Anzac Nations: The Legacy of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia by Rowan Light (Otago University Press, 2022), 262pp, $50
The Gallipoli campaign of 1915–16 was intended to unlock indirectly the bloody attritional stalemate in Europe. Whilst not quite desperate, it was certainly risky. But the geo-strategic rewards of success could have eventually proved decisive for the Entente. So the New Zealand Expeditionary Force combined with its Australian counterpart to form the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) as part of the allied expedition sent to capture the Gallipoli peninsula and open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The Ottoman adventure ended in abject failure: the invasion force was withdrawn after eight months of fighting, with approximately 250,000 casualties on each side. And the Western Front meat mincer kept grinding for another two years. But as part of what has come to be considered a murderous folly characterised by Churchillian grandiosity and bigoted incompetent command, desperate privation and selfless martyrdom or sacrifice, Australian and New Zealand forces fought their first major military action of World War I at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Over a century later, each country marks the anniversary to remember not only those who died at Gallipoli but all who have served their country in times of war.
How simple that sounds. Naturally enough, the reasons for the campaign ending in disaster have been much debated. But it seems far less arguable that it is the failure that has determined the mythos New Zealanders and Australians have rather errantly built up around the idea of Gallipoli. New Zealand and Australia were in thrall to the British Empire; to a much stronger degree, an almost-nascent Turkey was hidebound to the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish state likewise trumpets Gallipoli as a defining moment in its move towards independence: a victory in which ethnic Turks—not least of all Turkey’s founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli—realised their own martial strength as measured against the crumbling Ottoman Empire, for which they had been killing and dying. New Zealand, by contrast, was laggard in asserting its independence but had in important ways enjoyed it since the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand, which had been signed by at least some Māori chiefs in 1835, notwithstanding the fluctuating degree of ongoing British suzerainty that continues to this day.
Rowan Light, an historian at the University of Auckland, has attempted to account for how the cultural memory of the Anzacs at Gallipoli was formed and how it has changed in New Zealand and Australia from 1965 until 2015. Light’s Anzac Nations: The Legacy of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia is at once ambitious and circumscribed. Cultural memory of war is capacious, mercurial, and difficult to gauge; Anzac Day and wider commemoration of Gallipoli is a narrow lens through which to view deep and broad currents of feeling. With these challenges and limitations, Anzac Nations explores three aspects of how Anzac mythmaking has evolved: its changing and contested meanings; how the state has curated these meanings and the expansion of its role in commemorations; and how indigenous and non-indigenous communities have responded to these frequently prescriptive changes. Light does this by focussing each chapter on what he calls a ‘flashpoint’: particular events or significant activities that serve to channel wider streams of discourse. These proceed chronologically: the 50th anniversary of the campaign in 1965; the anti-military protests during the 1960s and 1970s; the work of filmmakers and writers about Gallipoli in the 1980s; the expansion of the state’s role in commemorations during the 1990s; Australia’s and New Zealand’s repatriations of their respective ‘unknown soldiers’ in the 1990s and 2000s; the subsequent ‘commemorative diplomacy of the two countries prime ministers’; the responses of indigenous media to wider trends; and finally, the centenaries of 2015.
This siloed approach seems to me procrustean. Public attitudes to Anzac Day in the 1980s, for example, would be more useful not with a narrow focus on film and literature but rather a wider one on issues such as opposition to French nuclear tests at Mururoa and American warship visits to New Zealand. Maurice Shadbolt’s stage play, Once on Chunuk Bair (1982) and the curated narratives of his later book, Voices of Gallipoli (1988), seem too idiosyncratic a sample for figuring collective memory. Light also apparently assumes people mean what they say and that what they say is not contingent on where they say it. Vox pops, political speeches, and artworks are all strongly stamped by context. A person who got out of bed at 3am and has been standing arm to arm with compatriots as dawn cinematically breaks on the Bosphorus while solemn martial rituals are performed, a politician intoning a ghost-written speech in front of cameras with an election looming, or a writer funded by taxpayer monies reworking history into forms pleasing to themselves: such utterances should not, I think, be taken at face value as reflecting the day-to-day beliefs of the speaker, let alone those of the collective, however construed.
Light is quite correct to dwell on how Anzac services and commemorations, especially those staged by the state, have increasingly become performances in which the audience is carried away on successive rising waves of calibrated dramatic intensity. Such productions come with unfortunate publicity as they are sold to the public. Light quotes some bloviating semi-public figure and steps back and watches as they hoist themselves on their own petards. Chris Pugsley, for example, is quoted proclaiming that Te Papa’s popular exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The scale of our war’ ‘will determine how New Zealanders remember the Gallipoli campaign for the twenty-first century’ (171). Such hubris is disappointing, especially since Pugsley was the exhibition’s historical director, not its public relations consultant or advertising executive. That it was stated on the record is mindboggling. Can a single exhibition determine the way all New Zealanders remember a century-old event for the next hundred years? Perhaps more importantly, should it? But I do not think we need to worry. I took my then ten-year-old twin daughters to see the exhibition in the year it opened. What they remembered of it for a week or so were giant people made by the man who did Lord of the Rings.
It is seldom, in fact, that Light quotes someone without implying a sense of disapproval. When discussing the connection between the centenary dawn service and deployment of New Zealand and Australian troops to Iraq to help them combat Islamic State (ISIS), then Prime Ministers Key and Abbot are reported as having affirmed their wish that the ‘Anzac legacy is used as a catalyst for further cooperation, peace-building and the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law into the future’ (175). To this, Light appends Australian academic John Blaxland’s riposte in which the latter reports the ‘pathos’ he felt in seeing ‘the great-grandsons of Anzac involved as bit-players in a fight against a Middle-East supposed caliphate’ (175). One is left wondering what is being objected to. Did Blaxland feel pity and sadness for today’s soldiers? Given the rest of his statement, did he in fact feel bathos? And if ISIS—the most barbaric, pernicious, and nihilistic regime this century has seen—wasn’t worth fighting, who or what would be? And that question, I think, is the one that New Zealanders need to ask themselves. When is violence acceptable to us?
New Zealanders, perhaps, see Gallipoli somewhat like Texans ‘remember the Alamo’: as a glorious failure that demonstrates the characteristics that contemporary New Zealanders seldom seem to display: stoicism, dutifulness, cooperative discipline, and a willingness to do violence to others in service of the state. The occasion has become about us here and now rather than those other strange and estranged people there and then: one watches an Anzac service and sees the camera pan to someone’s great-great-grandchildren in tears at the idea of their great-great-granduncle’s death somewhere in Europe or Asia a century or so ago. A hoary tale frequently heard during April in the Antipodes involves so-and-so’s great-great-grandfather having had flat feet or a bad back or such like and if he hadn’t been so afflicted then the tale’s teller ‘wouldn’t be here today’. Anecdotally, I find there is a discomfiting parasitism and vicariousness to how some New Zealanders relate to Gallipoli, whereby our forefathers’ martial traits are co-opted by people who would not put themselves in a similar position. I suspect there is a kind of collective self-deception at play, which warrants examination, but Light only obliquely touches on it.
Interesting, too, that we commemorate our defeats rather than celebrate our victories. Although the book’s tone is relaxed, Light is too assiduous an historian to indulge in counterfactual conjecture. But I think it would have been worth asking whether the Gallipoli campaign would have served as a vessel for our unspoken anxieties and emotional excesses if its risks had ended in reward and had resulted in an Entente victory. What else could serve as a focal point for New Zealanders’ seemingly ambivalent and fickle attitudes to our military? Things could have gone another way. Vincent O’Malley has brought attention to the resurgence of interest in the New Zealand Wars following the end of World War I in 1918, a resurgence still rich with the jingoism and sense of imperial obligation that dictated New Zealand’s response to Britain’s call in 1914. Even so, had this reorientation to our civil war—for that is surely what the New Zealand Wars were—taken hold of public attention, perhaps the significance of Gallipoli might have diminished and we could have taken stock of ourselves somewhat earlier. Defeat at Gallipoli brought with it no obligations. Te Tiriti most certainly did. Did Anzac Day become a de facto national day because parlaying ideas of selflessness and sacrifice into a comfortingly soft-focussed national origin story is more palatable than being confronted by the hard facts of Te Tiriti and its legacy in the New Zealand Wars? Possibly, but attempting an answer to such a question falls beyond the scope of Light’s book.
What are Light’s conclusions? About a quarter of the book is given over to end matter. Given the book somewhat peters out, it’s hard not to think some of this space might have been better given to a synthesising or speculative inference from all Light’s probing and cribration. One conclusion I inferred is that New Zealand tends to go where Australia leads, albeit at a smaller scale and with less trumpeting. The comparison with Australia seems to me one of the least interesting aspects of the book because the countries’ trajectories diverge in predictable ways: compared to New Zealand, Australia’s use of Gallipoli is more bellicose, louder, flashier, costlier, bigger, and—for better or worse—more confident: as is the case in most comparisons between the two countries. And is remembering really what New Zealanders do on Anzac Day? I believe a more accurate description would be imagining: imagining, especially, a community—a New Zealand—in which the past and present are wrenched into likeness.
The horrors of war, however, are very real. Rather than either remembering or imagining, simply acknowledging and honouring what we know and do not understand would go some way towards recognising the unbridgeable chasm that separates us from those who fought and died, even when that acknowledgement and honouring lends itself to the kind of spectacle and personalisation that has increasingly come to characterise commemorations. The soldiers of Gallipoli fought and died for values often very different from our own, so in what sense did they do so defending our values now? And what are those values? Are all expeditionary wars really ‘other people’s wars’? This equation of diminishing moral rightness the further the fight takes place from New Zealand has always puzzled me—but again I find myself beset by more questions. Finding answers to them still seems a long way off.
ROBERT McLEAN is a poet, critic, reviewer and PhD candidate at Massey University studying representations of state-sanctioned violence in New Zealand poetry. His collected poems were published in 2020 by Cold Hub Press. He lives in Lyttelton and works in Wellington for the New Zealand government.