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At peace with the past

Those Kiwis who fought in the Great War are long gone and the number of World War II veterans is declining rapidly. Yet attendances at Anzac Day ceremonies are soaring, as later generations find new meaning in the sacrifices that were made.

As we were walking down Shrapnel Gully, I slipped and dislodged some earth and a whole set of bones was exposed. We put one against my thigh and it fitted almost exactly so we knew it was either Kiwi or Aussie, because the Turks were a lot shorter. I just broke down completely and burst into tears - I realised that I was walking through a battlefield where people from my own country were buried all around us."

Jock Phillips has spent half his life studying New Zealand's heritage, much of that time as the nation's chief historian. Many of the 11 books he's written or collaborated on are concerned with the events that have shaped our national identity - and he has spent a great deal of time visiting Commonwealth war sites to document Kiwi war graves. But Phillips, now the general editor of Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand, cannot forget that day 17 years ago at Shrapnel Gully in Gallipoli.

"We buried the bones and had a little tangi, which felt a lot better - it was a good thing to do. I had an unbearable sense of the sadness at the waste of it; these were the fittest, most creative people of their generation. I felt sad and angry at the same time. It's terrible for young people to die but it's almost worse for the way society suffered as a result and the pain that was inflicted."

In common with many of his generation, Phillips, who turns 60 next month, was raised to believe with certainty that he would one day fight in a war as his father and grandfather had before him. But the young Jock became disillusioned with school cadets when his hopes of being considered "officer material" were dashed at Christ's College and so "in contempt of an institution which rejected me, I became the platoon idiot, determined to act the fool and expose the stupidity of the parade ground". In his Victoria and then Harvard University PhD years, Phillips did all his marching on the streets as he joined fellow baby boomers in condemning the Vietnam war and the veterans' parades that "glorified war".

There was a generational war," says Phillips, "and in the 1960s and 70s, my postwar generation daren't go to an Anzac Day service because it was a political statement that you accepted the values of the RSA generation and that's just what you wanted to reject. There was a real resistance to doing anything to elevate the importance of war to the New Zealand identity. We wanted no nukes and to establish our country's identity in pacifist terms," he says.

"It was only as people read soldiers' diaries and looked at the costs of war in human terms rather than seeing an interest in war as meaning that you are necessarily pro war, that attitudes changed. People went along to the services because we were honouring soldiers who'd gone through an awful and horrific experience. The reality is that World War I, particularly, was by far the worst experience that Pakeha New Zealanders had ever gone through. It was a mass trauma and those who'd been through it were very broken and they wanted to forget. World War II was in some ways much more civilised. There was more physical movement, the number of casualties was lower and, on the whole, New Zealanders were more successful. They had very, very few 'victories' in World War I. Most of it was sitting in trenches, wallowing in mud, getting eaten by rats and enduring things. When they came back there was an extraordinary amnesia, a real repression about what the reality of war was like in human terms. New Zealanders coped with it by repressing it and much, much more so, I think, than some other societies. That's very much the New Zealand anaesthetic style, isn't it? The returning soldiers couldn't openly discuss powerful emotions, they anaesthetised themselves and that helped to explain an awful lot about the generation that was ahead of me."

His curiosity about the Kiwi male stereotype led Phillips to write A Man's Country? (1987), a history of Pakeha masculinity that tried to make sense of what shaped the Kiwi male. It was while researching the war years that he came across the battered diaries of World War I soldiers.

"I went into it thinking that all war was a heroic experience and that all New Zealand soldiers were gung-ho militarists. As I read the diaries, I realised war was brutish, nasty, unpleasant and terrifying. They affected me profoundly because they are stories about people confronting death and coming to terms with death. What surprised me was how open they were in their feelings to mothers and spouses and although they became very bitter about the campaign, they didn't rebel, they basically just knuckled under and confronted their own mortality. Most of the letters from young soldiers are written to Mother and ask about Dad, they're not written to Dear Mum and Dad or Dear Dad.

"After the war, when the veterans had parades to the memorials, they often put the mothers as a group right at the front as if, in the end - perhaps because they'd survived - their loss and suffering was the greatest of all. Most of the soldiers came to accept death for themselves, but found it hard to accept their own deaths in terms of the impact on their families, particularly their mothers and wives.

I am not afraid dearest and am certain that I will come through alright. But if I don't dear you will always have the satisfaction of knowing that your husband has done his duty, and that his last thoughts were of his wife and children. I am a bit sentimental tonight dearest and feel better after mentioning the above.

Fondest love to my dear Wife, Noni, Wyn, Jim and wee Athol, your loving husband Wilfred.

- Wilfred Smith died nine days after writing this letter. A photograph of "wee Athol" was the closest he ever got to knowing his baby son.

The consequences of war for soldiers' families were brought home to Phillips when he created a map for a historical atlas. The map showed all the houses in Invercargill of families that had lost soldiers in World War I. "If you look at that map, you see that about every 50 yards there was a house that had lost a soldier and you realise what an impact that must've had on that one community."

The scale of New Zealand's loss was horrific, with the 18,166 dead representing more than seven percent of all New Zealand men between 18 and 45. The total casualties of about 55,000 accounted for more than half of all men who sailed overseas and almost one in four of all eligible males.

The diary of Hastings bank clerk George Bollinger details the physical and mental discomfort of a soldier's life, as excerpts from June 1915 reveal:

We moved into Quinn's Post and in places our trenches touch the Turks. Is it any wonder men break down? The heat is intense, flies swarm the trenches in millions. The stench from the bodies of our men lying on trenches in front is choking and nearly unbearable. It is hard to think that each of these men is some mother's son. We see such scenes and still some newspapers have the audacity to suggest we like this life. Sometimes I wonder if England is bankrupt for troops, we are doing 96 hours a week without sleep in the trenches. The world outside has great confidence in their men but I often wonder if they realise what a hell a firing line is and know that every man desires and cannot help desiring immediate peace.

- George Bollinger was wounded in action on June 8, 1917, during the Messines offensive and died two days later; his brother Herman was killed in March 1918 and their father Max later died, it is said, "of a broken heart at the loss of his sons". The Bollinger family also had eight cousins who died on the Western Front, fighting for the other side.

Gallipoli is recognised by the Turks as a formative moment in their national identity, when Kemal Ataturk established his reputation and the beginnings of modern Turkey. Where does Phillips stand on the idea that New Zealand nationhood was born at Gallipoli?

"It all depends what you mean by nationhood. At the time our troops landed there was great excitement at home because we saw our identity essentially as being really good soldiers for the Empire. What New Zealand identity meant then was being the best blimmin' colony in the world. That was very much how a sense of national pride emerged during and after World War I.

"Look at the memorials. There are far more that talk about the way these boys died for the Empire than about them dying for their country. I could only find three war memorials in New Zealand that actually had the words 'New Zealand' on them. So if we think of national identity as being an independent nation breaking away from the imperial mother, that wasn't what World War I was about at all. We were being sent to Turkey because Britain sent us to Turkey. We weren't even under control of our own men. Godley [Major General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the NZ Forces 1914-18], who essentially controlled the Australian and New Zealand Division, was a Pom. Basically, Gallipoli was a diversionary tactic to take some pressure off the Western Front and, as a result, it wasn't properly supported."

A lot of myths exist about the Anzac soldier. Did the reality change as the war progressed? "There were two quite different Anzac legends. The official one was to present the Anzacs as glorious models of Kiwi masculinity and heroic English gentlemen. Then there was an unofficial tradition of an underground male culture of mateship, boozing, nights out in Cairo, fisticuffs and a lot of bantering.

"When the troops were in Egypt in 1915, the Kiwis thought the Aussies were uncouth, badly disciplined and drinking all the time. The New Zealanders saw themselves as much more like English gentlemen, superior to these Aussie louts. But when they get to Gallipoli, they start to think the Brits are not very good fighters: they're small, they're weedy, they're cowards and that, actually, the Aussies are very good at it.

"Increasingly, the New Zealanders start to identify much more with the Australians and you get a stereotype of the Brits as basically incompetent nincompoops. So the actual experience of war, of confronting British people overseas, forced our soldiers to come to grips with some of the things that are distinctive about New Zealand."

At Gallipoli, one man in particular became a legend - Colonel William George Malone, commander of the Wellington Battalion. He was English born and raised as a gentleman before becoming a lawyer in Taranaki.

"He'd been training for 10 years for the Great War, which he knew was going to come. He used to sleep on a sacking stretcher to toughen up for what was going to happen. But once he gets to Gallipoli and he looks at the incompetence of the British soldiers, he becomes increasingly contemptuous of the Brits and increasingly admiring of his New Zealand soldiers."

April 1915: "There are no troops like ours to look at, and now I know as regards my battalion for work, no regiment in the world could have done better. Into action on the 27th April, 40 percent loss of troops engaged. They were all very brave. No cries or even groans. Fight and dig night and day for 8 days. No blankets. Living in trenches, yet cheery and unshaken. I hope I shall be able to tell the people of New Zealand what grand fellows their soldier men are. Nothing better in the world. The Imperial (Regular) officers and men are full of admiration and speak of the wonderful advance made. It opened their eyes ... The Turks have christened my men the 'White Gurkhas'. We are proud of the soubriquet and mean to live up to it."

- Malone was in charge of the infamous Quinn's Post and was killed at Chunuk Bair on August 8. The people of Taranaki erected a memorial gate in his honour at Stratford in 1923.

World War I made the memorial a central icon of New Zealand life, with more than 500 civic monuments erected in the years following the Armistice. Phillips featured many in his 1990 book co-authored by Chris Maclean ("we sold about 300 copies, nobody was interested then"), The Sorrow and the Pride: NZ War Memorials.

"Unlike the Americans, New Zealanders didn't bring back their soldiers to be buried at home; they were all buried in cemeteries in France or on Gallipoli. So the relatives at home definitely needed a surrogate grave and a lot of the energy, fundraising and emotional involvement for the memorials came from mothers, wives and girlfriends.

"There was an interesting debate in Wanganui, where the men wanted to put a big memorial up on Durie Hill and the women said, 'No, that's too far for us to walk every day. We want somewhere we can see our son's name carved in stone and put down a wreath and pay our respects.' So in the end, Wanganui got two war memorials: one basically a man's memorial - this great tower on Durie Hill - and another one in Queen's Park brought about by the women. Families didn't want to feel that their sons had gone off to a huge debacle, they needed to legitimise and give some meaning to their sons' lives and deaths, that they had died for a cause.

"War memorials were also designed to be an example for the younger generation. Before World War I, there was a big movement to put up memorials to the New Zealand Wars and the explicit motivation was as propaganda to show young colonial boys that British had died for them in the New Zealand Wars, therefore when Britain asked us to go off to war, we should follow and that dying for your country is a heroic thing to do."

At one time responsible for our National War Memorial in Wellington, the carillon, Phillips also chaired the committee on the joint memorial in Canberra and says each country has different expectations of its iconic monuments.

"In New Zealand, the general assumption is that a war memorial has the names of the dead on it and that they are surrogate tombs. In Australia, 80 percent of the war memorials have the names of all those who served from a district, so they are heroic tributes to honour all those who fought. Part of the reason for the difference was that in Australia going off to the First World War was highly contested. Conscription had been beaten and the memorials were almost a political statement and their Anzac Day is all about the parade of veterans.

"In New Zealand, we had conscription, so going off to war wasn't necessarily an honourable thing to do because something like 30 percent of them were conscripted, anyway. New Zealand memorials focus on the names of the dead and laying wreaths and our Anzac Day ceremonies are adaptations of a funeral service, so that the emotional meaning of both the memorials and the Anzac Day services is very different for both countries."

It was an accident of late delivery rather than the result of deliberate planning that New Zealand became one of the few countries where poppies are worn on April 25 rather than November 11, as in Europe. When a French widow had the idea of destitute orphans making artificial poppies to be sold to benefit veterans, the New Zealand RSA placed an order for 350,000 small and 16,000 large silk poppies, but the shipment arrived too late for Armistice Day 1921. The next best date was April 25, 1922, and for the past 85 years we've stayed with our "accidental tradition" and worn the poppy to commemorate Anzac Day. There are those of us who scatter the seeds of the soldier poppy on April 25 and 20 weeks later are reminded again of the Anzac spirit as the delicate flowers appear.

On Wednesday, April 25, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders and Australians will in some way commemorate the Anzac tradition and Phillips isn't exactly sure why the numbers are increasing every year.

"The whole upswelling of cultural nationalism that's emerged here in the past 15 years has helped inspire an interest in New Zealand at war because people know the legend that World War I created our national identity. There's a fascination with the Great War in particular because it's something that's both totally foreign and yet part of our identity and our family myths and part of the rituals that surround us."

But Phillips won't be wearing a poppy to a parade this Anzac Day. After years of photographing memorials, he feels his own "active service" at parades is over. He now prefers to "go for a walk and think about the questions that still fascinate me: why has Anzac Day become a more significant moment of reflection than Wai?tangi Day on who we are as a nation? And why is it that the war experiences we never mention or commemorate are the New Zealand Wars? Here was our great civil war and the very few memorials are never visited. Instead, we obliterate the memory."