Ido Drent's trying time in the trenches

Ido Drent (R) plays Lieutenant Charles Smith.

Ido Drent (R) plays Lieutenant Charles Smith.

For many Kiwis, World War I began as a big adventure. But the brutal reality of death and misery amid the trenches became an all-too familiar sight as revealed in the drama When We Go To War. In the scorching heat, with the wind whipping up stinging dust storms from the barren, arid landscape, it is not hard to imagine the Muriwai Earth Bricks quarry as the trenches of Gallipoli. 

The actors filming the drama When We Go To War are lucky enough to be able to sit in trailers until their scenes come up, but the crew members, who are stuck outside in the conditions, have adapted by covering their faces with scarves and sunglasses – some even have protective goggles. 

The quarry is the perfect place to recreate the disastrous World War I campaign and actor Ido Drent, who plays Lieutenant Charles Smith, does not have any trouble pretending to be sweaty and grimy in his woollen army uniform.

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"Hot," he says of filming conditions. "Very, very hot. Let's just say I'm very sweaty at the end of the day, that's for sure. I've actually been lucky. We've only had a couple of big days that have been hot and where I've worn three layers, but that's what they went through and it all adds to the environment and to the physicality. "It really helps as an actor. I enjoy those kinds of physical challenges."

The drama follows the fortunes of a Kiwi family, the Smiths, during the war. Son Charles is very much the golden boy, says former Shortland Street star Drent.

"He's someone everybody likes and has respect for in many ways. He's quite successful for his young age – doing well in legal circles and marrying into the 'upper class' and he goes to war, having had a very privileged life and quite a lot of success behind him. He's a leader in the Territorial Army and he's a lieutenant in the army so he goes to war with great expectations.

"That was the journey for many New Zealanders back then and Australians as well – having come off the Boer War, where everything was quite rosy, going to Gallipoli there was this expectation that it was probably going to be a bit easier and not as deadly as it was.

"He goes to war and sees the reality of war, especially the reality of World War I and the futility of it all – the basic incompetence that cost many lives. He starts to question his black-and-white beliefs and ends up realising that what he believes to be true isn't necessarily as true as he thought it was.

"I guess, in many ways, Charles is the personification of the general attitude towards the war in New Zealand at the time, in the sense that he's very much for the empire, really supportive of the war and wanting to do his duty and then throughout the Gallipoli campaign realises that what we believed the empire to be isn't quite correct. Duty and honour – the meaning of those two things changes for him and it becomes a lot more about his people rather than fighting as a Briton."

Drent, who after leaving Shortland Street moved to Australia where he landed a recurring role in the drama Offspring, came back to Auckland to film the drama and enjoyed researching the experiences of Kiwi soldiers.

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"I've been reading a lot. There are some great books. They used to write these letters that were so unbelievably detailed. They would tell their parents everything and a lot of those visual and sensory descriptions were in those letters. They talk about the blue water and the crisp clear day in the dusty trenches and the smells, so they are quite rich to read.

"The other research is that there have been so many great documentaries and movies made about this era that are really well-informed. Just reading all that stuff about ranks and how the army worked and how to salute and what all the salutes meant and what not to do. And the language of that time."

Having been born in South Africa, Drent grew up hearing about war from a different perspective.

"We were actually on the other side in the Boer War and my great-great-great-grandparents were locked up in concentration camps by the British and Kiwi soldiers and stuff. In World War I, they fled from the war and weren't really involved.

"Growing up, my grandparents for example – even though my grandmother had an English family – had a real disdain for the English. They really didn't like them. I've definitely experienced that historical animosity towards the English which is really interesting."

When We Go To War, TV One, Sunday

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