The centenary of Chunuk Bair reminds us it’s time to re-think New Zealand’s history. Again.

Four generations have been born in the century – this weekend – since New Zealand forces struggled to the top of Chunuk Bair, then a bare mountain range in the centre of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Wright_Books2They had come there from the uttermost ends of the Earth – a symbol of the way in which industrial power revolutionised world transport. And they died there in another symbol of its power: the machine gun, high-explosive shell, and rifle bullets.

From our perspective, a century on, the two-day struggle for this barren peak, half a world away from home, was our national baptism of fire – the moment when New Zealand first stood as a nation on the world stage. Today it’s viewed as one of the key originating moments of our current sense of national identity.

At the time it wasn’t. Soldiers fought, then and for much of the rest of the war, for Empire. New Zealand was ‘our country’, but Britain was ‘our nation’. This sense of dual nationality framed our self-view for much of the rest of the twentieth century.

Our true sense of nationhood, I have always argued, did not emerge until the 1980s, bursting forth after gestating for a generation inside the prison of ‘fortress New Zealand’ with its enduring sense that Britain was somehow ‘home’, even for people who had never set foot there.

Close-up I took of  the diorama with the help of my SLR's fairly good zoom. Hand-held, ambient light.
Close-up I took of the diorama with the help of my SLR’s fairly good zoom. Hand-held, ambient light.

It was in this context that Chunuk Bair was reinvented – and the first reinvention came in fiction, Maurice Shadbolt’s seminal play Once On Chunuk Bair (1982). In this dramatic work he rehabilitated not just the image of William Malone – the man often blamed for New Zealand’s inability to hold the mountain against massive Turkish counter-attacks – but also re-framed the battle in context of the early 1980s, a time when New Zealand was finally realising that its self-view as a dual colony and small nation had long passed its use-by date.

Changing our view of history is often tricky, particularly when the difference between being hailed by New Zealand’s academic community as a ‘visionary’ and abused by them for being ‘wrong’ is usually a matter of which in-crowd the historian has favour with.

Shadbolt could do it because fiction is a vehicle for carrying more truth – through metaphor and other devices – than reality; but it is also a plausibly deniable truth as far as the academy is concerned.

His re-casting fitted the emerging self-image of an independent New Zealand well, paving the way for further reinvention that largely remains the way we see that battle today.

It’s not surprising. History isn’t ever about the past. It’s about today – about understanding where we’ve come from, and the journey from the past to the present. And as the present constantly changes – slipping, as the song says, into the future – so too does that window on the past. We constantly re-frame the way we see things.

Will our view of Chunuk Bair change again? Almost certainly. The early 1980s brought a flurry of new views about New Zealand’s history, ranging from foolishly ignorant assertions about the invention of trench warfare to complex intellectualised claims that colonial society lacked a society. Yesterday’s ‘revisionism’ has become today’s ‘orthodoxy’; and as time’s moved on it’s possible to see that view as a product of a time when New Zealand was finally shaking off the mind-set of being a British colony.

Perhaps it’s time to re-think that again. And the onus is on historians to lead the way. If they dare.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “The centenary of Chunuk Bair reminds us it’s time to re-think New Zealand’s history. Again.

  1. The view of English nationhood was very common in the Empire at the time. I’ve read at least one post Boer War publication, on the future of cavalry, which is actually confusing to read in a modern context as the English author treated Australian and New Zealand forces as very clearly English, and anticipated they would remain so. Loyalty toward the British Empire and hence England remained very clearly in mind for volunteers from English speaking Canada during the Great War, although many of them were in fact recent arrivals.

    For most of these various peoples, the Great War seems to have been a dividing line. After WWI Canadians were less likely to be so unquestioningly loyal to the Empire first, although they certainly weren’t disloyal. Canadian nationhood in some ways seems to have been formed in finality during the Great War, and that’s seems to be even more the case for Australians. I’ll confess ignorance as to New Zealand. Probably only in Sub Sahara Africa, did a sense of Englishness linger on in some areas until all the way after World War Two, but for different reasons.

    When we look back at the time, I’m not too sure that we don’t need to credit the views of the era, at least as to the people themselves. The Victorians had hammered out that view in a lot of ways and it colored the views of the English Empire and its residents, probably far more than it had for the residents of the British Isles in earlier eras. So, as nationhood is a real concept in the mind of the individual, it needs to be credited as to their motivations and views at the time.

    1. Yes. Historical events can only be judged by the values of their day – to judge past actions by today’s values misleads, because of the way society changes. New Zealand’s version of British Imperial ‘dual nationalism’ was extreme – we were known for our ‘boy scout’ enthusiasms and ridiculed by the rest for over-zealous jingoism. It took much of the twentieth century for it to wear off.

      1. I think that, from the outside, that view was more widespread than the individual nations might now perceive. That is, to New Zealanders, the New Zealand version seems extreme, but from the outside, it doesn’t look all that much different from that which existed in some portions of English speaking Canada, or amongst English colonist in Africa. In Australia it was also pretty pronounced, although a strong Irish minority tempered that to some extent there, as well of course to some extent in Ireland itself. Even at that you find Irish correspondents who later noted themselves as proudly Irish, but who wrote during World War One as being very much “British”, meaning sort of English.

        According to some, it was most pronounced in Rhodesia, which was “more English than the English”. A sense of Englishness continued there amongst the white population into the 1980s, which of course was aided by the fact that technically it remained an English colony, making its last few years particularly surreal.

          1. Would you say it boils down to the population being principally English by extraction, at that time, in comparison to Australia, which had a fair number of Irish immigrants (and of course a convict history), or Canada, with its large Irish and French population?

            I suspect the same would be true of Rhodesia, which apparently had a near fanatic response to World War One and World War Two, in comparison to South Africa, which with its large Afrikaner population was lukewarm on both.

            1. The issue was specifically cultural; the failure of the colonial dream. When the first generation of locally-born colonists grew to adulthood in the 1880s and 1890s, they hadn’t built the ‘bigger and better Britain’ their parents had imagined. One answer was to exalt Britain, ‘home’ to their parents, in ways that other British colonies also did – but not to the same extent as New Zealand did. The contrast with Australia particularly is clear. At the time, New Zealand was one of seven Australasian colonies, and the issue fed into the amalgamation of them into a unit; New Zealand, alone, didn’t join the Australian federation. The attitude on the other side of the Tasman was considerably more towards local nationalism than New Zealand, which then proceeded to try and become the ‘best of’ Britain’s children, at least in its own mind. Figures such as Richard Seddon (‘King Dick’) urged it along before the First World War, and the mind-set came out particularly in defence policy. Australia wanted to build local defence forces; New Zealand wanted to strengthen Britain. It also came out in New Zealand’s foot-dragging when it came to independence; we were among the last to take up the offer of becoming a Dominion, and among the last to gain full independence – by choice. To this day, the Queen of England is also the Queen of New Zealand, a subtly different position from the ‘head of state’ adopted by other former British colonies.

  2. We immigrated to NZ at the end of 1978, my Mum recalls being very surprised about people here in Christchurch calling England “home” when they had never been there. She found it very odd.

      1. I wonder if NZ’s small population, combined with its island isolation, created the strong sense of Englishness.

        That is, being small in relative numbers, it seems to me that this might create a sort of intellectual identification with the “mother country”. I’d guess that this view decreased after World War Two, when the British Empire declined, but I can particularly see why that might be true prior to 1945.

        1. There was a specific socio-cultural drive back to ‘Mother England’ from the 1890s which remained socially strong until 1984 – specifically – by which time it was past its use-by date. I’ve covered the story in some of my books – check out my Illustrated History of New Zealand (it’s on Kindle). Britain was deliberately shucking off its Empire during the mid-twentieth century, but New Zealand had to be kicked, screaming, out into the world. Even now, constitutionally, the Queen of Great Britain isn’t just the head of state by proxy, she’s legally also the Queen of New Zealand. There have been occasional calls to change that, but it hasn’t got very far.

          1. What happened in 1984?

            In retrospect, I think I can understand the attachment to the UK. And I can understand its expiration. Something lost and gained, I suppose, but it was probably somewhat difficult to have grown up in one era and then have experienced the next.

            1. There was a change of government. The incoming administration dismantled a whole raft of policies that had been in place, steadily increasing in complexity, since the late 1930s. Morectovthe point, it brokectge attitudes of the two wartime generations that were widely perceived as holding New Zealand back by that time. It was a radical shift and it brought with it a whole raft of pent up attitudes and behaviours that, in hindsight, were overblown. It has taken a generation to get things back into some sort of balance.

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