Forever young

by Tim Watkin / 23 April, 2005
Increasingly, young Kiwis are coming to see Gallipoli as the defining moment in New Zealand's struggle for national identity.
The young voices speak in unison. "New Zealand gained its national identity at Gallipoli," writes Guy Williams of Nelson College.

"For us," concludes Napier Boys' High School pupil Paul Ataahua Smith, "the turning point in the development of New Zealand identity was our involvement in a conflict 11,000 miles from home: Gallipoli."

Waikato Diocesan School pupil Anna Smith is more specific. "The events and actions of the New Zealand forces involved in the Gallipoli campaign have transcended through time and inspire the subsequent generations to be courageous, dedicated and loyal."

This Anzac Day, as we arrive at the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, New Zealanders will turn out in large numbers to remember the disastrous World War I campaign said to be a foundation stone of our national identity. Like these students, winners of the government's Anzac Day essay competition who will be travelling to Turkey with Helen Clark, most New Zealanders see Gallipoli as a place where our nationhood was forged in the heat of battle. There's a rediscovered connection to the soldiers who flung themselves onto the scruffy piece of coastline. Alice Krzanich of Kaipara College wraps up her trip-winning essay on her great-grand uncle, Private Tom Watson: "The red, dusty, battered paybook remains in my hand. And if I look closely I can see the name 'Watson' pencilled on the worn cover. Tracing my finger over that name I feel so close to my great-grand uncle. As if the only thing that separates us is time."

But what a lot of time it is. After nine decades, our national identity has changed dramatically. The forces that shape it - our direct knowledge and view of war, our place in the world, our political and popular cultures, to name but a few - have ebbed and returned time and again since 1915.

As another essayist, Jennifer Niven of Wellington's Samuel Marsden College, wrote, "[later generations] recount what they suppose must have happened, a jigsaw puzzle with too many missing pieces".

Can teenagers who weren't born when French agents blew up the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 - let alone in 1972, the last time New Zealand soldiers were asked to kill and die anywhere near a frontline - claim to share an identity with men so removed? New Zealand has been nuclear-free all their lives. Can any of us, in an age of iPods, women prime ministers and international air travel, know what being a New Zealander meant to those first Anzacs?

"It's just so different. We live in the same country, but that's about it," says Terry Kinloch, a lieutenant colonel in the NZ Army and author of Echoes of Gallipoli: In the words of New Zealand's Mounted Riflemen. "They wouldn't recognise us, those soldiers."

Dr Jock Phillips, general editor of the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, says national characteristics that today's teenagers take for granted - ethnic diversity, the expanded role of women, high education standards and most of the population crowded into big cities - would be a complete mystery, maybe even anathema, to the soldiers. Perhaps the only part of life that they'd find familiar would be men in the pub watching provincial rugby.

"If they went into the pub and heard the swear words and laughter, they'd recognise that."

New Zealanders' sense of national identity was barely formed in 1915. Many had been born elsewhere - mostly Britain or Australia - and, once here, few would have gone far from their new hometown. They were rough and ready, and their knowledge of the world was narrow by today's standards. "Those boys had hardly heard of Turkey," says Kinloch.

Contrary to the image of young men riding in from backcountry farms to sign up, most New Zealanders in 1915 were urban dwellers. But mostly they lived in small towns, so if they saw themselves as different from Britons, it would have been in their freedom from the industrial squalor and class system of the Mother Country.

Yet it's hard to know how many at that time would have even called themselves New Zealanders. Many of the soldiers would have identified with their province - calling themselves, say, a Wellingtonian or a Cantabrian rather than a New Zealander.

As Napier Boys' High's Smith points out, women had been given the vote, a small number of soldiers had fought the Boers in South Africa, the name All Blacks had been coined after the successful 1905 tour to Britain, and Ernest Rutherford had already won his Nobel Prize. The early signs of nationhood were emerging. But Phillips says it would be wrong to mistake that for a sense of New Zealand independence. "At that point we were very much part of the British Empire, proud and loyal."

Maori and Pakeha had little to do with each other, and the Maori population was terribly small.

"The way that Gallipoli was perceived at the time in New Zealand in terms of identity ... [was that] we could hold our heads high as a full member of the British Empire."

"They talked about being home by Christmas," says Kinloch, "but when they said home, they meant Britain, not New Zealand. A lot of them when they went wouldn't have said they were New Zealanders, they were British."

However, although the soldiers left as men we might barely know, historians agree that the returning men brought with them seeds of a national identity to which we might lay some claim.

It was the first time New Zealanders went overseas as a group - "an enormous national team of men who in most cases had never considered the question of identity, and who were now confronted by it," writes leading military historian Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Christopher Pugsley in an email from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, Britain, where he is a senior lecturer.

"They found themselves as a group being different from the people they thought they would have most in common with - the Australians and the British."

They arrived as amateurs, expecting to be in awe of the professional British Army. They were surprised to find that the British were, says Phillips, "little squirts who couldn't fend for themselves". The Australians, rowdy and obnoxious, also disappointed. The Kiwi soldiers started to define themselves apart from their cousins - physically stronger and more innovative than the Brits, humbler and more sensible than the Aussies. On the battlefield they set a stock in self-reliance and the physical advantages of frontier living.

So, yes, here were some stirrings of identity; the idea of New Zealanders as "better Britons", at least.

Not that war gives birth only to noble traits. Pugsley remembers a wise commanding officer telling him that, stripped of peacetime comforts, New Zealanders "are essentially an intolerant, black and white society who demand a pound of flesh".

More generously, says Kinloch, soldiers' diaries, media and official records from World War I contain numerous descriptions of New Zealanders as somewhat insecure, but capable. Boxing above their weight. Pushing to prove themselves against the big boys. Getting the job done.

"We're still like that. Quiet and a little lacking in confidence, but with a feeling that we can do anything," Kinloch adds.

But to say that started at Gallipoli may be going too far, he says. "It was influential, but it wasn't the first step. It was one of many influential steps along the way."

Paul Ataahua Smith ends his essay claiming, "what possessed and drove [those Anzac soldiers] still exists today". Whether that's true, for good or ill, is for him and his generation to decide.

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