It is an unusual thing as any researcher can tell, to feel you know a place with great familiarity through in-depth reading and research but when visiting that place for real, find that no amount of reading will ever compensate for actually standing there in person.
That’s the reaction I had on visiting Gallipoli a few weeks ago, as a stopover to Geneva. I was very privileged to be asked by a United Nations Special Rapporteur to attend a private experts’ meeting in Switzerland scheduled for early October. The UN were paying for my travel expenses and, on finding out that the renowned historian Ian McGibbon would be in Gallipoli also in early October, I cheekily asked if I could make a brief stopover in order to rendezvous with him and undertake some recce research for Te Papa. Luckily for me, the UN and Te Papa agreed. So after some organising, on the 3 Oct I found myself in Eceabat, a small town on the shores of the Dardanelles and the closest town to the Anzac battlefields.
I have been part of a curatorial team working towards developing content for a planned exhibition at Te Papa, opening 2015, focused on Gallipoli. For the past 12 months, I have buried myself in service records, old newspaper articles, journals, scholarly articles and books by authors like Monty Soutar, Francesca Walker, Ian McGibbon, Christopher Pugsley, Richard Stowers, Maurice Shadbolt, and James Cowan. I have read first hand and diary accounts by soldiers and families; and I have tried to record as much information as possible about the Native Contingent that served at Gallipoli – the first Māori fighting unit to battle for Empire.
A great firsthand account of their arrival can be found in Te Aute-educated Rikihana Carkeek’s published diary Home, Little Māori, Home (Tōtika Publications, Wellington: 2003):“Anzac Cove Saturday, July 3rd A 1a.m. we arrived at last, and dropped under anchor at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. You could hear the rifle shots way up in the hills, the first impression of real war, with the occasional boom of big guns from warships and the artillery. So this is war; what we’ve been working and training for so hard ever since we enlisted.” (p. 60)
My own first arrival on to Anzac wasn’t quite that dramatic. After meeting up with Ian in a small village called Kocadere, we were dropped off by van at Anzac Cove to walk ‘The New Zealand Track’, a windy, scrubby dirt track that steadily climbed up to the peak at Chunuk Bair.
While the terrain has reforested itself and many of the trenches have eroded or been filled over time with layers of foliage, there are still recognisable landmarks and features of the land, described throughout much of the literature about Gallipoli. The steep uneven gullies, the odd jutting outcrop called the Sphinx, and the harsh scrub that bites into your skin and clothing (my leggings coming out the worse for wear after the day’s tramping).
It is undeniable that there is huge excitement with being at Gallipoli and walking over the land that became the home and burden of the New Zealand soldiers sent to Turkey, yet it is also difficult to forget that the peninsula continues to be a graveyard and the final resting place of many soldiers who served at Gallipoli. Once we reached the Chunuk Bair monument, that was brought home in stark relief when we stumbled over a bone poking out of the ground on our pathway. We figured that it must have been uncovered in heavy rains that had hit the peninsula only a few days before. On our trek, this was the first of three sites where we came across human remains.
Perhaps it was because I was accompanying an experienced Historian who had an archaeologist’s eye, as even he said it was highly unusual to come across so many bones In one trek. But after those encounters I could not forget there were bones everywhere. They are hidden for the most part and while the monuments with their clean marble and tended gardens might deceive the eye that everything is orderly and tidied away, many of the bodies on Gallipoli are still scattered throughout the hills. And these bodies continue to be released from their various resting places through natural weather events and erosion.
I found it rather unclear as to how to respond to this, or the official steps to take after seeing human remains. The Gallipoli monuments themselves are cared for by the Commonwealth Graves Commission, but reports of found human remains may be made to local authorities. Although this is also unclear as to what corrective action might be taken. As it was, our preference was to re-cover the remains with dirt and leave them undisturbed.
Being at Gallipoli reminds the visitor to not take the grounds for granted or to treat them flippantly. The reflection and emotion that the place evokes is in no part due to the bonds many visitors have to the soldiers who served there, either through family ties or through familiarity with their stories and hardships. By the time we reached Chunuk Bair and visited Quinn’s Post, I was tired out both physically and emotionally. I filmed lots of footage and umpteen photos for my colleagues back in NZ which are going to be used to help develop the exhibition narratives in the upcoming Gallipoli exhibition.
The last spot that I spent time while at Gallipoli happened to be Anzac Cove, an area that has become a symbolic point of pilgrimage for many young New Zealanders and Australians every Anzac Day. Anzac Day 2015 will be particularly enormous as it will mark the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli and the area (as well as NZ and Australia) is preparing itself for the expected massive influx of visitors. I’m hoping that I will get to return again to Gallipoli but I was so especially lucky to be able to make that first visit while Ian McGibbon was undertaking his own work, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is busy in the process of revising his wonderful Gallipoli: A Guide to New Zealand Battlefields and Memorials (highly recommended reading for any visitor to Gallipoli) and was the best source of information about the terrain, battlesites and trench formations.
If you have any personal Gallipoli stories you would like to share, the WWI team here at Te Papa would love to hear from you. We are hoping to include contemporary experiences at Gallipoli as part of the exhibition, so please feel free to contact us here at the museum.
Please use our online enquiries form to get in touch.