Anzac Day: Truth in war

17:00, Jul 31 2010
`... life itself no longer mattered so long as it was sold dearly.'

We've got the wrong Anzac Day, argues historian Matthew Wright. There's a better day to remember our dead, and it falls this week.

ANZAC DAY on April 25 is a moment for solemn remembrance. We recall the dead of all our wars. And remember them, as they wanted. It's become iconic, a focus for remembrance of all our wars, symbolic of the close relationships with Australia.

Which is all good stuff – except we're doing it on the wrong day. The fact is that Anzac Day is an oddity. It's a beginning – the moment when the great overseas campaign opened. Most nations instead remember their war dead either on November 11, when World War I ended in 1918 – or on the day of great loss. In our case that would be October 12. We suffered more than 3000 casualties, including 1200 dead, that day in 1917 at Passchendaele.

And if we are going to celebrate beginnings, then in the strictest historical sense April 25 wasn't it for us either. It was really Australia's day. New Zealanders didn't land at dawn and were not there in the crucial first hours.

As I argue in my book Shattered Glory, the status we give the Gallipoli landing comes not from contemporary events, but from the way we remember them. The 20th century was New Zealand's age of emerging nationalism. Our first great military campaign, in retrospect, became the popular starting point of the journey.

The link came about in an almost perverse way. New Zealand was prostrated by the grief of Gallipoli – the shattering of schoolboy expectation, underscored by the deaths of more than 2500 young men, and all for nothing. The people fell back on those discredited, but somehow comforting, ideals of imperial glory, of sacrifice for the greater cause.


In an extraordinary mass transformation, grief was turned to celebration, triumph drawn magically out of failure, and Anzac Day became an institution, even before World War I ended. All without really being planned, all in a neat and entirely spontaneous reversal of the hard truth. It was not hard to draw it into New Zealand's emerging sense of local nationalism.

So was there a moment when we might celebrate a beginning to the military past that plays such a large part in our self-definition of nationhood? When we might more truly remember our dead?

It happened 95 years ago this week, August 7-9, 1915, with the attack on Chunuk Bair.

The New Zealand effort to take this mountain was part of Britain's last serious effort to win the Gallipoli peninsula, and the Kiwi assault under William Malone reached its objective. They were the only force that did, holding out for three days against an equally courageous assault from the Turks.

It was a moment when young Kiwi soldiers brought up on a diet of schoolboy war fantasies realised just how terrible war could be.

"My God, talk about bullets," Joseph Teihoka confided to his diary. Cyril Bassett – who spent two days under heavy Turkish fire repairing phone lines up to the Chunuk Bair ridge – won the VC. He never felt he deserved it. "All my mates ever got was wooden crosses."

Reinforcements found their climb to the battlefield "strewn with dead and wounded". Harry Browne admired them. "They cheered us on as we passed them and if you apologised for kicking against one they would reply, `It's all right mate, I know you did not mean to'."

Browne found his resolve hardening as he climbed. "Such things fill men with grim purpose."

The battle had become a desperate struggle by the time he reached it. "We were now firing for all we were worth, necessity seeming to add deadliness to our aim... life itself no longer mattered so long as it was sold dearly."

In one heart-rending moment, Browne looked across to a neighbouring trench where "the only sign of life... was the stump of an arm which now and then wave[d] feebly for help" – and they heard a voice calling "New Zealand", but Browne and his fellows could "get no aid for him. On the parapet above lay a hand. That hand had been throwing back Turkish bombs".

On August 9, the Kiwis were withdrawn, utterly exhausted. The next day, August 10, the Turks swept newly arrived British defenders off the ridge.

The New Zealanders put up a tremendous fight. But, instead of offering congratulations, commanders looked for scapegoats. Official wrath fell on Malone – who had been killed during the fight and was unable to defend his reputation.

Chunuk Bair was, in historical context, very much in line with later close-run defeats in World War II. The battles for Greece, Crete, Tobruk, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat Ridge and Cassino are better-known examples of similar action against terrible odds.

The fame these later battles achieved is not hard to explain. Near-run defeat keyed into New Zealand's national psyche of the 20th century, that mad mix of "colonial cringe" and bantam rooster syndrome.

We always imagined we punched above our weight, but we knew, somehow, that it would never be good enough.

Our military history played its part in shaping that mind-set, even as it was also a product of it. About 10% of all Kiwis – nearly half the young men of a generation – fought directly in World War I. Their children made similar contributions to WWII. Their experience helped define the first half of our 20th century and directly moulded thinking well into the 1980s.

And that history began in earnest on that Gallipoli mountain top, 95 years ago this week. By that logic, when it comes to memorialising our war dead, August 7 was more our day than April 25.

Tradition isn't easy to change. But it's worth pondering.

Matthew Wright is one of New Zealand's most published historians. His book Shattered Glory: New Zealanders at Gallipoli and the Western Front is published by Penguin and explores the emotional impact of these campaigns on the men who fought them – and their families.

He blogs at

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