The folly & the glory

by Graeme Hunt / 14 May, 2005
Gallipoli was the beginning of the end of our "imperial subservience".
Sir Marshal Bruce Ferguson does not have much time for the English officers who sent 2721 New Zealanders to their deaths on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. But he is the first chief of the New Zealand Defence Force to say so trenchantly and publicly.

He chose the 90th commemorative dawn service near Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula to do it, startling his British and Australian counterparts, not to mention Prince Charles, and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.

His speech - as much a tirade against British military incompetence and colonialism as an Anzac service prologue - was as untypical for a New Zealander at an Anzac service as it was sharp. Past speeches by New Zealand serving officers at dawn services have emphasised the "sacrifice" and "glory" of those who perished or were wounded in the eight-month campaign. Ferguson acknow-ledged the sacrifice, but said there was no glory 90 years ago, just the folly of the British high command.

This was the view most Australians came to before World War II, along with most historians. It is not, however, the language of the parents, siblings and descendants of New Zealand's fallen, or the RSA.

"Glory" appears on New Zealand cenotaphs, monuments and in the history books. It makes no distinction about whether the deaths were the result of blunders, poor leadership, poor soldiering or just plain bad luck. There was, to many older New Zealanders and Australians, glory in doing one's duty, even if that duty was misplaced.

Ferguson, in his last year in the job, was not prepared to present what he later described as the "usual bland words" on Anzac Day. It had to be the unvarnished truth, vivid enough to enliven the 25,000 or so young Kiwis and Australians present and memorable enough to reopen the New Zealand Gallipoli debate, mothballed in stage-managed Anzac Day commemorations for the past 89 years.

It was not sufficient for him to accuse the British of "lack of co-ordination, lack of focus, blunders and squandering of life". He went on to describe the Gallipoli campaign as the "high-water mark of [New Zealand and Australia's] imperial subservience".

"We learned that we must shake off the shackles of colonial dependence; we must stand for what we believe in; and we must be prepared to defend our ideals, whatever the cost," he said.

Ferguson claimed that the speech caused no offence to the Prince of Wales or to the many Britons present. The young New Zealanders and Australians nodded approvingly, as did most of the press corps. But, privately, it was a kick in the groin for Britain, which lost more than 21,000 men in the Gallipoli campaign in similar circumstances to the Anzacs, and for France, which lost some 10,000 men. These two major players in the Gallipoli invasion were sidelined in the 90th commemoration as they have been in history. Their commemorative services were held near Cape Helles on April 24 after the impressive Turkish service nearby, but because of the traffic jams, many guests could not attend them. Pride of place went to Australia and New Zealand.

If the Anzac dawn service seemed flat and rushed, the services at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair were emotionally spine-tingling. Chunuk Bair, the high point of the Allied invasion, captured and held briefly at great cost by the New Zealanders in August 1915, was also political - to the many ordinary Kiwis, and some Australians at Gallipoli, Howard's no-show at Chunuk Bair represented the in-equality in the relationship between the two countries. Since 1915, one old digger remarked, the relationship had been all one way - Australia's.

What cannot be disputed, however, is that the New Zealanders came closest to winning the Gallipoli war when they captured Chunuk Bair. For a couple of days they threatened to turn the Gallipoli slaughter into success. The Australians, who bore terrible losses at Lone Pine, could never claim to have been on the brink of influencing the outcome of the campaign.

New Zealand's moment of glory at Chunuk Bair was not lost on the young New Zealanders present. But Ferguson's view - that of a thoughtful man who has long studied the Gallipoli campaign - has blind logic about it. Of course there can be no glory in wasted lives on the battlefield.

Ferguson is right when he notes that the lessons of Gallipoli - slaughter directed by British generals - took time to be learnt. As a result New Zealand has many more potential 90th commemorations coming up, including the anniversary next year of the start of the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) in 2007.

"We could argue ... Gallipoli was, in fact, the precursor to a larger, more painful ordeal by fire," Ferguson said. "On the Western Front for the next three years [Australian and New Zealand] soldiers lost more comrades than in any other conflict ... It is no coincidence that the Unknown Warrior of each nation was brought home from the battlefields of France."

But Anzac Day remains pre-eminent. Why? Kemal Ataturk ever keeping an eye on the international stage, locked Gallipoli into the Australasian psyche with his reconciliation speech in 1934, saluting the Allied dead buried at Gallipoli as "lying in the soil of a friendly country". This might not be glory by Ferguson's definition. But for a grieving nation that salute was the nearest thing to it.


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