receive a blow from the guide which would crack his skull. This was the position near the band rotunda yesterday afternoon, when one or two of them had narrow escapes. But the only person who seemed to take any notice of the little fellows was a woman, who approached to tell them that it was Sunday!

Auckland Star 30 January 1923

(To the Editor)
Sir,—It would be a good idea if the memorial museum guns, which many of those dead took a part in capturing, when alive, with great mental and physical suffering, were removed from their present wretched position at the back of the public latrines in the Domain. It hurts the living and is an insult to the dead, and rather shames the great idea of the memorial which will cost some £200,000, and in which they will be placed. In the illustrated pamphlet issued in aid of subscriptions for the War Memorial it states they are awaiting accommodation. In the same pamphlet are the following two beautiful lines:

And as they save their all
So shall we freely give.
Let those responsible for their present undignified position "so freely give" those guns a decent ¼ -acre of land a few yards away from the public latrines.— I am, etc., LIVING.

Auckland Star 1 December 1923

Right down to 1927 at least, there were sporadic letters written to newspaper editors about the neglected Domain guns. Then, in February 1933, it appears these trophies from one World War -- were sold to scrap merchants gearing up for the second such war. 
The loading of 2000 tons of scrap iron on the Japanese freighter Ryoka Maru at the King's wharf to-day roused the curiosity of those who frequent the wharves. For the most part the miscellany of iron and steel that was swung from a line of railway wagons to the steamer's hold was comprised of worn-out railway stock, old steamer fittings, and relies of derelict motor cars. They formed an interesting link with an ever-changing mechanical age. What aroused most interest and comment was the loading of several guns, mounted on their carriages, and inquiry showed that they were trophies of the Great War, which had become an encumbrance to civic authorities, and had been sold as scrap iron locally and were now being dispatched to one of Britain's allies in the Great War to be melted down with the other junk for commercial purposes. Nine of these guns were, until recently, housed in the Domain, but as the City Council could not find any other public bodies or school committees which desired them they were disposed of as scrap iron ...

The sale of these guns affords an occasion for reflection on the change in public sentiment towards war trophies. Brought to the Dominion at considerable cost to the Government, the trophies were distributed among local and public bodies. At that time they were keenly sought, and it was asserted that, mounted in public places, they would be an inspiration to future generations, and a reminder of the gallant sacrifices that were made by the NZEF. Now, in the public parks of the Dominion, they are frequently an eyesore. Some of them have been rusting away, and have become an encumbrance to some of the bodies entrusted with their keeping ...the Mayor, Mr G W Hutchison, mentioned this morning that he shared that outlook. He stressed the fact that the sale of the guns that had been stored in the Domain had only been decided upon after a vain effort to find an appropriate resting place for them.
Auckland Star 23 February 1933

The Japanese reassured the NZ Government and the public that the scrap metal bought from New Zealand would simply be used for reinforced concrete (Star, 29 September 1933). Their campaign in China had just begun -- few in the West, it seemed, thought that Japan would ever use metal from Australia, New Zealand and America for another Great War.

A vigorous denial of the suggestion that Japan is buying scrap metal in New Zealand for use in armaments was made by Captain S Sayeki, of the ship Mataram. He said that the suggestion was unfair to his country. "Guns and warships, what for?" he asked. "Japan does not want war, although many people seem to think she does. We depend on industry for our living. We want to manufacture for ourselves and for export and we are prepared to import wool, cotton, and other things we have not got. We want to live by industry, not by fighting," he reiterated. 
Evening Post 16 May 1935

In October 1937, the Government barred the export of all scrap metal, a move which somewhat offended the Japanese, but, so Michael Savage assured, was one applied to all nations, and aimed at bolstering up a domestic scrap metal market (Evening Post, 14 October 1937). It appears that we were the only one, out of the three countries of Australia, NZ and the US, to ban supplies of scrap metal to Japan before World War II broke out in earnest in 1939.

How much of the metal we sold to Japan before 1937 later came back to litter the Pacific Islands and the ocean during the war will probably never be known. Some of that metal -- may well have been from some neglected guns once on the Auckland Domain.


  1. Australia did better than send scrap metal to Japan pre WWII. We sent 'pig iron', whatever that is. Well, not purified iron, it seems.

  2. While historically it's a "WTF??" thing to our eyes today, back then it was economics. I read somewhere that before World War I, the main country buying scrap metal was -- Germany. Which was outbid by Japan in the scrap metal market between the wars. The pig iron, along with the scrap metal, would have been just as useful to Japanese manufacturing plants. In America, the Chinese living there picketed and protested, opposed to the trade, all to no avail.

  3. Lisa fantastic post!
    I'll talk to the history curator at work about the guns. See what i can did up. This is sort of in my area of care now also at the museum. Fascinating!


  4. Thanks, Sandy. I did pop into the library there to see if there was anything -- couldn't find any info. Whatever you turn up would be greatly appreciated.

    Next part's coming, on the Albert Park guns.