When the New Zealand soldiers landed at Anzac Cove, they were weighed down by their kit. Along with rifle, bayonet, and ammunition, they carried over 30 kilos of food, clothing, water, and even firewood. Anything not useful was swiftly discarded.
In the parching heat of summer, the troops defied uniform regulations and cut off the legs of their trousers.
Yet in memory, they continue to shoulder a heavy burden. Men who went to war for the Empire have become instead the foundation of a pervasive myth of origin for New Zealand as a nation.
It is unclear, at first sight, why a failed imperial invasion of a foreign land should have provided New Zealand with a national origin myth; stranger still that we share this origin story with another country. However, the significance of Anzac to both Australia and New Zealand has only grown with time. Today’s baby boomers shirked, and even protested, Anzac services. Now Aussie and Kiwi millennials flock to Anzac Cove for commemorations on April 25, while at home, dawn services in both countries draw increasing numbers of young people.
There is nothing wrong with commemorating the loss and suffering of our soldiers on Gallipoli. For a growing number of New Zealanders, the commemoration has become personal as they uncover sometimes forgotten family connections to the war. Archives NZ has recently made the service records of all our World War 1 soldiers available online: finding your own connection is now just a few clicks away.
Yet there is an uncomfortable link between this intensely personal sense of commemoration and that national myth of origin. For the belief that ‘New Zealand announced its manhood to the world on the bloody slopes of Gallipoli in 1915’ is also resurgent, and that myth threatens to overshadow both the soldiers themselves and realities of the war they fought.
So thoroughly has the Anzac legend of popular imagination come to possess the Gallipoli campaign that it is as if Australia and New Zealand were the main participants. They did perform a key role, but were just part of a much larger allied invading force largely made up of British and French troops, along with Indians and even a sprinkling of Newfoundlanders. As shocking as our nearly 8,000 casualties seem, especially for such a small country, they pale beside the more than 130,000 other allies killed or wounded (let alone the quarter of a million casualties sustained by the Ottoman army).
These numbers give another perspective to our national possessiveness over the peninsula. Indeed the sense of Gallipoli as a place of extraordinary national sacrifice may also help explain why, for more than a century, few questioned the suspiciously high 87% casualty rate routinely given for this campaign. Recent research has shown that this percentage was based on a massive underestimation of the numbers of New Zealanders who served there. In reality, the rate is closer to Australia’s at around 53% – shocking, but no longer exceptional.
The relentless focus on Gallipoli and its role as the bloody birthplace of a nation has also served to obscure New Zealand’s wider involvement in the war. Peter Jackson’s monster-sized Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa was called The Scale of Our War, but our contribution – the real scale of our war – needs to be measured on the Western Front. That is where most New Zealanders served, where our losses were greatest, and where most of our dead still lie. Even some unfortunate Gallipoli veterans were transported from the deadly sideshow at the Dardanelles to the main event in Europe. For these men, as for all those who served on the front, the scale of war must have seemed truly monstrous. The events at Passchendaele, 100 years ago, remind us why. On 12 October, 1917, in just one action, 845 New Zealanders were killed, making it the most deadly moment in our history, but only the worst moment of the prolonged slaughter that characterised New Zealand‘s war on the Western Front.
The point here is not to claim one event as worse than another, and therefore more worthy of commemoration, and so replace one myth with another, but to show how even our greatest tragedies have been subsumed by the national origin myth. Persistently viewing war through the lens of national identity not only obscures other conflicts but blinds us to other ways of understanding it.
On Anzac Day, we need to remember more, not simply remember harder. For, the histories of war’s impact on New Zealand reach beyond the narrow national identity story to give us a much richer understanding of our past. We now have histories of war’s effect on children, and on those left behind. We know more about the home front, about the role of women, about the impact of war on businesses, on religion, on charity. We know more about the bravery of those who would not serve, from conscientious objectors, to those Māori who went to prison rather than fighting for a country that had taken away their lands. And we know more about the soldiers themselves: their real lives behind the lines, including the things we don’t want to talk about – sex, gambling, and drinking – and their lives when they returned, changed, to a changed home.
Many of these stories have surfaced as part of the centenary commemorations of New Zealand’s involvement in World War One. Their resurgence is welcome. Now, like those soldiers at Anzac Cove, we should lay down the burden of the old national identity story, and craft in its place a much fuller version of this part of our past.