Anzac's ghost

by Graeme Hunt / 09 April, 2005
Unlike Australia, New Zealand has yet to come to grips with the agony of the Gallipoli campaign.

The first commemoration of Anzac Day, on April 25, 1916 - a year after the fateful landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula - would have made Australian singer John Farnham proud.


The New Zealand Expeditionary Force marked the occasion with a memorial service, along with games and sports. It was part commemoration, part celebration. By the time World War I was over, the Returned Soldiers' Association - the forerunner to the modern RSA - had turned this touchstone of New Zealand nationalism into a mournful affair.


By the mid-1920s, it was impossible on Anzac Day to drink at a public bar or go to the races. Ex-soldiers, many of whom couldn't get jobs or had failed to make a go of working the land in over-ambitious repatriation schemes, were resigned to attending an annual ritual to remember the dead. Anzac Day became increasingly memorialised at the expense of the living.


Australians came quickly to understand Gallipoli, warts and all, accept it for the British campaign disaster that it was and move on; New Zealanders wondered and wallowed in the loss, but never questioned their duty to serve the British Empire.


"Anzac Day had two meanings for New Zealanders," wrote military historian Chris Pugsley. "For the New Zealand public at home it signified a legend ... and a proclamation to the world that a junior partner in the British Empire had come of age. Anzac Day became the symbol of our willingness to share the burdens, and those that died were our payment towards this."


Australia, long bolshie towards Britain, had no such chip on its shoulder. It simply adopted Anzac Day as its own and the name became the logo for the emerging, independent Australian nation state.


Numerous books on the Gallipoli campaign were published in Australia between the wars. In New Zealand, authors largely ignored it, perhaps because Kiwis were not emotionally equipped to cope with such a massive loss. Not until the publication of Pugsley's Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story in 1984 did Kiwis receive a readable and thoughtful account of the disaster of 1915.


Since then, there has been an outpouring of books and remembrances of both world wars, but for most Gallipoli veterans, the writings came too late. They went to their graves with little but the blessing of an elderly army chaplain and a death notice in their local paper paid for by the RSA. Some didn't even get that.


Mr grandfather, Robert Hunt, died in 1930 of war injuries aged 39. He left no assets and his widow and three children had to struggle through the Depression. But at least he was a Gallipoli veteran, or so my father told me. I was proud when I saw his name etched in marble in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. When I obtained a copy of his war record some years later I was disappointed to find that, although he had been part of the Gallipoli campaign, he never landed in Turkey.


The battle was all but over when the 7th Reinforcements, of which Robert Hunt was part, landed in Egypt. He was in a military hospital suffering from a bout of gastritis when the final troops were evacuated from Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. Notwithstanding his earlier war service in Samoa and his later service on the Somme, I felt that I had been short-changed.


Would it have been better that he were one of the 2721 Kiwis who perished at Gallipoli? At the time, I thought so. My grandfather's late arrival in Egypt and upset stomach had robbed me of part of my heritage. Fortunately, help was at hand. I discovered that my grandfather's illegitimate cousin, John Harling (real name John Hunt) was a fully fledged Gallipoli veteran who took part in the attacks on Hill 60 and Chunuk Bair. My birthright had been restored.


Gallipoli is like that. With the notable exception of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, better known as Passchendaele, Gallipoli was New Zealand's blackest hour during World War I. As we come to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the landings this month, we confront a 90-year-old agony. Do we recognise it as part of our history and learn from the blunder or do we eulogise the campaign as we have done in the past?


Prime Minister Helen Clark, who argued so eloquently against contaminating the memory of the Anzac campaign with a concert from a 55-year-old British-born singer, is simply exercising the conservative veto that New Zealand politicians have used since 1919. Bill Massey, Gordon Coates and even the cantankerous John A Lee would have heartily approved.


Like most before her, Clark has yet to confront the ghost of Anzac Day. Her response, and one that reflects heavily on public opinion, is to contain the commemoration in its quaint ritual. The other course - opening it up to all comers - is too horrible to contemplate.


This is not to say that Clark took the wrong step. Anzac Day is not, as one newspaper described it recently, a "big day out". It is not, or rather should not be, a tourist trap for inappropriately dressed and hungover Australians. The standard itinerary for the Aussie coach tour - get laid in Rome, get drunk in Greece, get high in Istanbul and "do Anzac" - is not the best way to advance human understanding, no matter how much fun it might seem at the time.


Based on my experience in Europe (five years), young Australians know even less about Gallipoli than Kiwis. People I spoke to struggled to identify Turkey as the enemy that the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps faced. Some did not even know which world war Gallipoli was part of.


This reflects the indifferent teaching of history at schools on both sides of the Tasman that reduces dates and facts to a general, politically correct muddle. It was little better when I was at school. Gallipoli was not taught because it was too close to the bone. The public policy response was, as it is now, to "contain" it in a suitably sombre, once-a-year remembrance.


When I was a child, hardly any young people attended Anzac Day services. They seemed to be the domain of boozy returned servicemen who wore hats long after they ceased to be fashionable and held strong views on the need to reintroduce compulsory military training. That has changed in the years that I have taken my children to my local Anzac Day service at Waiku-mete Cemetery, West Auckland, where my grandfather (the one who turned out not to be a Gallipoli veteran) is buried.


The interest from young people has never been greater. But for it to mean anything, there needs to be greater debate on the significance of the Anzac campaign to World War I and in the shaping of New Zealand nationalism.


Clark, once a Vietnam protester, has yet to go through her re-education on Anzac Day. It is far easier for her to assess what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour for the big day than to open up a debate that goes to the heart of New Zealand nationalism. Gallipoli scars her past as it does the pasts of many New Zealanders. She is, when it comes to her forte of history, conservative and cautious. Unlike the Treaty of Waitangi, which has been dissected from all sides, New Zealand's Anzac heritage has been left largely untouched.


Pugsley, Welsh by birth, came closest to unlocking the campaign's secrets in his book Gallipoli: "Anzac Day had grown to mean much more than the memory of a landing in the dawn by an Australian division," he wrote. "It is part of the story of our country at war, of the history of New Zealand for much of the 20th century. Consciously or not, Gallipoli has etched its mark ..."


Like Maurice Shadbolt, whose play Once upon Chunuk Bair is a superb work, Pugsley questions whether New Zealand is celebrating the wrong event. Anzac Day is Australia's day. Our big day was August 8, 1915, when the Wellington Battalion captured Chunuk Bair. But it doesn't quite have the same ring as April 25, the day of the landings on Anzac Cove. Anzac Cove is where the ghost of New Zealand's Gallipoli myth lies.


This horrible blot on history has a fatal fascination for historians and others alike. It draws you in as a horror movie compels its audiences. But it is far more than mere militaristic voyeurism; Anzac, with all its agony, is locked in the nation's soul. We unlock it at our peril.


The 90th commemorations might just be the start of that process.


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