Birthplace of mateship

by Damien Fenton / 16 April, 2015
The crucible of the Anzac bond explains Gallipoli’s place in New Zealand war commemorations, writes historian Damien Fenton.
The Maori Contingent at No 1 Outpost on August 6, 1915. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Of all the battles and campaigns of New Zealand’s military history – and for a tiny, relatively young nation on the remotest edge of the South Pacific it’s a remarkably extensive history – Gallipoli is the most familiar.

On the face of it, that’s a little perplexing: Gallipoli was not the first time New Zealanders had fought – and died – overseas as identifiably New Zealand soldiers. That distinction belongs to the volunteers of the 10 contingents totalling some 6000 men dispatched as part of the British imperial force against the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902.

Nor did Gallipoli mark the combat debut of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in World War I: that had already occurred in Egypt during an overnight raid on the Suez Canal defences by the Ottoman Turks on February 2, 1915. New Zealand infantrymen happened to be manning canal outposts that were attacked that night and helped to repel the raiders at a cost of a couple of men wounded, one of whom, 22-year-old Private William Ham, died two days later, the first NZEF fatality as a result of enemy action.

Admittedly, the raid on the Suez Canal was a minor skirmish involving a small number of Kiwis that was all over in 48 hours. In comparison, Gallipoli was a hard-fought large-scale campaign that lasted eight months, involving some 12,000-13,000 NZEF soldiers, of whom 2700 died and another 4750 were wounded or incapacitated by disease. But when you look at New Zealand’s military contribution to World War I as a whole, Gallipoli is in turn completely dwarfed by the scale of the sacrifice rendered by our troops on the Western Front.

The New Zealanders fought in Flanders and Picardy for almost three years, from April 1916 through to the Armistice in November 1918, suffering 47,900 casualties, including 12,400 dead. They endured German artillery bombardments far more intense than anything the comparatively weak and poorly supplied Ottoman artillery inflicted at Gallipoli in 1915. They also had to grapple with the terrifying prospect of a maiming or an agonising death by poison gas or being burnt alive by flame throwers, none of which troops faced at Gallipoli.


New Zealand soldiers prepare for action at Gallipoli. Photo/Arthur A Perry/The Anzacs/Auckland War Memorial Museum

But mention NZEF battles of the Western Front such as Flers-Courcelette, Messines and Bapaume to most Kiwis and you’ll draw a blank – they’ll have never heard of them. So what is it with Gallipoli? Why does it have such a grip on our national psyche 100 years after the event? Three words: the Anzac legend.

Whatever you may think of it – whether you embrace it with pride as an intrinsic foundation of our national identity or reject that argument and insist it has no bearing on that identity, at least not any more – there’s no denying that Gallipoli is the birthplace of the Anzac legend. That legend, conjuring up virtues such as bravery and sacrifice but above all those sacrosanct bonds of “mateship”, a concept we like to think is unique to the New Zealand (and Australian, obviously) character, has been passed on from one generation to the next thanks to its intimate connection to that one day of the year when we pause to acknowledge and commemorate the nation’s war dead, Anzac Day.

On April 25, 1915, some 20,000 citizen-soldier volunteers of the then British dominions of New Zealand and Australia, grouped together as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), landed on the shores of Gallipoli at a place called Ari Burnu (Ariburun). The Anzacs were part of the British-led Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) assigned to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula in a bold but tragically flawed attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of World War I in a single strategic blow.

Ari Burnu (soon renamed Anzac Cove by the troops) wasn’t where they were supposed to land, a mistake that pretty much set the benchmark for the muddled direction, haphazard organisation and repeated failures in leadership that became the hallmarks of the campaign that followed. Instead of a gentle beach and easy-going country beyond, the men were confronted by a maze of inhospitable cliffs, ravines, ridges and gullies. They pressed on regardless.

Opposing the Anzacs was a single Ottoman battalion of about 800 men assigned to defend the area, but they were joined by another 14,000 Arab and Turkish soldiers as the day wore on. The Ottoman generals were determined to throw the invaders back into the sea, but although the Anzacs lost much of the ground gained earlier that morning, they managed to hang on, dig in and establish a defendable frontline around their tiny beachhead. The result was a stalemate – and a costly one at that: by day’s end some 2000 Anzacs were killed, wounded or missing, including several hundred New Zealanders.


Members of the Wellington machine gun section at the Apex, from where the attack on Chunuk Bair was launched. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The first reports about the landings in the Dardanelles appeared in New Zealand newspapers within a couple of days, but the first substantive casualty lists to give a true indication of the extent of the losses did not appear until about two weeks later. By that stage the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had been ferried down from Anzac Cove to the other Allied beachhead, Cape Helles, to take part in the Second Battle of Krithia (May 6-8, 1915). Earlier attempts by British and French troops to capture the village of Krithia and the hill of Achi Baba that overlooked it had ended in bloody failure. This latest battle for the same ground simply repeated this failure and cost the New Zealanders another 800 casualties (when the battle was over, the survivors were sent back up to Anzac).

The upshot was that within the space of just over two weeks, some 2000 New Zealand soldiers had become combat casualties and were dead, wounded or reported missing (nearly all the missing later turned out to have died on the battlefield – only 25 New Zealanders were taken prisoner by the Ottomans during the entire eight-month campaign). Before this, the New Zealand public’s only benchmark for the level of sacrifice our participation in an overseas war might require was the experience of the South African War 13 years earlier: a total of 230 New Zealanders dead from three years’ of fighting, out of a force of 6000 men. Now we had surpassed that loss in just the first two weeks of a military operation that had no obvious end in sight.

The nation’s shock at the scale of our losses was compounded by the arrival on July 15 of the first shipload of men wounded at Gallipoli to return home. Here was the final proof, if it was needed, of the true cost of New Zealand’s commitment to the empire’s war effort, as hundreds of young men who’d left the country nine months earlier strong, healthy and eager to fight now returned broken in body and spirit.

There would be more bloody battles before it was all over, of course, most notably the disastrous Sari Bair offensive, a massive all-out Allied assault that included a new landing by British forces at Suvla Bay, 7km north of Anzac Cove. The offensive began on August 6, and after three days of ferocious fighting it had failed to achieve any of its key aims, barring the capture of Chunuk Bair by the Wellington Battalion under pugnacious commander Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone (who would die there).

Although the Wellington Battalion men doomed themselves in their dogged defence of Chunuk Bair, they were not alone in their sacrifice. By the time the remnants of the other New Zealand and British regiments that held the line with them were relieved in the early hours of August 10, New Zealand casualties for the offensive had topped 2400.

The losses were the more bitter to swallow because it had all been for nothing. The same day the New Zealanders were relieved and moved off Chunuk Bair, the Turks counterattacked and retook it. The MEF never really recovered from the Sari Bair failure, and although the campaign dragged on for another four months, there were no more ambitious offensives, and for the New Zealanders, thankfully, no more Chunuk Bairs. The evacuation of Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay from December 15-20 was about the only time things went to plan for the MEF.


After Gallipoli, the NZEF spent the first four months of 1916 rebuilding and reorganising itself in Egypt. This led to the creation of the New Zealand Division, a much enlarged infantry force from the one that had served at Gallipoli, which was sent to France in April 1916. It spent most of the year in a quiet sector of the Western Front and did not take part in any large-scale fighting until the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in late September. By then, Gallipoli and the associated Anzac legend had already taken hold of the public’s imagination back in New Zealand. Although Gallipoli would shortly be overshadowed by the losses to come on the Western Front, in the long term it didn’t matter.

Gallipoli was the first great shock, the first time New Zealand had suffered so much grief and loss in such a short space of time as a result of an overseas military commitment. The result was immediate and palpable. The men who had fought there, the original Anzacs, were fêted as being the embodiment of all the best qualities and virtues the dominion’s manhood had to offer both country and empire. For alongside the grief there was also a bitter-sweet pride. Although Gallipoli was a tragic defeat, many consoled themselves with the notion that the Anzacs were not to blame; whatever else may have gone wrong, the Anzacs emerged from the campaign with a hard-won reputation as first-rate soldiers. That reputation remains what all New Zealand servicemen and women measures themselves against.

In keeping with the sentiment, the first Anzac Day was observed on April 25, 1916, to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of the men who had fought at Gallipoli, encouraged by a wartime government keen to exploit its potential as a recruitment tool. But even by the war’s end, it had become the de facto day of commemoration of all our war dead.

Since then, Anzac Day has had to incorporate Kiwis’ service and sacrifice in a depressingly long list of overseas conflicts, including another world war and right up to the New Zealand Defence Force commitment to Afghanistan that officially came to an end only last year. The day itself has come to mean different things to different people in different eras, from being the subject of controversy and protest during the Vietnam War to the grass-roots resurgence in popularity of the general public in the 1990s and 2000s. But one constant through all those years has been the inextricable link between Anzac Day and the military campaign that led to its creation. Whereas the battles of Messines, El Alamein, Kapyong and many more besides have faded from popular memory with each passing generation, the story of Gallipoli is revived and renewed each April 25.

Some, especially veterans of those other conflicts (not least the ghosts of the Western Front), may decry this as unfair or lacking historical perspective – and they have a point. But it’s to no avail – it’s too late. Gallipoli got in first. The nation’s first real experience of the human cost of taking a front seat in a full-scale conventional war began on that rugged little beach at Ari Burnu 100 years ago this week. It’s a lesson that, thanks to Anzac Day, the nation has never forgotten.

‘Any wonder men break?’

George Bollinger. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Hastings bank clerk George Bollinger recorded the physical and mental discomforts of the soldier’s life in his diary:

“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 think England is bankrupt for troops. We are doing 96 hours a week without sleep in the trenches.”

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 on the other side.

‘I know you’ll never forget’

William Malone and his wife, Ida. Photo/Malone Family Collection

A letter to his wife, Ida, from Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone of Taranaki, the commander of the Wellington Battalion, is full of foreboding.

“You know how I love and have loved you, and we have had many years of great happiness together. If at any time in the past I seemed absorbed in ‘affairs’, it was that I might make a proper provision for you and the children.

“That was due from me. It is true perhaps that I overdid it somewhat. I believe now that I did, but did not see it at the time. I regret very much now that it was so and that I lost more happiness than I need have done. You must forgive me …

“I know you’ll never forget or let the dear children do so.”

Malone wrote that when he and his men went into action on April 27, there was a 40% loss of troops. “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.”

Malone was killed at Chunuk Bair on August 8, 1915.

BooksNew Gallipoli books

Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story, by Christopher Pugsley

Updated to incorporate local and international advances in historical scholarship on the subject since the first edition was published 30 years ago, Pugsley’s book remains the essential single-volume source for anyone wishing to understand New Zealand’s overall military role in the campaign in addition to the experiences of the individual soldiers on the ground.

No Better Death: The Great War diaries and letters of William G Malone, edited by John Crawford

John Crawford, the New Zealand Defence Force historian, presents us with Malone, the controversial hero of Chunuk Bair, in his own words. A compelling insight into the mindset of the prickly, fierce disciplinarian who had little faith in his superior officers but total faith in the men he had trained and led since the outbreak of the war.

Gallipoli: A Guide to New Zealand Battlefields and Memorials, by Ian McGibbon

A new and updated edition of Ian McGibbon’s comprehensive battlefield guide to Gallipoli. Written for a New Zealand readership, it is the must-have guidebook for any Kiwi intending to visit Gallipoli and wanting to get the most out of the experience.

April 25, 1915: A New Zealand officer remembers, edited by Christopher Tobin

The post-war memoirs of Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, in which he provides a vivid account of his time as a “Main Body” man, from enlistment in New Zealand and training in Egypt to the landing on April 25. Reflecting on the landing, in which he was badly wounded, resulting in the amputation of his right arm, he is still able to insist that it was “the most glorious day of my life”.

Gallipoli, by Peter FitzSimons

Written in the present tense, which is jarring in a non-fiction work dealing with events of a century ago. The author, Australian newspaper columnist and rugby writer Peter FitzSimons, makes matters worse by inserting himself into the text with “knowing” remarks addressed to the reader. Otherwise a fairly traditional account of the Gallipoli campaign with a heavy emphasis on the Australians.

Dr Damien Fenton is an Honorary Research Fellow at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Massey University in Wellington and the author of several military histories. He is currently writing New Zealand’s War Against the Ottoman Turks.

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