Anzac Day

  • Dr Lockwood Smith
International Trade

Today is a day we New Zealanders will never forget. Today we commemorate the landing of New Zealand and Australian troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the First World War.

That was exactly 84 years ago, on 25 April 1915. The cove at which the Anzacs came ashore now bears their name. It was the beginning of a campaign which featured unparalleled bravery and fortitude. It produced close bonds of comradeship, especially between New Zealanders and Australians, but also with their former foes, which have endured to this day.

We join New Zealanders at home, returned soldiers, civilians, military, and others across our nation who gather annually on 25 April to pay tribute to those who served at Gallipoli, and in later campaigns in France and in subsequent wars.

So many of our families had loved ones involved. Here at Gallopoli, my Grandmother's fiance was one.

Today we honour their memory, and the contribution they made to the development of New Zealand as we know it today.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1915 numbered 8,556 men. It was the largest fighting force ever to leave New Zealand.

For the most part, they were not regular soldiers, but young men with some territorial service bolstered by recruits flushed with patriotic pride.

Drawn from across a fledgling nation, they volunteered in response to the call to fight for their country, and for the British Empire of which they still felt an integral part.

The original British plan was for an allied naval assault through the Dardinelles, and on to Istanbul. The objective was to defeat Turkey and to bring relief to Russia.

But when the British and French warships were repelled by mines, and by strong fire from the Turkish forts guarding the narrows, it was decided to mount an amphibious expedition to overrun the forts so the fleet could pass though in relative safety.

The changed plan was for a force of New Zealanders, Australians, British and French troops to land at Gallipoli at dawn and push through to the Turkish forts.

The New Zealand soldiers had spent months training in the Egyptian desert. They were then called the "Fernleafs" after the emblem on their hatbadges - it was before the term "Kiwi" had been coined.

When dawn broke on the 25th of April, New Zealanders and Australians confronted a narrow beach with high cliffs leading onto the rugged and difficult terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula, very different from the flat or undulating terrain they had trained on in Egypt.

The land bore little or no resemblance to the markings on their maps. After making encouraging initial progress, they found themselves pinned down under heavy fire from the defending Turkish soldiers. Within just two days there were 600 casualties among the initial echelon of 3,100 New Zealand soldiers.

In the lengthy trench warfare and hard physical combat that followed the New Zealanders and Australians showed remarkable resilience and courage. There was strength of character too, and a compassion for their comrades that went well beyond all normal expectations.

In these desperate conditions one of the most inspiring actions ever performed by New Zealand soldiers took place on the morning of 8 August 1915. They stormed the heights of Chunuk Bair - the summit where we are standing and appropriately, the site of the New Zealand memorial.

From here some of the New Zealand soldiers would have glimpsed the Narrows down below. For two days, under fire and running short of water, the New Zealanders clung to this strategic key to the peninsula. It was at huge cost before they were relieved.

Of the 760 Wellington Infantry Battalion soldiers who formed the main body of the troops who first took the summit, some ninety percent were killed or wounded. They were joined by soldiers from the Otago Infantry Battalion and the Otago and Wellington Mounteds who also suffered terrible casualties. The names of those killed are inscribed on the wall just below us.

History shows that the summit was subsequently recaptured by Turkish forces, and the Allied campaign lost momentum from that time onwards.

C.E.W. Bean, the official Australian War Historian relates that:

"Of the 760 Wellington Battalion who captured the height that morning, there came out only 70 unwounded or slightly wounded men. Throughout the day not one had dreamt of leaving his post. Their uniforms were torn, their knees broken. They had had no water since morning: they could only talk in whispers: their eyes were sunken: their knees trembled: some broke down and cried like children."

The Official New Zealand War History records:

"August 8 was a day of tragedy for New Zealand, but no day in our calendar shines with greater glory."

There were many heroes among the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair. Several were recommended to receive the Victoria Cross, though only one was awarded - to Cyril Bassett, a signaller - for keeping the lines of communications open under intense enemy fire.

Christopher Pugsley writes that to the end of his life, this modest man tried to keep his Victoria Cross hidden, even from his children. "All my mates ever got were wooden crosses," was all that he would say.

In December 1915 the long ordeal of Gallipoli ended. The Anzacs were evacuated. Of the 14,720 New Zealanders who served on Gallipoli, 2,721 died in active service and 4,852 were wounded. My Grandmother's fiance never left these shores.

It was a terrible price for a small country to pay. Almost everybody had a relative or friend amongst the Anzacs, and everybody felt their deeds, on the far side of the world, as their own.

As we reflect back on the tragedy of the Gallipoli campaign, we remember also the large numbers of British, French, Indian and other allied soldiers who fought and died.

And we recall with respect the bravery and military skills of the Turkish soldiers who fought with great heroism in the defence of their country.

Today a memorial to Kemal Ataturk stands at the gateway to Wellington harbour, and a stone from Chunuk Bair rests alongside the colours of the Wellington Battalion at the centrepiece of the ANZAC memorial in Wellington Cathedral.

Ataturk's generous words inscribed at ANZAC Cove are reproduced on the Wellington memorial: "You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on our land they have become our sons as well".

Mutual respect, reconciliation and friendship underpin the strong bilateral relationship that we enjoy today with growing cultural, commercial and political exchanges. That is as the original Anzacs would have wanted.

Sadly, the original Anzacs have passed away. Time has caught up with the old soldiers, but their legacy remains.

They went about their duty unstintingly and willingly for their friends, for their loved ones at home and to safeguard international order.

Their generosity of spirit, their shear courage has set a standard of conduct that makes us proud to be New Zealanders and Australians.

As we recall the Kiwis, the Australians and the Turkish soldiers who saw action on this peninsula, we feel strongly that Gallipoli is part of our shared heritage today.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force helped to write the ANZAC legend, and in the process they wrote the opening pages of a new national consciousness in New Zealand.

The ANZACs set a standard that challenges all of us who follow. Challenges us to put others before self; challenges us to believe in what can be achieved through courage and selfless commitment.

That so many young New Zealanders come here each year, that this place Gallipoli is so emblazoned across the hearts and souls of so many New Zealanders, makes me confident the sacrifices of all who died here were not in vain.

We will always remember, be always inspired.