Back on Chunuk Bair

by Gwyn Rees / 10 January, 2004

The Farm Cemetery, near Chunuk Bair. Photo/Gwyn Rees

In the footsteps of the doomed Anzacs at Gallipoli.

Nothing distinguishes the grave of John Henry Swinton from the other nine faded, grey gravestones on the slopes of Chunuk Bair other than, of course, the simple inscription, "13/571 Lance Corporal J H Swinton, NZ Mounted Rifles, 8 August, 1915, Age 29." It is a squat, flat marker, not as imposing as the Commonwealth war graves headstones in France and Belgium; but he and the eight others with marked graves have more than the 622 other soldiers, mostly New Zealanders, buried in that particular cemetery. Their remains could not be identified and they lie beneath bare grass. Why Swinton's remains were identified when so many were not is unclear. After the battle, most New Zealand dead were left behind enemy lines and were not recovered and properly interred until 1919.

Chunuk Bair is everything that cloistered Anzac Cove is not. It is nearly, but not quite, the summit of the Sari Bair Range and is defined by the sky, commanding views in every direction. The land falls away to the Aegean in the west and the Narrows in the east. It sits astride and commands the Gallipoli Peninsula, named after the nearby town of Gelibolu. It is for these reasons that Swinton, a young farmer from Raukokore in the Bay of Plenty, lost his life there, in the company of many other New Zealanders.

Many historians have already drawn attention to the particular significance of the Battle of Chunuk Bair, or more correctly the series of battles that began on August 6, for New Zealand. In many ways, it was the culmination of the campaign. New Zealand troops were given critical responsibilities and suffered nearly 2500 casualties, including a total of more than 850 dead. The point has also been made that the advance by the Wellington Regiment on Chunuk Bair at dawn on August 8, and its subsequent reinforcement by other New Zealand units, perhaps represents the NZ part of "Anzac" better than dawn on April 25. On that day, as the sun rose, our troops remained at sea and the Australians secured the cove before being reinforced mid-morning by New Zealanders. It was for these reasons that our party, Patrick English, New Zealand Trade Commissioner in China; Mark Conroy, First Secretary at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing; and myself, New Zealand Defence Attaché in Beijing, together with our wives Michelle, Sally and Sue came to be standing at dawn on Chunuk Bair on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2003. It was the 88th anniversary of the Battle of Chunuk Bair. What brought this collection of New Zealanders together was our common place of employment, as well as an interest in Gallipoli. Given our current place of domicile, it seemed a happy coincidence that, in China, the number eight is regarded as being particularly auspicious. Over the preceding few months, a plan developed not only to visit the battlefields of Gallipoli, but also to walk out the whole advance of the New Zealand troops from Anzac Cove to below Chunuk Bair and, after spending a night on the mountain, complete the advance before dawn before holding a short service on the summit.

I also have a number of medals for New Zealanders at Gallipoli, of which Swinton's 1914/15 star is one of the most interesting. I have always thought it particularly poignant that those who died often had no progeny and so these precious relics ended up in the hands of strangers. All the more reason for us to appreciate how special they are, I think.

In the days immediately after arrival on the peninsula we explored many of the trackless gullies and ravines that distinguish the battlefield. Time was also taken to visit and photograph the memorials to relations of the endless friends who seem to have a connection with Gallipoli. For us it included, among others, a relative of the New Zealand Ambassador to China, John McKinnon. To this day, the most detailed maps readily available, and those used by us, are those originally compiled in 1919 for the official New Zealand history of the campaign. Although visitors - young Australasians and Turks - were in substantial numbers on the roads and at the principal memorials, including the new commemorative area, no one was encountered off the beaten track. Conditions in August were hot and dry and the burden of carrying precious water was hard enough, even in the now benign environment. The overgrown and prickly flora was a real nuisance, but the main impediments to movement remained the steep and crumbling slopes.

Mark Conroy, Gwyn Rees and Patrick English beneath the Sphinx. Photo/Gwyn Rees

Everyone who comes to Gallipoli is affected differently. For Patrick, looking at the terrain and the conditions, he had to ask what kept them going. Moreover, what gave them the courage to stand up in the face of a daily torrent of fire that meant almost certain death. Was it love for King and Empire? Was it the officers who led them? Was it raw courage? What was it? The only thing that was real and sustaining on the hills and beaches of Gallipoli was their mates. They were their source of life in the face of death, strength when they had none left and courage when it was all used up. Surviving or just getting through the day during the Gallipoli campaign was all about your mates, who were going through the same hell as you. If you hadn't experienced what they experienced, then you would never understand, as we will never truly understand.

For Mark, it was difficult to appreciate the compactness of the battlefield. Here, hundreds of soldiers fought and died over scraps of ground no larger than a tennis court. Each undulation, each clump of bush or small fold in the ground assumed a level of importance far in excess of what we can appreciate today. Front lines were, in some places, literally a stone's throw apart. Anzac Cove is so small - only 200 metres long and 20 metres wide - and is not dissimilar to the area surrounding Wellington's Anzac Memorial that faces the Cook Strait. It was a beachhead that served as the main supply and sometimes rest area for the front-line soldiers. This is well known, but it was the special events at Chunuk Bair that held particular significance for us.

The retracing of the general route of the New Zealand Assaulting Column and Covering Force on the night of August 6, although undertaken in daylight, clearly demonstrated the remarkable achievements of the New Zealand Infantry and their covering force, which included the Auckland Mounted Rifles and John Swinton. We headed north up the coast past a rock known as the Sphinx, as our troops would have done. Few of the men at that time would have had an inkling of how significant the struggles ahead would become. We struck inland from near No 2 Outpost Cemetery. The outpost provided a good vantage point to view the steady climb ahead, into what was then enemy territory. On from Old No 3 Outpost, we took the higher ground over the Table Top to stay out of the culverts and valleys of Chailik Dere and Sazli Beit Dere that must have provided so much frustration in the dark and confusion of the advance.

To me, this was a very lonely Gallipoli, a pleasant contrast to the now popular Anzac Day fixtures. There are few tracks, yet the ground and landmarks are clear and well defined. On every ridge, there are earthworks dug into the stony ground, fragments of pottery and glass, brass studs from equipment, a heel plate. A myriad of shell cases, shrapnel balls and shell fragments, mushroomed bullets and bone fragments seem to be continually exposed. It is said that to sit or wander alone a little is how to really appreciate what Gallipoli is about. It is a quiet and inspiring place.

Arriving at the Apex well before dusk, we had time to explore the Pinnacle and "the Farm" as the sun set over the Greek island of Samothraki. The Farm is a Commonwealth war graves cemetery on the site of what was an old Turkish farm. A large firebreak has now sadly defaced the ground from the Apex to the summit of Chunuk Bair on which the Auckland Battalion suffered in its attack on August 7 as one of the precursors to the advance the next morning. However, it revealed extensive Turkish tunnels in very good order, apparently created along the ridge after the battle. We spent a windy but clear night under the stars in an area below the Apex, sharing more than a few thoughts about how it must have been for those men who were waiting for the dawn to come. The next morning, there was time before sunrise for the march up to the summit, as the Wellington Regiment would have done as it commenced its struggle that day at 4.15am.

There, we were joined by the wives, who had driven up from Gelibolu township. We huddled in the wind beneath the New Zealand memorial, as the service remembered those who died in the Battle of Sari Bair, but particularly those New Zealanders who, in the company of the Commanding Officer of the Wellington Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel William George Malone, fought that day with little or no subsequent recognition, in the most dire and pitiless circumstances. A short toast to them with Turkish red wine, including a liberal christening of the ground, completed the occasion.

This was not an Anzac Day, no politicians, no crowds; in fact, no one else apart from our driver in his "Kiwi Club Beijing" T-shirt. It was for us, however, a simple kia ora to John Henry Swinton and his mates who stayed and also to those who returned home and carried their memories of that day with them for the rest of their lives. As the sun rose and the party left, the wind was already dismembering the wreath and blowing the poppies and our sprinkled New Zealand soil off the summit and down towards Rhododendron Ridge. Only the wine stayed, like so many of those who stood and fought there that morning 88 years ago.

This article was first published in the January 10, 2004 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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