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.
They 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.
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