Friday, April 17, 2015

100 years ago

This year marks 100 years since the Gallipoli landings. Much has been written and said about the landings, and their meaning, mostly by people far more knowledgeable about things military and historical than I shall ever be.

I have opinions, possibly less well informed than those others, but I suspect better informed than those of many. Strategically, the decision to land at Gallipoli wasn't as flawed as some suggest. At the grand tactical and tactical levels implementation was at best flawed and riddled with incompetence.

Much has also been said about the events of that day, and the succeeding campaign, defining nation-hood for both Australia and New Zealand. Again I feel that I have nothing of any substance to add to that debate, but one can certainly observe a significant increase in support for remembrance of those who were injured, or lost their lives, during what was without doubt an horrific experience. I have some concerns about this which I expressed in a previous blog post titled 'Secular Sainthood.

The suggestion that this was in some way more abhorrent than other wartime experiences is one area in which I might part company with others. I would have thought that ANY experience of war is horrific for its participants.

I am also always fascinated by the propensity of english speaking peoples in particular to perpetuate myths of the first world war. Here re a few:

  1. English and Empire soldiers were 'Lions lead by donkeys'
  2. All battles were fought in knee deep mud or worse
  3. All attacks saw infantry walking across open ground against machine guns
  4. The German army invented storm trooper tactics

I could go on. There has been a reluctance by so many to look at the evidence, yet when they do the story is often very different.

Now don't get me wrong, this was a war riddled with error and misjudgement (as they all were). But the suggestion that it was more so than any other is in my opinion unfounded.

In war, men and women die. In war, men and women die needlessly. My fear is that as we recognise the 100th anniversary of this failed campaign we perpetuate these myths.

Having said all of that, in New Zealand we are seeing some wonderful memorials to the sacrifice of those New Zealand and Australian men and women 100 years ago. Sir Peter Jackson has made an enormous contribution as has Weta Workshops. Look at the wonderful exhibitions opening at Te Papa (the NZ National Museum).


  1. Nice post Robin. I think breaking the myths is difficult because of how they are imparted, to young people by teachers who do not specialise in history (and if they do they often do not specialise in anything much to do with World War One or military history). Quite often it is by English teachers studying the war poets. I always do my bit to try to re-educate the Year 9s I have in front of me, but for many teachers the most simplistic explanation is the only way they and their students can make sense of the war.
    I'd also add in another myth, which is still causing deep divide even amongst professional historians and that is the idea that Germany 'had' to be stopped as if it was somehow the fore-runner of the Nazis. The fact that we fought on the side of the far more autocratic, brutal, repressive and racist Russian Empire is conveniently forgotten.
    I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition in Te Papa though.

    1. I agree.. I too have met history teachers who have no understanding of WW1 beyond Blackadder, mud and charges across open fields against MGs. I'd have thought that their historiographical training at least might have lead them to question. You make a good point about the Russian Empire as well.

  2. A timely post.

    FWIW I share some of your concerns outlined in your secular sainthood post. I hope that individuals take a deeper look at the impacts of conflict both historical and current and do not focus on items as simple as nationhood. I fear uncontrolled nationalism or fanaticism in its many forms.

  3. I felt slightly concerned listening to the TV3 interview with Sir Peter Jackson, when one of his comments contained just that slightest hint of some of these fallacies.. I meant to write it down but got distracted... this could be our NZ equivalent of Hollywood's U571 in which movie studios rewrite history. I hope not. That was what prompted the post.


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