It’s Anzac day, the day when Australia and New Zealand come together to remember those who died in our wars. And, for the first time since the practise began in New Zealand in 1916, there are no public gatherings, thanks to the pandemic lockdown. We will, of course, still remember.
The idea of commemorating the day of landing at Gallipoli, 25 April 1915, emerged almost spontaneously in early 1916 – and wrestled with the fact that what was meant to be New Zealand’s triumphant part in its duty to Empire had been a defeat, as I explained in my book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front (Oratia, 2017):
…the first official meeting to discuss the idea was convened by Wellington Mayor J. P. Luke in mid-March. Massey decided to order a half-holiday on the anniversary of the landings, gazetting the notice on 5 April. He wanted to make sure it was not a celebration: the loss to families of loved ones was raw, real and immediate. ‘The government is of the opinion,’ the notice insisted, ‘that the day should not be marked by the holding of sports or similar forms of entertainment.’ A few shops and businesses closed, and the celebrations held on 25 April were solemn, sober, evangelical, nationalistic, suffused in the sorrow of war. The nationalism was local: Massey’s government directed that the New Zealand Ensign should be flown on all public buildings.
That did not reduce the degree to which the defeat was subjected to intellectual sleight-of-hand, reconciling it with underlying pro-Imperial priorities. Addressing an audience in the Auckland Town Hall, Archbishop A. W. Averill insisted that ‘our boys’ had not ‘died in vain’ on Gallipoli. ‘They represented New Zealand’s sense of honour and gratitude . . . the worthiness of the nation to take its place in the great family of free nations in the Empire.’ It had, in short, been a form of validation within that framework. His words summed up the way the Gallipoli campaign had been socially transformed even in the few months since the withdrawal. Here was the first national meaning of the event, a way of assuaging tragedy with the thought that the Dominion was doing its part for Empire – a return to pre-war idealism. As has been argued, that theme was pursued through the rest of the war at popular level.
With hindsight it is easy enough to see how this happened. The unpalatable side of the campaign as an ignominious defeat that brought tragedy to many New Zealand households was buried by a reassertion of pre-war imagery – the same sense of evangelistic imperial patriotism that had led New Zealand to support the war in 1914, mixed and entwined with a renewed celebration of nationhood within the framework of Empire. That line – summarised by public commentators such as Averill – found fertile ground with a public who desperately sought answers and reasons. This combination of family scale, tragedy, defeat and imposed glory gave Gallipoli a social power across New Zealand that it might not otherwise have had, and goes a long way towards explaining how the campaign became so firmly entwined with early images of national identity. There was also a trans-Tasman theme; although commentaries focused on the New Zealand aspects there was a sense of shared fate with Australia.
The issue for many New Zealanders, however, was that while Gallipoli may have been a ticket to national self-worth in British and imperial eyes, the cost was high. Small rural communities – close-knit, familial – were riven by tragedy. Urban centres with their more de-personalised environments felt it less. But relations still clutched the telegrams from Allen, trembled as they pored over last letters, wept when comrades of their lost sons wrote expressing condolences.
So began a tradition that has become a part of New Zealand’s culture. For more, check out the book – click to buy.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020