How did you go with the Great War Word Quiz set by Te Papa’s Head Writer Frith Williams a few weeks ago? If you got 10/10, then you’re an A1 digger! Now read Frith’s latest blog in which she explores the challenges of writing from the soldiers’ perspective in Gallipoli: The scale of our war.
The soldiers’ perspective: How the heck would a grunt know that?
In an earlier blog, I talked about writing from the soldiers’ perspective in Gallipoli. We presented their actual words as much as possible, but had to create an imagined soldier-narrator – ‘the grunt’ – to fill many gaps in the story.
When you’re writing in the ‘first person plural’ (eg, ‘We clambered up the rugged hills …’), there’s a catch. How can you talk about things that your narrator wouldn’t have known about? The forging of the plan to attack Chunuk Bair, for example.
Hearsay came in handy – eg, ‘It seemed like some big show was coming, but we didn’t know what or when’ – but mostly we stuck to what our man would have known about at the time.
A cinematic approach
We also restricted ourselves to the stage of the action that our soldier was recalling, rather than jumping too far ahead in time. That approach fitted the linear narrative and everything Weta Workshop was developing, especially the ‘characters’ that lead you into each new phase and the immersive soundtrack.
The show is different from most exhibitions in this way. It’s more filmic, gradually revealing the events rather than taking a broader, more analytical perspective.
You enter the action with the men – and via one of Weta Workshop’s larger-than-life models. Like Spencer Westmacott (above), they’re excited at first. Buoyant even. Then the horror hits, and you’re right there with them. Devastation, disillusionment, disbelief, anger. You don’t know who’ll make it home and who’ll die on the hills of Gallipoli – until that moment comes. You come to your own conclusions about the actions and views expressed along the way.
When is remembering reality, and when is it myth?
In using real soldiers’ real words in the show – both in their original form and as inspiration for our grunt – the reliability of our sources came up a fair bit. Was a diary entry or letter written from the battlefield more reliable than a memoir composed 40, 50, 60 years later? At what point does memory become myth? How much romanticising or embellishing was going on?
To some extent, this question applies to all history – to all retellings of past events, especially when they rely on earlier retellings. It’s like a game of whispers: the message is passed on until it becomes increasingly disconnected from reality.
Necessity usually called the shots. We used sources of the time where possible, but sometimes memoirs and interviews were the most comprehensive and insightful option.
Moving memoirs and letters
You’ll experience just how powerful those recollections can be in the 3-D cinema (see below), which features original stereoscopic images of the burial armistice in May 1915. In that area, you can hear veterans recalling how they buried their dead mates in the barren earth of No Man’s Land. It’s one of the most moving areas of the show.
The letters of William Malone (who played a key role in bringing order to chaos and defending Quinn’s Post) are an example of a source of the time that was often quoted or provided inspiration for our narrator. The extract below is from Malone’s last letter to his wife before he died. It doesn’t appear in the show, but as a parent, I found it especially sad:
‘My sweetheart … if anything untoward happens to me, you must not grieve too much – there are our dear children to be brought up. You know how I love and have loved you … If … I seemed absorbed in ‘affairs’, it was that I might make proper provision for you and the children … perhaps I overdid it somewhat … but did not see it at the time. I regret very much now … that I lost more happiness than I need have done. You must forgive me.’
- You can read the full text of Malone’s letter in No Better Death: The Great War diaries and letters of William G. Malone, edited by John Crawford (with Peter Crooke), Auckland, Exisle Publishing, 2014.