In the Victoria University of Wellington Council Chamber, in the old Hunter Building, is a magnificent stained glass window. Unveiled on 18 April 1924, the window was the centrepiece of the new First World War memorial at Victoria College, as it was then known. On the walls and pillars surrounding the window are mounted brass plaques, bearing the names of those Victoria staff and students who served in the First World War, and those who died. The relatives of 'the fallen' were in attendance that April day in 1924, Good Friday, to join the university in paying respect to their kin.
The window was designed by a Dunedin based glass artist, Frederick Vincent Ellis, himself a First World War veteran from Yorkshire, who had emigrated to New Zealand after the war. The window features panes for all New Zealand’s main campaigns of the war, surrounding two central figures. One is a New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldier, wearing his distinctive lemon squeezer hat and holding a rifle with fixed bayonet. The other is English King Richard the Lionheart, famous for this role in the Third Crusade, crowned and raising his sword in the symbol of a crucifix. Both Richard and the New Zealand soldier wear capes and the Cross of Saint George, and the soldier also wears a mail coif under his hat, while his greatcoat hangs down below his knees to match the English king’s tabard. The message here is plain – the window equates New Zealand’s war with the Christian Crusades to the Middle East in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The Crusader associations don’t stop there. The campaigns commemorated across the top of the window are those in Palestine, Gallipoli and France, but there is also an equally sized pane representing the siege of Acre in the Third Crusade, on which an English knight rides to meet the mounted New Zealand soldiers on the opposite pane. The campaign in France is given no special prominence on the window over those in the Middle East (in Egypt, Sinai, Gallipoli and Palestine), even though it was New Zealand’s longest and costliest campaign of the war. In fact, one could argue that the Middle Eastern campaigns are more central to the window as these are the campaigns to which the crusader associations are closest.
Interestingly, a second window design was submitted to the university by Smith and Smith that featured France far more prominently. Its central figures were a helmeted New Zealand soldier showing a Western Front battlefield to the goddess Zealandia. However, this design was rejected by the university council. While it is unlikely that they rejected the design for focussing too much on the war in Europe, the council’s decision means that we are left with a memorial with an unusual amount of emphasis on the Middle East – a rarity for First World War memorials in New Zealand.
The crusader imagery is unsettling but has not - so far - sparked controversy that engulfed the Crusaders rugby team after the Christchurch terror attack in 2019. (https://www.newsroom.co.nz/podcast-the-detail/re-branding-the-crusaders) The university has been fortunate in this regard, as have other war memorials that reference crusading imagery. It is important to reflect, however, on the meanings of such war memorials and their images in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society of the 21st century.