Lest we forget: a moment to remember, in an autumn dawn

This morning my wife and I rose in the cold pre-dawn hour and – like an awful lot of New Zealanders today – made our way to a public ceremony remembering all our war dead. We have done this many times, but this moment carried particular poignancy because it also marked the centenary of the landings on Gallipoli, one of the defining events in New Zealand’s history.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015.

We eschewed a journey to the national war memorial park, opened just last week with fanfare and solemn reflection. Estimates suggested up to 20,000 people would attend there – forcing street closures and traffic jams. More Kiwis, indeed, than fought in the Gallipoli campaign. Instead, we chose a smaller memorial, one of several around the district where dawn commemorations are being held. A more intimate occasion, befitting the solemnity of the moment and the fact that remembrance is both a shared and an individual experience.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015

Dawn parade, 2015

I have always thought it curious that New Zealand – like Australia – remembers its war dead on a day when we landed on the shores of a foreign country. But that does not reduce the solemnity of the moment. New Zealand – a small, isolated country in the South Pacific – has participated in virtually every major conflict around the world of the twentieth century. And with reason; for that isolation has meant that our interests, in reality, stretch to the shores of our friends, allies and trading partners elsewhere.

We despatched our first expeditionary force in 1899, to South Africa.The effort in 1914-18 was an order of magnitude greater – and that war also brought us more than half our war casualties of all time, most of them on the Western Front where over 100,000 Kiwis eventually fought.

A similar number were also despatched to many theatres in the Second World War. New Zealand forces then fought in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam – the hot zones of the Cold War. Since that war ended in the early 1990s we have contributed extensively to international peace-keeping efforts from Kosovo to Timor, from Africa to Afghanistan.

We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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

Visions of New Zealand’s great war adventure

The centenary of the First World War – WW100, it’s dubbed in twenty-first century parlance – resonates on all sorts of levels for New Zealand. It’s a time to remember, a time to share family stories of the day; a time for sadness, and a time to recognise just how profoundly that war shaped New Zealand’s sense of itself.

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. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22796036

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. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22796036

Still, there’s a difference between how we see those events now and the way they were seen at the time.

That’s where historians come in. Although there’s a popular notion that anyone can ‘become’ a historian by assigning themselves the label and then copying data from archives, the reality is that it’s a learned profession like any other – and one of the key skills is how to evaluate the material. That includes being able to recognise the ‘lenses’ that come between us and the original events, and how to understand the way people at the time saw things.

After all, they were products of their own past too. And they didn’t know their future, any more than we do.

Needless to say, no two historians agree on how to do that. We know what happened – the data is clear – but the why is usually debatable. That’s because we’re dealing with the fuzziness of societies. And so history, as an intellectual discipline, goes through cycles of interpretation – typically generationally.

My own stuff, incidentally, has been labelled ‘post-revisionist’ because the angle I’ve taken in both my popular work and my technical studies – including peer-reviewed papers – does not accept the ‘revisionist’ view adopted in New Zealand’s universities in the 1980s.

So – how do we view the First World War? A century on, we’ve lived through the Second World War and through the Cold War; and all of these have created new lenses through which society has viewed and re-viewed the events of 1914-18. The post-Vietnam anti-war view, in particular, had a profound effect on the way the First World War was seen in the 1980s.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxTo my mind, a major history project launched back then – in which the words of New Zealand’s surviving First World War veterans were ‘captured’ before they were lost forever – was heavily slanted by post-Vietnam pop-intellectual sentiment. This framework led to a style of questioning that – to my mind – also led the interviewers down particular tracks. They never got to grips with how these people thought at the time.

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

Can we sell books with suggestive gibberish?

The other day I tried to buy a little smackerel of something from a fast food joint. When I went to close the deal the fellow behind the counter suddenly said “Wuddawuddabopbopbop.” Hilarity ensued.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
Goon: WUDDAWUDDABOPBOPBOP.
Me: Sorry, still don’t get it. Can you repeat it slowly, not louder?
Goon: WUD – DA – WUD – DA … (etc).

It turned out he was trying to sell me an add-on. The speed of the patter, I suspect, was part of the technique to get an unsuspecting customer to buy a delicious handful of whole unboned chicken, lovingly dropped through an industrial macerator, chemically bleached, mechanically reconstituted into bite-sized chunks with artificial flavour, wrapped in sawdust and MSG before being deep-fried, left for half an hour to go lukewarm, then served up in a grease-stained cardboard cup.

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

That led me to wonder whether I couldn’t get bookstores to do the same for books. You know – somebody picks up the latest best-seller and ends up being on-sold a couple of other titles. The trick is mangling the request so the hapless book buyer doesn’t know what they’re ending up with – they think they’ll be getting two sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey whereas they’ve just bought a pile of books by that guy Wright (for selection, click on the titles in the right hand column of this blog).

And this is where you come in. Drop me a comment with your take on just how a bookstore attendant might mangle things so as to slip in one of my titles (that column on the right) – or one of your own. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015