flowers on the tomb of the unknown warrior

Roses and poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior following the 70th Anniversary commemorations of the Battle of El Alamein on 23 October 2012.

Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, Manatū Taonga

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is New Zealand's foremost symbol of remembrance for all New Zealanders who did not make the journey home after serving their country overseas. It also serves as a focus of remembrance for the sacrifice made by all New Zealand servicemen and women in times of war.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior greets visitors as they climb the steps to the National War Memorial from the parade ground below.

The idea for the memorial

Nearly 30,000 New Zealand military personnel have died during wartime, and almost one third have no known grave.

On the second anniversary of Armistice Day, 11 November 1920, the remains of an unknown soldier were re-interred in Westminster Abbey as a memorial to members of the British Empire who died during the First World War.

A year later in New Zealand, William Jennings, the member of Parliament for Waitomo, asked Prime Minister William Massey whether Cabinet would consider ‘the advisability of bringing [home] the remains, preferably from Gallipoli, of one of our unknown boys.’ After some deliberation, Cabinet decided not to proceed.

The idea resurfaced again after the Second World War, and again in 1999. This time it gained the support of the government and in 2002 agreement was reached with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to repatriate the remains of a New Zealand soldier killed in the First World War.

It was decided that the National War Memorial was the most appropriate place for the tomb, and that the tomb should be outside, rather than within the Hall of Memories, to allow the greatest public access.

In 2004 the contract to design and construct the tomb was awarded to the Kingsley Baird design team of Wellington. In November 2004 ceremonies were held in France and New Zealand to repatriate and inter New Zealand’s Unknown Warrior.

Who was the Unknown Warrior?

The Unknown New Zealand Warrior lost his life in France, sometime between April 1916 and November 1918. He died on the Western Front, a vast arena of misery and suffering in which New Zealanders were killed in unprecedented numbers.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries dot the countryside of northern France. The Unknown New Zealand Warrior was buried at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval, the site of the Battle of the Somme. The warrior’s name, rank, race, religion and other details are unknown. His was one of many unidentified graves in the area. His simple white headstone carried the words ‘A New Zealand soldier of the Great War known unto God’.

Robert Ian (Bob) Jones, a veteran who served in the Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam campaigns carved the kauri casket which holds the Unknown Warrior. It is one of three caskets made, with one donated to the National Army Museum at Waiouru. Read more about the work undertaken by Bob Jones in creating these caskets here.

A guard of honour at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior during the 2017 Passchendaele centenary commemorations.

Credit: Photograph courtesy of  the New Zealand Defence Force.

The design of the tomb

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was designed by sculptor Kingsley Baird, and constructed in marble, granite, pounamu (greenstone) and bronze. It was inspired by the Southern Cross constellation, guiding the warrior home on his journey back to New Zealand.

The base of the tomb is black granite inlaid with light grey Tākaka marble crosses. The crosses represent the companions he leaves behind, who also died in service of their country, but they are also symbolic of a star-laden sky, signifying the distance he has travelled to foreign lands.

Engraved around the base of the tomb is text of a karanga (call of greeting), in both Māori and English, calling the warrior back to his homeland. A cloak of bronze, decorated with four inlaid pounamu crosses, alludes to the New Zealand flag.

The karanga

Te mamae nei a te pōuri nui
Tēnei ra e te tau
Aue hoki mai ra ki te kainga tūturu
E tatari atu nei ki a kou tou
Ngā tau roa
I ngaro atu ai te aroha
E ngau kino nei I ahau aue taukuri e

The great pain we feel
Is for you who were our future
Come back return home,
We have waited for you
Through the long years
You were away. Sorrow
Aches within me.

Further information

Updated on 17th August 2022