Remembering Gallipoli and the Anzacs

This week New Zealand marks Anzac Day which, with Australia, is our day of memorial to the dead of all our wars.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli. Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

It is a solemn moment when both nations pause to remember those who died, remember the sacrifices made in the wars of the twentieth century, particularly, in order that we can have the world we know and enjoy today.

Yet in a way it’s odd that both nations mark all their wars not on 11 November, when the guns fell silent across the Western Front in 1918, but on the day when both Australia and New Zealand were part of a multi-national force invading Turkey.

It speaks a good deal of the mind-set of both Australasian Dominions in the second decade of the twentieth century. At the time the event – certainly for New Zealand, to a lesser extent for Australia – was entwined with the sense of doing duty for Empire. In New Zealand’s case that was part of a wider mind-set that had emerged since the 1890s in which we portrayed ourselves as Britain’s best and most dutiful child.

Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot.

What actually happened when war came was that Kiwis were openly ridiculed on London streets as over-enthusiastic jingoes. But this was less crucial than the moral effects back in New Zealand. There was a sense of excitement, of breathless expectation in early 1915 that the great game was afoot and, like a school ruby team, our ‘lads’ would best their ‘opponents’ in the field of battle and come home triumphant and awash with the glory they had earned for Empire – and for New Zealand’s place within it.

When Gallipoli failed to achieve results, the Allied forces departed with their metaphorical tails between their legs, and the challenge back in New Zealand was reconciling that defeat and an associated casualty list of over 2700 Kiwis alone with the expectation of victory as a device for realising our self-vision within Empire.

That answer emerged during the first Anzac day celebrations in 1916 when the tragedy was transmuted, in part by the Bishop of Auckland, into a moment of triumph, by playing up the sense of sacrifice and duty. New Zealand soldiers, despite terrible odds, had shone out ahead of all others in the Empire in this glorious moment. Apparently.

Certainly that idea was reflected in the ease with which the apparent participation figure of 8556 Kiwi soldiers was accepted in 1919. This number implied that the casualty rate of 7447 Kiwis during the campaign (dead, wounded and sick) topped 90 percent. This was an outlier that should have rung alarm bells – it was obviously divergent from the 60 percent rates suffered by the Australians in the exact same battlefield and conditions. However, it suited the mind set of the immediate post-First World War period to have been seen to make a greater sacrifice – there was a good deal of trans-Tasman rivalry in the early 1920s, revising overall wartime figures, to show that New Zealand had suffered more. And so this figure was taken as credible, then became dogma. And it appeared to prove the legend that New Zealand had out-performed the rest of Britain’s children.

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This just wasn’t so, as a 2015 academic debate between the nation’s leading military historians – in which I took part – and subsequent 2015-16 historical analysis by the New Zealand Defence Force revealed. This report indicated that although records are incomplete, the likely number of Kiwis who participated in the Gallipoli campaign was likely over 17,000 and potentially close to the 20,500 soldiers despatched to Egypt by the end of 1915.  The issue here is the fact that this overstated casualty rate was so readily accepted in 1919 – and it is the fact of the acceptance that is historically important, because of what it reveals about the way society thought at the time.

For more on this issue and the ANZAC experience on Gallipoli, check out my book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front (Oratia, Auckland 2017).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018