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Matthew Wright is a prolific writer on many subjects not just military history. Many of this highly qualified historian’s works interpret various aspects of New Zealand’s social history. And it is this interpretative skill which underpins the author’s latest work The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front.
This book looks behind the actual events and discusses the why of not only the military and political actions and decisions related to the New Zealand’s soldiers’ involvement in World War 1, but also the social, political and economic of these decisions on New Zealand.
The work is not strictly a new book. As the author notes, it is an ‘updated and expanded second edition of Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front’.
Among the important The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front updates are new numbers of the New Zealand strength at Gallipoli, which were finally reported on in 2016.
Wright views the New Zealand casualties at Gallipoli, showing the impact of these casualties on New Zealand’s then small, conservative country which was still highly motivated by the jingoism of the time – for the Glory of King and Empire. He sees the idealism of the time ‘however naïve it may seem from a twenty-first century viewpoint’ as being a device with which the country coped with the ‘shattering losses’ of the Gallipoli campaign.
However, the impact on New Zealand while known by households throughout the country having empty chairs around the dinner table, were never properly recognised in official figures. This was apparently because of bad record keeping by an inexperienced and probably under-resourced New Zealand army administration. The New Zealand government did not establish a post World War 1 war history branch, as the Australian Government did – they did after the World War 2. A semi-official history of the Gallipoli Campaign by Fred Waite was put together in haste in 1919 before many of the documents were available. In a preface, equally written in haste by Gallipoli commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, quoted a number of “total strength landed” as being 8,556 New Zealanders with total casualties of 7,447.
Wright comments that where Hamilton got his numbers from is not really known but they stuck as being official for decades. The impact that these figures had in establishing myth and legend around New Zealand’s sacrifice is discussed in length by Wright. Apparently it was in the 1980’s that historians began to question the Hamilton figures, but it was a long search before any acceptable level of accuracy was established.
In 2016, an interim report by New Zealand Defence Force Historian, John Crawford, suggested that many more kiwis had been involved in Gallipoli than the Hamilton figures had indicated. It was now thought that “probably” more than 17,000 New Zealanders fought at Gallipoli. While not claimed as a final figure, it is apparently changing the way historians are considering the New Zealand’s role. Wright does not seem to suggest that the casualty rate of 7,447 is in doubt. Proportionally, this is in line with the casualty rate of other nations involved. Thus, New Zealand had not, it seems, made an exceptional sacrifice after all, although obviously the social impact within New Zealand, is now seen as touching many more families than the Hamilton figures suggested.
The scale of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front was much greater than at Gallipoli. More than 90,000 kiwis were involved producing more than half of the casualties in all of New Zealand’s military history. And Wright notes that there was a greater toll if the death of wounded solders after the war and the lingering effects of gas were taken into account. The battles, the victories (Messines and Les Quesnoy) and the tragedies (Somme and Passchendaele) are detailed both in terms of the political and military preparations and the actual battles, but also from the personal level with excellent references to letters and diaries of officers and soldiers. Letters from home are also well used by Wright to allow an understanding of the impact of the hostilities back in New Zealand.
Following the penultimate chapter discussing whether New Zealand was in indeed a land fit for heroes to return, Wright finishes this book with a chapter entitled ‘Myth and Memory’. In it, he explores how ANZAC day, always regarded as the first expression of a New Zealand identity, has been ‘re-framed’ around 21st Century notions of the country’s self-identity with the battles of Gallipoli and on the Western Front: viewed in a different context from when they were fought.
We are now in the year of remembrance of the 1914-18 tragedy: the centenary anniversaries of Gallipoli, Messines and Passchendaele will be held in June and September with commemorative ceremonies throughout the country. Scores of kiwis will visit the commemorations at the battlefields in Europe. The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front explains why.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front
by Matthew Wright
Published by Oratia Publishing
This makes an interesting comparison with the myth-making that occurred in Australia too. Our prime ministers come and go but they all say that Australia fought for its freedom in WW1…
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