Remembering the whole of New Zealand’s First World War…

As we count down  to the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli – 25 April – we need to remember that New Zealand’s First World War was far larger than just that campaign.

The New Zealand memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Flanders. The wall behind lists the 1200 New Zealand officers and men who gave their lives from August 1917, at the battle of Broodsiende, through to October and the disaster of Passchendaele.

The New Zealand memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Flanders. The wall behind lists the 1200 New Zealand officers and men who gave their lives from August 1917, at the battle of Broodsiende, through to October and the disaster of Passchendaele.

Our soldiers fought from France to Gallipoli to Palestine – and this last campaign, in sharp contrast to the other two, was a fast-moving, far-reaching effort that was in many ways the antithesis of the trench warfare that has become such a symbol of the way we imagine the First World War. Wright_Western Front_200 pxThat’s not to diminish the importance of the trenches as the definition of the war for us. Our largest campaign was the Western Front, where the bulk of the 100,000-plus Kiwis who fought in the First World War were stationed. Memorials scattered across northern France and into Belgium mark the graves of the 12,483 New Zealanders killed in that campaign, between April 1916 when they arrived, and November 1918. We need to remember these brave soldiers too – as well as those who fought in Gallipoli, where 2,779 Kiwis died. I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Busting New Zealand’s Gallipoli myths

I am often surprised at the mythology swirling around Anzac Day, the day when Kiwis remember their dead of all wars. Unusually, the date – 25 April – commemorates the moment that Australia and New Zealand soldiers stormed ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula; an invasion.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

But outside historical circles, it seems, there are quite a few misconceptions about the whole thing – ranging from the popular idea that the campaign lasted just one day (it didn’t), to the notion that New Zealanders stormed ashore at dawn (they didn’t). So what really happened?

Myth 1. New Zealand forces came ashore at dawn.
The initial landings at what became known as ‘Anzac Cove’ were by Australian forces – specifically,  four battalions from 3 Brigade of 1 Australian Division. New Zealand units were waiting offshore but not scheduled to land for some hours. By the time they did land, Australian forces were already heavily engaged ashore.

Myth 2. The campaign lasted a day.
The Gallipoli campaign lasted from 25 April until 20 December 1915 – just on 8 months. But the Anzac contribution nearly did end on the first day. By the end of 25 April, none of the main objectives had been taken and the beach was under fire from Turkish artillery. Commanders ashore discussed withdrawal, but the Royal Navy couldn’t do it. And so they had to dig in.

So the struggle for the Gallipoli peninsula fell into the same deadlock that bedevilled the Western Front – a deadlock that reflected the way defence (machine gun, sandbag and wire) had overcome offence (infantry advance). Unlike the Western Front, Gallipoli wasn’t well equipped with artillery, which could be used as an equaliser. Naval forces offshore could offer heavy fire-support, but naval guns weren’t suited to ground bombardment.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxBritish officials kept hoping that a break-through might be possible; all the forces had to do was take the peninsula and, with it, the forts that were preventing minesweepers from clearing the Dardanelles and letting naval forces sail through to Constantinople.

Myth 3. Gallipoli was New Zealand’s main First World War campaign.
Some 7991 Kiwis became casualties at Gallipoli, including 2779 dead, but the eight month campaign was a mere aperitif for what followed; a move by the bulk of the New Zealand forces to the Western Front, where they were heavily engaged from May 1916 until November 1918. This was where most of New Zealand’s casualties of the First World War occurred, and the experience profoundly shaped the way the war was remembered.

If you want to learn more about that campaign, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Building up to the solemn moment of remembrance

There’s definitely a First World War buzz around New Zealand at the moment, as the days count down to the centenary of the landings on Gallipoli.

The Wellington cenotaph amidst its new plaza, 2015.

The Wellington cenotaph in its new plaza, 2015.

Just last week the Wellington cenotaph upgrade was finally completed – a new plaza and stairway leading from the monument up the hill to Parliament buildings.

All is rolling towards D-Day – 25 April – when the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps pushed ashore near Ari Burnu on the Gallipoli peninsula. And it seems to be happening with just as much planning, industry and effort as went into the original campaign.

I’ve always thought it curious how both Australia and New Zealand remember their war dead on a day when we invaded a foreign country. But, of course, the moment is so thoroughly tied up in national sentiment for both countries that it’s hard to imagine things being any different.

And so there is a frenzy of work going on right now around New Zealand – and especially in Wellington – to prepare for the moment. It’s as if the entire four-and-a-half year war is being crammed into a single day, though from the public perspective I think that’s also quite true.

I’m prepared to bet that this day is going to be it, in the popular mind. Already there is talk of ‘war memory exhaustion’. By May, the whole thing will be old hat, and we’ll be on to whatever next our increasingly vacuous media decides can be made into news-o-tainment – stupid politicians being stupid, domestic incidents that get held up for public judgement, and so on.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxOnly the military historians will care about the string of anniversaries between now and November 1918, when I expect there’ll be another brief burst of public interest.

All that raises questions. Is this how we should remember history? As a succession of spectacular ‘anniversaries’ that capture public imagination – briefly – before they are gone again? Or are we better to look back steadily at the broader picture, at the context and meaning of what happened, and understand how those events built the fabric of our present?

More soon. Meanwhile, I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why did New Zealand end up landing at Gallipoli?

New Zealand’s road to the 25 April landings on Gallipoli was a tortuous one. Certainly it was never planned. When the New Zealand government called for British input into plans for an expeditionary force in 1909, the expected theatre was going to be Europe. And that was where our expeditionary force was going in 1914 when it was abruptly dropped off in Egypt.

The old French battleship Bouvet sinking after striking a mine near the entrance to the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915. Public domain.

The French battleship Bouvet – first commissioned in 1898 – sinking after striking a mine near the entrance to the Dardanelles, 18 March 1915. Public domain.

Like so much about war, it was as much expedient as anything else. Turkey declared war on the British Empire on 29 October, and amid fears of a Turkish thrust across the Sinai to cut off the canal and take Egypt, Britain hastily gathered whatever forces it could scrabble up into the area.

These included the Australian and New Zealand expeditionary forces, which by then were on their way to Europe, via Egypt. Plans called for a stop-over in Egypt to assemble the forces and more fully train the men before they were deployed into he European theatre. The unexpected extension of their stop-over was always looked on as temporary before they resumed their journey to France, but in the event that ‘temporary’ became over a year. The Anzac moniker emerged along the way – an acronym adopted by headquarters staff to abbreviate the ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’ mouthful in their paperwork. A rubber stamp followed – and hey presto, ‘Anzac’ became a word.

By February 1915 the British were looking at ways of knocking down the Ottoman Empire by taking its capital, Constantinople. Initial plans – partially hatched by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill – called for a naval-only expedition.

By this scheme – devised in detail by Vice-Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton-Carden – a fleet of old battleships and a few modern vessels would blast the forts protecting the Dardanelles, steam up them, cross the Sea of Marmora – sinking the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben on the way – and then stand off the Golden Horn and invite the Turks to capitulate.

What might happen if the Turks refused was never contemplated; there was a sense that the government was racked with sufficient internal tension as to give up. The whole idea, of course, was absurd – reflecting the lack of staff to analyse the issue and advise the Committee of Imperial Defence among other bodies.

Still, there were dissenting voices in British command, among them Admiral Sir John Fisher, who thought only a combined operation – including an effort to take out the Dardanelles forts overland – would succeed.

HMS Majestic, one of Britain's oldest battleships in 1915, leaving Lemnos for the Gallipoli landings at Anzac Cove. Australian War Memorial, Public Domain.

HMS Majestic, pride of the Channel Fleet in the late 1890s, but one of Britain’s oldest battleships in 1915, leaving Lemnos for the Gallipoli landings at Anzac Cove. Australian War Memorial, Public Domain.

Initial plans nonetheless went ahead on the basis that no land forces would be needed until after Turkey surrendered, at which point a campaign would follow into Europe’s soft underbelly. Even then, the question was what could be deployed. Herbert Kitchener’s New Army was still being formed, and there were but two divisions left of the old ‘Contemptibles’. Preparations went ahead to form an army for Middle Eastern service built around one of these divisions, bolstered by the Royal Naval Division and by the Anzacs.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy – supported by the French – tried to force the Dardanelles. Their force was mostly made up of obsolete battleships, but included the brand new super-dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, which was capable of firing across the entire Gallipoli peninsula to engage targets beyond.

The first effort to force the straits on 19 February failed, spectacularly, with loss of lives and ships. In hindsight it was obvious; naval guns weren’t suited to land bombardments and they couldn’t fully silence the Turkish forts or stop the Turks from siting new guns. The British persisted. Then the Turks added a new minefield near the entrance, smothering makeshift British minesweepers with fire from the forts.

After a final attempt to force the Dardanelles on 18 March led to the loss of more ships, Churchill accepted that a ground force would have to be put ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula. Plans called for a major landing in the south, bolstered by a side-thrust half way up the peninsula, by the Anzacs.

By this tWright_Western Front_200 pxime the Western Front had been deadlocked, which senior commanders understood was a consequence of the way military technology had evolved. But that risk never featured in initial plans for Gallipoli, which looked on the landings as a distraction from their campaign into Bulgaria.

Plans drawn up by Mediterranean Expeditionary Force commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, and his staff in the dining room of a commandeered Cairo hotel envisaged the effort would be brief. The Anzacs would take their main objectives on the first day and the whole ground effort would be over within a few days. In theory.

It was, of course, far too optimistic; but that lesson had to be learned the hard way.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: what editors do, and why it’s essential

It’s possible these days for anybody who wants to publish to do so. Bung the book up on Amazon, and hey presto – you’re published. But it’s risky without proper editing. By editing, in this context, I mean ‘editing the finished manuscript’ – not the stuff an author does to go from Draft 1 to Draft 2, which is often also called ‘editing’.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

Self-edited books carry risks because familiarity literally breeds contempt. You can’t see you own mistakes. Even literal typos disappear from view after a while.

There are all sorts of techniques to get around that – reading backwards, for instance, word by word, looking for ‘literals’. Yet at the end of the day nothing beats a fresh pair of eyes. Especially a fresh pair of eyes belonging to an expert editor.

Editing, as a process for preparing a manuscript for publishing, breaks into two main tasks. They are quite specialist, and everyday authors are NOT, I repeat NOT, likely to have necessary skills. As I’ve mentioned before, I had occasional run-ins with proof-editors who have actually been authors, masquerading as editors.

Last year one guy tried to re-write my material to fit his concept of my book, as if he was a better expert in my subject than I was. He wasn’t (he did his re-write from a secondary text) and all he did was break my carefully prepared, researched and peer-reviewed material. The publisher refused my request to send the original MS to a competent proof-editor, with the result that I ended up putting, by my estimate, over 60 hours unplanned time into undoing the vandalism. Ouch.

Here’s how it should work:

  1. Proof-editing. This is done first. It’s the big structural stuff – making sure the correct overall frameworks are there, that things are introduced in the right order, and that the writing makes sense overall. It’s a specialist skill – authors are usually NOT good proof-editors – certainly not of their own stuff, and often not of others.
  2. Line-editing. This is the detail stuff – making sure that the grammar is right, that there are no literal typographical errors – that full stops are in the right place, that dashes are all the right lengths (hyphens, em- and en- dashes all have their places). It’s usually done more than once, and it’s always done last. It’s an exceptionally ‘trainspottery’ skill; those who do it need to have an absolute eye for details that are often invisible to others (like the visual difference between en- and em- dashes).

Publishers hire editors with these skills all the time –and often have in-house editors with those skills. It’s not cheap, but it’s essential.  The question, of course, is how far self-publishers should go on the same issue – bearing in mind the typical costs versus the likely returns from any book. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – working within the limits and getting a result anyway

It was remarkably difficult to get this photo of sunset over Wellington, New Zealand. The camera I had wasn’t great for low-light shots, and was way too heavy for the tripod I was using, which meant it wobbled everywhere if I so much as breathed near it, let alone hit the shutter.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Still, I managed to get a photo that was reasonably illuminated and not too blurry – which I did by trying to work within the limits. And that, to me, is inspiring, because it’s something writers have to do all the time, if you think about it. And yet that doesn’t stop us. Does it? A thought to inspire.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Writing inspirations – imagining life for settlers in days gone by

The first British settlers to reach the Wellington district in numbers landed on Petone Beach in February 1840, a place seen here in a photo I took before the place was socked in with the permanent rain we’ve had since Easter.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

In 1840 the beach wasn’t where it is today; the land has been uplifted since by repeated earthquakes, and this specific scene would have been under water. The original beachline is off to the left, out of frame. But we can imagine the moment when the settlers spilled ashore from the colony ships, left to wade the last distance with their gear and equipment, their boxes and suitcases (and a piano) left stacked on the beach below the low-tide mark.

The swampy, rugged landscape they found was a far cry from what they had been promised when they agreed to one-way passage, half a world away. But they made the best of it anyway, and to me, that’s an inspiring thought.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015