The queue for the exhibition Gallipoli, The Scale of Our War, was quiet, even sombre.
People spoke softly, the few children kept close to their parents. The ushers told us we were lucky, we would be admitted within twenty minutes; earlier in the day people had waited for nearly three-quarters of an hour.
The exhibition is grabbing the attention of New Zealanders. It’s been mounted to mark one hundred years since Gallipoli, the campaign in World War One that is often touted as marking the beginning of New Zealand’s nationhood. Back then New Zealand was a dominion of the British Empire. My forebears had only been here fifty or so years. They thought of Britain as home.
Gallipoli was an ill-fated campaign for control of the Dardanelles, in Turkey. The British Empire wasn’t the first to come to grief in this part of the world. Just over the brow of the cliffs that tower above ANZAC Cove is the site of the battle of Troy. Without the 20th Century equivalent of a Trojan Horse, our guys were doomed. As one of the veterans said, in typical laconic Kiwi style, “We just couldn’t sort it out.”
The exhibition grabs hold of the viewer. It’s high impact. The super sized models of the soldiers, made by Weta workshop, are impressively detailed, down to flies, beads of sweat, and the pores in their skin.
They make the men (and the one woman – a nurse) appear larger than life. I didn’t like that so much. I think it’s dangerous to idolise this stuff.
But I am interested in how soldiers got through, how they held themselves in tact, and what it took from them to keep on doing what they had to do. How they managed, or not, to hold on to their humanity in the face of such unspeakable brutality. I’m not only referring to the brutality of the foe. (In fact, these two foes, the Turks and the Kiwis, regarded each other with respect.)
Take this shovel, for example. It’s not much bigger than a garden trowel. Imagine being ordered to dig a trench with that and we’re not talking garden sized trenches.
Imagine being ordered to scramble up Chunuk Bair, and if you reached the top, to engage in battle, your belly by then empty, every muscle in your body screaming with fatigue.
Or falling asleep on sentry duty on your first day after a bout of pneumonia. A crime so serious the punishment was death by firing squad.
These are the things I wonder about. If you listen to the interviews with veterans, view the photos, and read their letters you’ll get a sense of what the daily reality may have been like.
For me, there was one exhibit that jangled. It was an opportunity to look through a periscope, imitating those used by snipers in the trenches to sight their foe, and to then press a button which simulated the firing of a gun. I did look through the periscope. I didn’t press the button. That was taking matters a bit too far. The veterans I remember from my childhood wouldn’t have been impressed by that. They didn’t talk about the war much but they were highly allergic to anything that trivialised it.
Other exhibits moved me. Dr Fenwick’s expression tells something of the despair and futility he faced. His diary entries are frank about the price paid at Gallipoli. He suggested renaming ANZAC Cove, Bloody Beach Bay.
Inside Lieutenant Colonel Malone’s hut I had goosebumps. It was exactly one hundred years to the day since Malone wrote a letter to his wife and then left to lead his men up Chunuk Bair. He didn’t make it home.
The exhibition is visually impressive. And it’s packed with information. If you go, allow plenty of time, listen to the recorded interviews of veterans, read the excerpts from their diaries, their letters – that’s where you get a sense of what it was like for them.
As to the scale of our war? 93% of New Zealand forces in that campaign were wounded or killed. Ninety-three percent. That figure is staggering, isn’t it. Nevertheless, our total casualties were much higher in the battle of the Somme, in France, the following year.
No wonder the jingoism and the patriotism, which led to more than 14,000 Kiwi men signing up during the first week of war, had worn a bit thin by 1916.
The New Zealand government introduced conscription. Conscientious Objectors, and there were many, paid a high price. Some were imprisoned, others were ridiculed and persecuted, and they had their civil rights removed for ten years. But that’s another story, one not covered in this exhibition.
Categories: Off The Beaten Track in Aotearoa