Worthy Sons? Every ANZAC Day we tell ourselves that the blood sacrifice of Gallipoli marked the birth of New Zealand nationhood. But as the above poster attests, it was not our independence that George, the King Emperor, acknowledged but our fatal subservience to Britain's imperial interests.
THE DEEP SOLEMNITY with which ANZAC Day is commemorated in New Zealand is entirely appropriate. Never before have the people of this country been required to cope with the violent death of so many of their fellow citizens. For New Zealand’s political and military leadership the public’s response to the unprecedented length of the casualty lists was a matter of critical significance.
A military disaster on the scale of the Gallipoli campaign can be responded to in one of two ways. Either, the nation recoils in anger and disgust at the unforgiveable failure of both the armed forces and the government to protect its sons; or, it transforms the sordid waste of young lives into an occasion for patriotic and ultimately spiritual exaltation.
For the deeply conservative government of the day it, therefore, became a matter of some urgency that the Gallipoli defeat, and its horrific losses, be reconfigured into a blood-sanctified rite of national passage. Having laid upon the altar the “dearest and the best” they had to offer, New Zealanders still at home were told that they had all, by some mysterious patriotic alchemy, been ennobled. Those hundreds of dead Kiwi boys had “stood the test”, and now it was the duty of all those for whom they had made “the final sacrifice” to do the same.
This transformation of the botched Dardanelles campaign into a symbol of emergent nationhood was, thus, a stunning example of the most malign and cynical statecraft. By re-presenting the ANZAC defeat as New Zealand’s bloody “coming of age”, the Reform Party Prime Minister, Bill Massey, made certain that the disaster of Gallipoli would never be seriously questioned or criticised. To do so would be tantamount to questioning and criticising “the glorious dead” – and that soon became unthinkable.
And so it has continued, down through the ten decades since those ANZAC soldiers first planted their boots on Turkish soil. And in every one of those decades the political and military leadership of New Zealand have reiterated the solemn falsehoods upon which the commemoration of ANZAC Day is founded.
That the soldiers died for freedom and democracy.
That the battle marked the true birth of the New Zealand nation.
That had it been left to the Kiwis and the Aussies, the Gallipoli peninsula could have been secured.
The men who died on the unforgiving slopes of Gallipoli were volunteers, brim-full of imperial pride and ready to give their all for their King-Emperor and his empire. Freedom and democracy didn’t come into it. In 1914 Great Britain itself was only barely democratic. Most of the 800,000 British dead gave their lives for a state which did not allow them to vote. New Zealand was a truly democratic state, but the progressive forces which had made it so harboured serious reservations about the war. Conscription was required to keep the blood tribute flowing and the government which oversaw it was brutally authoritarian.
Far from marking the birth of the New Zealand nation, the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent battles in Flanders retarded the development of an independent New Zealand identity. Only in the Second World War could it be truthfully said that New Zealand’s citizen soldiers were consciously fighting for freedom and democracy – along with the job-rich, union-protected, welfare state their votes had brought into being.
That the losses in the Second World War were so much less than the First owed a great deal to the lessons drawn from that earlier conflict. Sending farm boys to take the Gallipoli peninsula was always a fool’s errand. The Turks knew it and so did their German advisers. Yes, we took Chunuk Bair, but we couldn’t hold it. Nobody could.
Next year we’ll solemnly mark the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. I hold little hope that we will do so honestly. Age may not weary those dear, best boys, but while we continue to tell ourselves lies about why they died – they will never rest.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 April 2014.