Last weekend I visited Sir Peter Jackson’s giant diorama of New Zealand’s attack on Chunuk Bair at the height of the Gallipoli campaign in August 1915. Giant? You betcha. With 5000 custom-posed 54-mm figures, individually painted by volunteer wargamers from around New Zealand, the only word is wow! Here are my photos.
The whole thing was assembled by Weta Workshop. The project was overseen by a former head of the Defence Force Lt-Gen Rhys Jones. The models, made for the project by Perry Miniatures, include special custom figures – William Malone, commanding the New Zealand forces atop the hill, is recognisable. So too are some of the artists who contributed. Blogging friend Roly Hermans – ‘Arteis’ – is one of them.
So for me there was a good deal of anticipation – but my wife and I missed the opening by a day when we first visited Jackson’s First World War exhibition, and it was only last weekend we finally got to see it.
To say I was blown away is an understatement. The hills of Chunuk Bair – an exact replica of the real terrain – stretched out before me in 1/32 scale, studded with foliage and people. The model was enormous. I scrabbled to re-set my camera. What particularly blew me away was the attention to detail – including no-holds-barred representations of casualties. Woah!
The battle for Chunuk Bair has long been considered New Zealand’s defining moment – when we ‘came of age’ as a nation. As a historian I dispute that those of the day saw it that way immediately – it emerged afterwards. But that’s not to dispute its validity. The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, in part on the back of Maurice Shadbolt’s play ‘Once On Chunuk Bair’, which rehabilitated the image of Malone; but also buoyed by New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as a proper nation on the world stage – rather than a dependent appendage of Britain.
Chunuk Bair was the main effort to break out of the lodgement above Anzac Cove and reach the forts on the far side of the Gallipoli peninsula – the original first-day objective of the landings back in April 1915. It failed, though only just. At the time, Malone became scapegoat – and the near-miss aspects of the battle fed into the deep national inferiority complex of the day (‘most dutiful of Britain’s children’ rather than ‘confident emerging nation’), creating a mythology of New Zealand – especially militarily – as a nation of also-rans.
A friend of mine, Chris Pugsley, subsequently dislodged that idea altogether in his book Gallipoli (Reed 1985) – which remains in print today and where he defined not just a new view of New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign, but a new way of approaching military history.
I covered Gallipoli myself, later, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), which looked at the way the war experience destroyed innocence. And one of the vehicles for that, on Gallipoli, was Chunuk Bair. So it was doubly amazing for me to be able to look at this amazing diorama, and think back to the accounts I’d read of the time – the desperation, the heroism, the arguments, and the dangers of a battlefield that could be swept from end to end by machine gun fire.
Quite apart from the fact that we’ve now got this totally awesome model of it – right here in New Zealand.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015