How many Kiwis fought on Gallipoli? I think the answer’s an essay, not a number

It’s a century, this weekend, since New Zealand forces attacked Chunuk Bair as part of a failed effort to end the Gallipoli campaign. Curiously, we neither know exactly how many New Zealanders fought in that eight-month campaign – or how many became casualties.

The only word is wow... Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR...
Close-up of Sir Peter Jackson’s awesome Chunuk Bair diorama in 1/32 scale, which I took hand-held with my SLR.

That question has been exercising some of the key figures in New Zealand’s military-historical community in the past few weeks, all behind the scenes. Historiographical discussion is always useful because, if constructive, it can often tease out understanding in unexpected ways. I won’t detail all the emails, but the latest debate was triggered by an exhibition in New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, The Scale Of Our War  – built by Weta Workshop – which includes an infographic giving a figure of 93 percent for the New Zealand casualty rate during the eight-month Gallipoli campaign.

Queues waiting to get in to the 'Scale of our war' exhibition, April 2015.
Queues waiting to get in to the ‘Scale of our war’ exhibition, April 2015.

That figure derives from the usual numbers given for our participation – 8556 – against the casualty figure (wounds, sickness, death) of 7447. It works out at 87 percent on those numbers, from an iconoclastic foreword by General Sir Ian Hamilton to Fred Waite’s Gallipoli history of 1919. Other figures, added to it, give the 93 percent value.

The problem is that while First World War casualty rates were colossal, they usually weren’t that high. New Zealand’s average, across the whole span of the war, including the Western Front 1916-18, was 58 percent killed and wounded. And the tactical problems that provoked that rate – the supremacy of machine-gun-and-wire defence over infantry offence on a scale of battlefield defined by the range of those guns – were similar in all theatres where trench warfare occurred.

Australia’s equivalent rate in Gallipoli was 60 percent, the other nations less. So how did New Zealand, alone, end up with a higher rate at Gallipoli, where the tactics and technologies were the same, and where nobody else in that theatre suffered so heavily? Statistically, 87-93 percent is an outlier.

Over-sized figures inside the 'Scale of War' exhibition.
Over-sized figures inside the ‘Scale of War’ exhibition.

The historian behind this exhibition is a friend of mine – Christopher Pugsley. In my opinion he’s New Zealand’s top military historian – he’s defined and re-defined the field so completely that the rest of us follow in his wake. I’m aware of his reasoning, because he sent me the paper he wrote on it.

My own take is that while Hamilton’s number has been the officially accepted figure for decades, circumstantial evidence points to a higher participation rate. Efforts have been made to identify it. However, nailing that figure – and proving it – is fraught with complexity, because accurate data doesn’t really exist.

I can’t do more here than briefly summarise some of the issues – there’s more detail than I can discuss in a blog post, and what I’m focussing on here are the terms of debate.

Here's Colonel William Malone - custom-modelled - just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom...
Here’s Colonel William Malone in Sir Peter Jackson’s huge Chunuk Bair diorama – custom-modelled in 1/32 scale. Another hand-held closeup I took…

First port of call, as far as I am concerned, are Hamilton’s numbers. Historian David Green argues that they likely derived from figures originally collected for Waite’s book, adding the Main Body of the Expeditionary Force to others raised in Egypt for a total of 8556. Waite’s book contains an appendix showing those numbers, and states that these don’t include later reinforcements sent to Gallipoli. It’s a compelling argument, given that the numbers correlate. The missing empirical link is that Hamilton, by his own admission, hadn’t seen Waite’s book, and nobody’s found specific documents showing what he did see in order to get that number.

The other part of the 87-93% rate flows from the casualty figure. This, too, is uncertain, because some soldiers were withdrawn wounded, returned to Gallipoli and were then wounded again or killed – meaning they were listed twice (or more), inflating the casualty figures. Even at the time, officials doubted the accuracy of casualty data reaching the New Zealand Records office in Cairo, staffed with men from the 3rd Echelon. MP Heaton Rhodes discovered the point during an official visit to Egypt in November 1915, finding records were particularly bad for the first months of the operation. ‘Mistakes …must be attributed to the difficulty of obtaining accurate information from the units, the members of which were then fighting for their own lives. I am sure they did everything possible to report casualties correctly, but, mistakes were unavoidable owing to stress of action and the difficulties of communication…’

Can the potentially understated participation rates and overstated casualties be proven empirically? Therein is the problem.

Corporal Ben Draper, DCM. (Archives New Zealand).
Corporal Ben Draper, DCM. (Archives New Zealand).

We know that roughly 20,000 New Zealanders had been despatched to Egypt by late 1915. Their records are available. However, there are reasons why examining them won’t give definitive answers. Where a record shows despatch to Gallipoli it’s clear enough. But some records show despatch to Mudros (Moudros) – the usual assembly point and forward base for the campaign – but not Gallipoli. And yet we know that soldiers despatched to Mudros often ended up on Gallipoli without that being noted.

I have a family example: the record of my great uncle, Corporal Ben Draper, DCM, 11/1255 (1894-1982), shows he was posted to Mudros on 25 October 1915. Nothing is shown of a transfer to Gallipoli. However, I know my great uncle went to Gallipoli – not just because he said so – but because his record shows him reaching Alexandria from Anzac on 25 December 1915, meaning he was part of the evacuation at the end of the campaign. So either Uncle Ben teleported to Gallipoli from Mudros, or army book-keepers regarded them as effectively the same destination.

I suspect what we’re seeing is evidence of a subculture. Army officials didn’t keep records for history. They kept them for their own purposes. Mudros was one of the assembly areas, and it was almost (but not quite) axiomatic that a soldier sent there would end up in Gallipoli, so the final journey was often not listed. Soldiers wounded or taken ill at Anzac were often evacuated to Mudros – and that was shown in their casualty record – but if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be anything official to show they’d been on Gallipoli other than, maybe, the record showing their return to Egypt, typified by my great uncle’s papers.

But the application by period officials seems to vary, creating a level of doubt now.

What’s concerned me about the argument so far is that terms of debate have been framed within the parameters of ‘history’ as an analytical discipline within the humanities – a ‘soft’ study which lacks a methodology to properly understand and transcend numerical data limits. However, history is only one of the things I do, and I could see an obvious way of cheaply answering the problem via mathematical technique.

So the other week I caught up with New Zealand’s chief government historian, Neill Atkinson, who I’ve known professionally for some years, to discuss the issue. As I explained to Neill – why not try:

  1. A statistical analysis of a random sample of the 20,000 soldiers’ records, showing whereabouts between April and December 1915 and any casualty figures (if listed), correlated with location, taking special note of destination (Mudros or Anzac) and correlating that with any evidence that the soldier was, in fact, on Gallipoli even if they were sent to Mudros – as my great uncle’s record clearly shows. To be valid, this selection must be random, not taken from, e.g. a battalion for which complete records are available. Bayesian regression analysis applies.
  2. Analysis of numbers sent by New Zealand to Egypt or the Mediterranean theatre in 1914-15, giving baseline ranges for the potential total available for service in Gallipoli.
  3. A statistical analysis of New Zealand’s overall participation rate vs casualties for the whole of the First World War, compared against selected other nations (noting that most nations have variable records in this regard).
  4. Ethnographic search of randomly selected soldiers’ diaries and records from the whole of the NZEF, seeking comparative reference to excessive loss rates compared to other nations; or to the ‘safer’ environment of the Western Front compared to Gallipoli. A search should also be made for descriptions of troop levels left at base in Egypt, Zeitoun camp. Negative results are still positive for the purpose of this exercise.

This will still produce a range of figures, with defined uncertainties, but it will do so in a structured way. We need to accept that the answer may be ‘nobody knows’. In that case, it’s fair to state the range with the qualifier that the data is incomplete, to state the values of the uncertainties, and the logic around them. The answer, in short, is likely to be an essay rather than a number, with critical source evaluation and statistical analysis. But, philosophically, this is also a valid answer.

I will not, of course, be doing this work myself. I’ve long since ceased to seek or value status with the New Zealand academy. Nor do I seek it with New Zealand’s military-historical community, some of whom are good friends, but others of whom have behaved towards me in a way that has materially failed to earn my trust and respect. Besides, I’m busy with other things – not just my back-list re-release programme but also an upcoming hard sci-fi novella. And a book about the New Zealand soldier in the First World War 1914-18 – a novel. With zombies.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “How many Kiwis fought on Gallipoli? I think the answer’s an essay, not a number

  1. Please, Matthew, PLEASE tell me the zombie thing was a joke! Otherwise I’ll have to eat your brains😉

    Seriously, keep us informed about your SF novella! Any hint on plot and/or characters?

    1. Of course it’s serious! Military history is a very very very very serious field, especially for some of New Zealand’s taxpayer-funded academics who apparently regard the field as a territory they must defend. Some of these strangers have spent the last decade responding to my commercial work by presenting me as so incompetent you’d think I couldn’t sit the right way around on a toilet seat. They have then cowered behind silence when I’ve approached them. I can measure the cost to me in actual dollar terms, but what’s concerned me has always been the sheer gutlessness of their behaviour. Trust and respect are earned commodities. Being made the whipping boy for the insecurities of university academics and at least one career public servant, as my reward for trying to earn a commercial income on merit in a field where I pay for their competing interests through my taxes, doesn’t say much either for academic culture, or the calibre of people it seems to attract. But given that these people are so very very very serious about these things, I wouldn’t want them to think I was, you know, trying to mock them or anything, so I guess I have to be serious about writing a zombie novel in their personal territories…

      The novella’s happening! The publisher sent me some artwork this week which I’ll be sharing on this blog shortly. More soon, but as a teaser – and taking due note of the above points – my working logline was “hot lesbian science chicks take drugs to defeat alien slime monsters”. More soon.

  2. A huge task for someone to take on. Detailed records at embarkation/disembarkation would have been kept, its the military way, but on the draw down at the end of the war, many of the ledgers and documents would have just been dumped as unimportant by some some mid ranked staff officer.

    Your suspicion that it is a military subculture and that military officials didn’t keep records for history, that they kept them for their own purposes is quite correct, not just in the First World War but is something that prevails to the modern times. In my 29 year Military career I was involved in many unit/mission amalgamations, downsizes and closures, and witnessed, and was party to the destruction on many occasions of boxes upon boxes of documents, records, photos and memorabilia destroyed with little regard for their potential historic value to future historians, I don’t think it was a deliberate effort to erase the past, but at time and on the spot people just don’t know any better and there are often higher priority’s to attend to, rather than sorting through boxes and boxes of musty records.

    1. Thanks! Yes, this is the key thing – what we know about New Zealand’s military history is often defined by what is left, a record that is often randomly kept, and in unexpected ways. Actually, that’s true of all history. Where we are looking for the broad shapes and patterns, frequently the lack of fidelity in numeric or other data is not a mission-critical problem. But where specific data is sought – yes, absolutely that’s the difficulty. And few participants in events at any time have much regard for how ‘history’ will see them, because what counts, always, is the immediate problem and frameworks of thinking. These are what frame the way participants record things (‘the facts’). Historians, later, have to piece material together from partial evidence that – as we see with the Gallipoli numeric question – doesn’t even contain full data, and which was certainly never written to answer the sorts of questions asked from a later perspective.

  3. “Ethnographic search of randomly selected soldiers’ diaries and records”
    Unfortunately then you are sampling from the subset of participants who kept diaries or wrote letters that were then preserved. It may be reasonable to assume their experiences were representative of the whole, but is it subject to selection bias?

    1. Yes, that’s one of the major problems of ethnographic analysis – that side of the exercise will need to begin with a proper analysis of such parameters, so that proper measurement can be made of the uncertainties. Of course, the whole of history reflects similar selection bias, and the issue is not one that history-as-discipline has ever properly tackled. It’s endemic at ‘enthusiast’ level where the act of collecting and copying data from archives, without critical evaluation, apparently suffices. However, even academic methodology only rarely considers the self-selecting nature of this kind of source material.

      There was an attempt in the early 1980s to ‘harden’ New Zealand history by ignoring ethnographic data altogether and looking only at numbers. Unfortunately the historian doing it mistook technique for content; what emerged was an empty intellectual display of the kind that the academy use to assert status over each other, but where there was a complete disconnect from any sort of reason, sense or logic in terms of the conclusions. Unfortunately, the ‘intellectual self-gratification’ aspects gave the assertions credibility to the historical community, with the result that, once this guy had revealed his ‘hardened history’ to his colleagues, there was a serious debate about the conclusions and nobody appeared to notice how fundamentally absurd they actually were.

  4. Very interesting post! It is intriguing to think that despite the Gallipoli campaign being such an iconic part of our history we can’t be sure how many New Zealanders were there. Or exactly what the casualty rate was.

    Taking into account the issues you raise regarding inconsistencies in military files – do you think that this is something that a methodical study of the individual records could help resolve? Or are the records simply too unreliable?

    Also I wonder if one day this might be the kind of problem that could be crowdsourced. Not just the study of the individual records, but also the collation of other references to an individual’s service that might be able to confirm if they were at Gallipoli or not. E.g.: Mentions of military service in letters, diaries, newspapers or oral histories.

    1. The records are definitely too unreliable to come up with a single final answer – though since I posted this, more behind-the-scenes emails have revealed another store of documents in Auckland. I think the main problem was that the people at the time were on a learning curve in terms of keeping records to the unprecedented volume required of our first expeditionary force. I’ll find out soon whether MCH are doing anything. Crowd-sourcing would certainly solve issues with spending public money on what remains a fascinating question – but one that, in the greater scheme of things, adds to the existing understanding.

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