The Memorial Oaks
In 1911, North Otago had a population of 15,499. Of the estimated 2000 men who left North Otago to serve in this country’s armed forces during World War I, at least 300 did not return. Dozens of North Otago families, like other throughout New Zealand, mourned the loss of one, two or more young men. Sadly, this loss was to be compounded by further sacrifice in World War II.
In 1919, 400 oak trees were planted in North Otago, one for each of those who paid the supreme sacrifice. This would ensure both a living and impressive memorial. Each had a marker post and a bronze plaque, and in the country, a protective fence.
The trees were planted in the form of a wheel, the hub being in central Oamaru, and radiating out both North and South. In the country, the trees were planted on arterial roads at one-mile intervals, including State Highway 83 from Oamaru to Kurow. Where possible they were planted near the home of the soldier they commemorated.
While many of the trees flourished, many succumbed to drought, road works, or in some cases, neglect. Others were pruned severely if electricity lines were placed above the oaks.
In 1953, the Community Groves scheme began to replace lost trees on the state highways, and groves were planted in some towns. As the century wore on, deteriorating fences and marker posts resulted in many of the plaques being handed in to the North Otago Returned Services Association. But still, every Anzac* Day, the remaining bronze plaques would be polished and posies of flowers placed near them.
*Australian and New Zealand Army Corps
In 1991, it was decided to replace the plaques and wooden marker posts with white concrete posts with incised black lettering. The new posts would be more permanent, and would require less maintenance. To date 62 crosses have been replaced. Rob Douglas, grandson of Dr and Mrs A Douglas, who originally suggested the idea of the memorial oaks, is now responsible for the replacement programme.
The North Otago branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust overseas the maintenance of the memorials. The old plaques will be placed in the North Otago Archives. Wherever possible, if a tree must be replaced, seedlings grown from its own acorns will be used in the replanting. The committee would also like any anecdotes or information on the identity of the soldiers commemorated.
Thus, after over 80 years, this living memorial is being cherished by the North Otago community. The men are not forgotten. Their memory is literally implanted in the landscape of Oamaru and North Otago.
[Adapted from an article by Rodney Grater, Otago Daily Times, 20 April, 2001]