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History of the Christchurch Memorial RSA

The Start

The idea of forming associations of returned soldiers was probably first seriously discussed amongst the wounded of the Gallipoli Campaign in the hospitals of Cairo and aboard the ships which began to repatriate them back to New Zealand from July 1915.  The early returned soldiers found that they faced many problems.  By late 1915, throughout the country they were meeting to air their grievances and discussing the idea of forming returned soldier associations.

The honour of being the first centre to formally establish an exclusively returned soldiers’ association belongs to Christchurch.  After a preliminary meeting on 14 December 1915, the Christchurch Returned Soldiers’ Association came into existence on 22 December 1915.  In Christchurch RSA’s formation, and many other early RSAs, one figure stands out: Captain Donald Simson.  A veteran of the South African War, Simson had joined the British Section of the NZEF in Egypt and was wounded at Gallipoli in May 1915.  Upon his return to New Zealand on 15 July 1915, aboard the first ship carrying wounded back from Gallipoli, Simson took it upon himself to travel the country publicising the need for a returned soldiers’ movement and overseeing the establishment of several local associations.  It was Simson who presided over the meeting of Christchurch returned soldiers on 14 December 1915 which took the decision to form an association a week later.  His inspiration was acknowledged when he was made Honorary Life President of Christchurch RSA at that inaugural meeting.

The accounts of many early RSAs mention Simson’s public assurances to form a national association.  In a memorandum written in 1949, D.J.B. Seymour, an early member of Christchurch RSA and later NZRSA General Secretary (1917-20), recalled that Christchurch RSA decided to expedite matters and cabled Simson to convene a meeting of delegates in Wellington for late April.  He subsequently presided over the conference in Wellington on 28 April 1916 that established the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association (the original name of today’s Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association).  For his pivotal role in raising awareness throughout the country of the plight of returned soldiers and the need for a national association to espouse their demands, Simson is credited as the ‘founder of the RSA’.

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RSA Supports – From soldier to civilian

The problem of what to do with soldiers after wars is probably as old as wars themselves. The resettlement of soldiers involved in the First World War because of their numbers, required an effort unprecedented in New Zealand’s history.  The majority of returned soldiers found jobs themselves and their absorption into civilian life was comparatively simple and painless.  For a large numbers of returned soldiers, however, there were considerable difficulties to overcome: sick and wounded men had to recover their health; permanently disabled men had to be trained in new occupations; those who had apprenticeships or student training interrupted by the war required schemes; while for the majority of soldiers the war had postponed marriage and the setting up of a home.  All these problems were lumped together under the title ‘repatriation’, what after the Second World War would be more accurately described as rehabilitation.

By the early 1920s, and despite a recession, the great bulk of returned soldiers had been repatriated into society.  The government’s repatriation scheme had largely been a success and owed much to the pressure as well as assistance of the RSA.  The association had operated as an advocate for returned soldiers and war dependants.  The work of the RSA was not finished, however, as many returned soldiers would require assistance for many years to come, if not for the rest of their lives.  For a long time yet there would be a need for an association which not only provided material but social support for returned soldiers.  The latter need was provided within the confines of RSA clubs during the postwar period.

RSA Welcomes — ‘Down at the Club’

The RSA viewed clubs as an essential element for the repatriation of the returned soldier.  The culture of comradeship which had sustained soldiers through the ordeals of the war would now assist their repatriation into civilian society.  It was essentially a traditional male institution but with one considerable difference; the prerequisites for membership was not wealth, class, religious, or sporting allegiance but service for one’s country.  This extraordinary shared experience and the bond it engendered made the RSA a club like no other. 

During the immediate postwar years clubrooms went up throughout the country at a faster rate than war memorials.  If war memorials were to pay tribute to the supreme sacrifice, RSA clubrooms were to recognise the war effort of the returned soldier.  The public was supportive of the need for a place for returned soldiers to gather and relax.  Many of the fundraising campaigns for clubrooms were established by civic leaders in conjunction with the RSA while the support of patriotic societies resulting in very large donations.  In Christchurch, for example, the public subscription largely covered the cost of £13,000 of the new permanent clubrooms on the current site between Gloucester and Armagh Streets. 

The laying of the foundation stone was a red-letter day in the history of Christchurch RSA and one of considerable fanfare.  The ceremony in Christchurch on 6 September 1919 included the visiting naval hero Admiral Lord Jellicoe and a parade of his crew from HMS New Zealand, and thousands of returned soldiers watched by huge crowds which lined the route.  These days were important for raising the profile of the RSA and the clubroom fundraising appeals.  The clubrooms were eventually built.  This was a considerable accomplishment when the size and cost of a great number of these buildings is considered.  The opening of the Christchurch Returned Soldiers’ Club on 10 August 1921, and once again overseen by Admiral Lord Jellicoe now Governor-General of New Zealand, was a significant milestone.  The transfer of club buildings from citizens’ building committee to the RSA signalled the final retreat of citizens in support of the establishment of local associations.  The RSA would now stand on its own feet.

The importance of the RSA clubrooms was summed up by the then Christchurch RSA secretary Bill Leadley:

“The war had made a difference to the men.  They had learnt something of the true meaning of comradeship and brotherhood.  Friendship formed in the trenches would last a lifetime.  It was felt desirable to keep intact the bond of comradeship of those who were brothers in arms and who fought the battles of the Empire side by side.  This would provide a new and lasting basis of good citizenship.”

The club fostered a new social order based on principles of egalitarianism, self-sacrifice, compassion and comradeship.

RSA Remembers – ‘We will remember them’

While the primary objective of the RSA was the provision of material and moral support for returned soldiers and their dependants, another fundamental aspect of its work was the safeguarding of the memory of those who had not returned.  To fail to do so would, for the RSA would have amounted to the denigration of lost comrades and loved ones.  This role is most evident in the RSA’s campaign to have Anzac Day proclaimed a statutory holiday befitting its special status and achieved by 1922. The earliest minutes of the Christchurch RSA Executive record working with Council and community to deliver the inaugural Anzac Day service in 1916. Its concern with remembrance is also evident in its relationship with the focal point of Anzac Day ceremonies – the war memorial.

The RSA played a significant role in the construction of these permanent symbols of remembrance. The memorials to the dead of the Great War are one of the most common structures on the New Zealand landscape — sites of memory.  Such memorials revealed the desire within every community to remember their war dead.  With so many soldiers buried overseas, each memorial became a surrogate tombstone for the community’s grief.  The RSA played a significant role in the erection of memorials to the Great War throughout the country.

The early call by some local associations, such as Christchurch, were for soldiers’ clubs as the most appropriate memorial – a living memorial.  In their authoritative history of New Zealand war memorials, Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips outlined the process after the First World War by which the public preference for utilitarian memorials shifted in favour of ornamental memorials whose sole purpose was commemoration. The RSA fell in line and abandoned its call for a combined memorial soldiers’ club in favour of separate campaigns for soldiers’ clubs for the living and commemorative war memorials for the dead. In Christchurch, this resulted in the Bridge of Remembrance (1924) and Christchurch Citizens War Memorial (1937).

By 1920, the RSA was firmly entrenched in New Zealand society: the badge was already a familiar symbol while clubrooms were going up around the country.  It had largely achieved its main objective of providing for returned soldiers and their dependants.  It had also led the way on how best to remember the nation’s war dead.  In short, the RSA had assisted tens of thousands of returned men along the road from soldier to civilian and played a considerable role in the country’s return to normality in the aftermath of the Great War.


Looking Forward to 2015

Let’s now fast forward to the year 2015.  The Christchurch RSA clubrooms, still on their historic site, were devastated by the 2011 Earthquake. The RSA now has the opportunity, in a new age, to bring to life that vision of its founders to rebuild the Christchurch Memorial RSA as a living memorial for the whole community.

In this light the new Christchurch Memorial RSA building will be a shining example of the new vision of the RSA movement nationwide to transform itself from a ‘place old blokes disappear into’ to an organisation that stands for something and is seen to play a valuable role in society. Specifically, the future for the Christchurch Memorial RSA is at the heart of our community where we will honour and value service.  As a force for good, the Christchurch Memorial RSA will champion the Anzac spirit across all generations of New Zealanders.

The new Christchurch Memorial RSA building sees the story of Christchurch RSA come full circle; from being helped by the community to form in 1915 it now looks forward to welcomingsupporting and remembering with the community at the heart of Christchurch.

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