Opinion: Reflections on Gallipoli


PoppyLike many New Zealanders I have visited the outstanding Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa.  I have also wandered around the War Memorial and park in what used to be Buckle Street.

The larger than life models in the Te Papa exhibition are certainly a great credit to the experts at Weta Workshops and they are interesting in that they represent real people – but it was the story itself I found gripping and it was very well told.

My overwhelming initial reaction to the exhibition was sadness – so much blood, pain and death for what was always likely to be a lost cause.   There is much talk of Gallipoli being a key part of the forging of nationhood for New Zealand. There is undoubtedly some truth in that but I think the price was too high and it smacks a little of trying to find some good in even the worst of events.   Basically Gallipoli and WWI decimated a whole generation of young men in New Zealand for little reason other than to satisfy the ambitions of the British.

For many if not most of the New Zealand contingent, it was a great adventure they were embarking on – that feeling probably lasted at most hours if not minutes after they hit the beach at Anzac Cove.  To their huge credit I think almost all of New Zealand contingent accepted that they had got more than they had bargained for and set out to make the best contribution they could. There are countless tales of bravery and stoicism in the face of overwhelming odds that are hugely to be admired.

Once the sadness has worn off I think the predominant emotion is anger – anger that the New Zealanders should be put in such a position, anger at the futility of the whole exercise (in the end there was no option other than evacuation leaving the Turks where they were to start with – in control of the peninsular), and anger at the arrogance and ineptitude of the British.

Until viewing the exhibition I had not fully appreciated that it was not the New Zealanders or Australians who lost Chunuk Bair – the high point of the campaign in more ways than one – but the ineptitude (or inexperience to be more forgiving) of the British and other troops sent to relieve the battle weary New Zealanders.  The relieving troops wilted in the face of the first Turkish push and Chunuk Bair was lost!

Who knows what would have happened if the relieving troops were made of sterner stuff – Chunuk Bair would perhaps have been successfully held, although I suspect that it would have eventually been lost anyway.  A pragmatic even cynical view of the British withdrawal is that it hastened the eventual evacuation and in doing so probably saved a significant numbers of lives on both sides.

One of the real “characters” of the New Zealand contingent was William Malone and he gives me mixed feelings.  Without doubt he was a brave man and an intelligent and inspiring leader. Much of the credit for initially taking Chunuk Bair goes to Malone and his insistence on a night assault carried out in deadly silence.  But he was also doing what he felt had been born for and had trained for. I think he fully expected to die on the field of battle and was unphased by that possibility – and indeed he did die. Tradition has it that Malone defied the British generals in insisting on a night time rather than a daylight attack.  But a recent newspaper article provides a strong argument that while Malone argued strongly with the British representative (who was lower in rank) he did not defy a direct order. And that makes sense, given that defiance to a more senior officer would have probably put Malone in front of a firing squad.

A final source of some anguish is that Gallipoli has to some extent overshadowed the contribution the New Zealand troops made on the Western Front – Flanders, Passchendaele and so on – those battles were just as bloody – in fact more lives were lost than at Gallipoli – and the New Zealand contribution helped to actually make a difference.  It contributed to the eventual stalemate of the armistice and the end of the war.

All of this and more is remembered each ANZAC Day.  The miracle in some ways is that ANZAC Day has grown in strength as time has passed, and seems to have particularly gripped the imagination of a younger generation.  The growing crowds at morning services attests to that. And I think enough had been written about the reality of Gallipoli to ensure that the remembrance is mature and not just superficial.  Long may that growth and realism continue.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.