Voices from the past, Jock Phillips

Remembering Gallipoli: Interviews with New Zealand Gallipoli Veterans 
Christopher Pugsley and Charles Ferrall (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00
ISBN 9780864739919

Amid the flood of printed words that have marked the centenary of New Zealand’s Gallipoli experience, Remembering Gallipoli comes with, in every sense, the most history. The interviews on which the book is based were initially conducted in 1982 by four women, members of a media company, Bluestockings, as background research for Television New Zealand. There were 130 soldiers and one nurse interviewed, all in their late 80s or 90s. Chris Pugsley and Maurice Shadbolt then re-interviewed 21 (or 26 as Pugsley writes elsewhere) on camera. Extracts were used in the powerful 1984 documentary Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story and drawn on for Pugsley’s magnificent book in the same year with the same name. Shadbolt chose 12 of the subjects to tell their stories in his stirring Voices of Gallipoli (1988), a book which was a revelation to many, including Helen Clark, who read it on the plane flying to Gallipoli in 2000 when she conceived of a project to record the memories of WWII veterans.

This backstory stirs up some murky questions which we will touch on later. For a start, let us take the book at face value. Presented in a largely chronological manner, with short chapters on subjects such as trench life or wounding, the book consists of short extracts from the original oral histories. Any reader new to the subject will get an excellent understanding of the Gallipoli experience and an insight into the attitudes of the men involved. Those who know the story well will not find much that is new – as elsewhere, we learn about the chaos of the landing, the constant fear of snipers, the monotonous diet of hard biscuits and greasy bully beef, the atrocious smell of swollen bodies bursting in no-man’s land, the constant battle with flies and lice and dysentery, the arbitrariness of death. The book confirms that war is hell and that Gallipoli, even more than the Western Front, was among the worst experiences ever suffered by New Zealanders. There are some vivid details and unusual incidents. Trooper Alfred Philps remembers how on the voyage over, “Every time the ship tossed all the horse manure … came under the bulkhead and under our bunks and out the other door. But we got used to the smell.” Private John Reece describes how, amid the terror of Quinn’s Post where the Turks were only 15 yards away and constantly firing, the worst moment came when a big black and yellow snake crawled over his shoulder and down his leg: “I was petrified and, oh boy, me heart nearly stopped.” Trooper Clifford Adcock remembers how a few men continued to polish their buttons very bright in the hope that they would get a commission: “What they got was six feet of earth.” There is humour and humanity.

The book begins with an excellent overview of the campaign, and each chapter is kicked off with apt quotations from official reports or letters from generals, which make a fitting contrast with the earthy directness of the men. There are well-chosen photos and clear maps. Footnotes adequately explain details and identify individuals in the text. There are a few quibbles: it is extraordinary that the date for the famous armistice when the mounds of dead in no-man’s land were buried (May 24) is given incorrectly twice; and the authors insist on the claim that the 93 per cent of New Zealanders who became casualties dwarfs the percentages of the other Imperial forces, a highly dubious and implausible figure which has been repeated at the two WWI exhibitions in Wellington and is rapidly becoming established as a new Gallipoli myth. There are questions that must be raised about the selection of snippets. There is considerable repetition – one story about advancing troops shaking the hand of a dead Anzac is included three times. Some of the extracts are very short – one a mere 10 words, less than the man’s name and military identity which accompanies the extract.

Here we get to the backstory, because the use of self-contained snippets makes a striking contrast with Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli. In reading Shadbolt’s 12 stories, the reader becomes caught up in the drama of that individual’s responses. You get to know the person’s quirks and understand his motivations. This gives an intensity to the accounts which snippets cannot do. Two aspects of the Anzac experience emerge from the longer individualised account. One is the importance of friendship between men. Without getting romantic about diggers’ “mateship”, there is no doubt that the close relationship between soldiers helps explain their courage – they feared showing fear in front of their mates – and also provided the worst moments. When a man who has shared the whole ordeal dies beside you, the loss is hard to bear. Mateship comes through in Shadbolt’s oral histories, while it is rather lost in Remembering Gallipoli. Second, the longer account allows for changing attitudes over time. One is aware how the naïve enthusiasm of volunteers received a rude awakening indeed once they hit the cliffs of Turkey. Bitterness and disillusionment often follow.

Shadbolt’s version of the oral histories is very much at the forefront of the authors’ minds. In the introduction, Chris Pugsley criticises Shadbolt for his “cruel and needless attack” on Leonard Thornton, the front man for the television documentary. Ferrall in turn recently published his own critique of “Maurice Shadbolt’s Gallipoli myth”. He alleges that Shadbolt had a powerful nationalist agenda, and even falsified some of the interviews to push his line that Gallipoli was a senseless venture led by idiotic British generals and serving only to give birth to an independent New Zealand nationhood. Ferrall claims that Shadbolt deliberately ignores praise of the British and plays up the heroism of New Zealand officers like William Malone. Not surprisingly, the extracts seem to challenge this viewpoint. The result is, at times, unfortunate. The short section on Malone is a good example. William Malone was a highly controversial figure – an ardent imperialist, a strict disciplinarian, he initially evoked considerable dislike among the men. But at Gallipoli, his brilliant work at Quinn’s Post where, through “the cultivation of domestic virtues”, he transformed a dangerous place into a safe one, and his refusal to waste men’s lives during the attack on Chunuk Bair, won many over. What New Zealand soldiers thought about Malone, and when, is an interesting topic. In Shadbolt’s interviews, there are several fulsome comments about the man. This book gives us three inadequate snippets, and the first is simply, “I prefer to hear of Malone as Molly because he was Mother Molly to everyone. A fine old gentleman.” What a missed opportunity to give us a fuller view of Malone from below. The extracts about Godley, the aloof Brit who led the New Zealanders, are fuller; but they surprise with the number of positive comments. Whether this was representative of soldiers’ attitudes, I wonder.

In sum, collections of oral histories are never just the unvarnished voices of the interviewees. The views of those who ask the questions, and then of those who make selections for publication, play no small part in what the reader enjoys. This is as true of Remembering Gallipoli as it was of Voices of Gallipoli. They are both worth reading, but don’t assume you are getting the whole truth in either about our first major military disaster. 

A review of Jock Phillips’s latest book, Brothers in Arms: Gordon and Robin Harper in the Great War, from our Spring 2015 issue, is available in the online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and War
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