Chunuk Bair Centenary



Today is the centenary of the Battle of Chunuk Bair, an event that some think was a (if not ‘the’) crucible of New Zealand’s national identity. It’s a day to firstly acknowledge the futile loss of some 800 New Zealand lives, attacking and occupying a foreign landmark, without having any idea ‘why’ or ‘what next’.

I don’t think we care very much; after all it’s only history, and it’s not April 25.

We should care. Why were we there? What did we hope to achieve? Does it tell us some universal truths about human folly? Did ‘our side’, with racist contempt, assume the Turks would be a pushover? Was the whole Gallipoli campaign a diversion?

I would argue the following.

The principal combatants of World War 1 were Germany and Russia, both relatively new and significant economic powers on the stage of a world in which empires were a necessary proof of significance. (Even New Zealand, at the time, was trying to prove its global significance by forging an empire in the Pacific.) The Ottoman Empire represented spoils of war, an old empire supposedly in its death throes; an empire that controlled much strategic territory in the ‘fulcrum’ of the world, where Europe, Asia, Africa and oil meet. And where the ‘great’ monotheistic religions meet. This was a much more significant place in WW1 geopolitics than a few paddocks in Belgium. The invasions of the Ottoman territories were no sideshow.

Chunuk Bair was thought to be the key to a land route to Istanbul (which we, after 462 years, still preferred to call ‘Constantinople’), a city that housed a million people a millennium ago, and probably many more a century ago. Further, it was the capital city of an empire that had been revitalised by the coup of the ‘Young Turks’ (after whom Sir Robert Muldoon, Duncan Macintyre and Peter Gordon were dubbed in 1963). The Ottoman Empire, though with many problems and contradictions, still operated on a scale far beyond the reach of conquerors from the colonies.

Here’s a counterfactual. If the Australian-led diversions at Lone Pine and The Nek had achieved their aims, and the British forces at Suvla Bay had been able to join the New Zealand soldiers commanding the heights, what then? A brisk stroll to the souks of Istanbul? Control of the Bosphorus and free entry of Russian ships into the Mediterranean Sea? Not likely. No more likely than Bonnie Prince Charlie overwhelming London in 1745, the French army unit landing in Ireland in 1798 being able to overthrow the British government, or the British force invading Russia in 1919 toppling the Bolshevik government.

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To the British in and before 1915, other people’s lands were a matter of entitlement, if the circumstances were deemed necessary to British interests. And yes, control of Ottoman lands was coveted by Britain; and Germany; and Britain’s then ally, Russia. Did anyone care what the Turks or Syrians thought? Was anyone really fighting for king, country and democracy? Does anyone know much about the bloody aftermath of World War 1 in Turkey? By blundering into a region we knew nothing about, tragedy on an unimaginable scale did take place, over the best part of a decade. The carnage in Asia Minor did not stop in 1918. Our scars were big for us. But we had the choice to not go there.

Eighty-eight years later British troops blundered their way back into the region that the British have the presumption to call the ‘Middle-East’. With American leadership and advanced military hardware, Baghdad was taken, as Constantinople never could have been in 1915. Many American and British lives were lost. But how many more people of other nationalities have lost their lives since then, in conflicts that most likely would never have happened had we not been so so stupid.

Geopolitics, like the global economy, is a system. Injure the system in one place and the consequences are predictably unpredictable, possibly catastrophic. If we value our freedoms, our country, our sovereignty, then we should equally value the rights of others to value their freedoms, countries and sovereigns. We should be ever vigilant for the stupidity, and blindness (often wilful), of those in positions of power. But, after the fact, we who remain should be compassionate towards the foolish and the blind. Truth and reconciliation.

We salute the young Arab and Turkish men who died defending Ottoman lands in 1915. We salute the doctors and nurses and soldiers who died on the troopship Marquette. We salute the young men of New Zealand and Australia and Britain and France and Senegal and India and Newfoundland who died needlessly in the cause of British and French stupidity, at Chunuk Bair, at Krithia, and the other killing venues on the Gallipoli Peninsula. And we forgive the men and women who sent them to their fates.


  1. I honour our ancestors who courageously stood on a foreign land and obeyed the orders of those who are even now preparing themselves to be held accountable. Our ancestors demonstrated with honour the futility of war. Our turn is coming soon to demonstrate the true meaning of compassionate Justice.

  2. You may forgive the organizers of WWI but I have yet to reach that apotheosis Keith.

    Celebrate the losses? What the fuck is there to celebrate about mass death?

    The problem I have with this “commemorate the dead” bullshit is that these “commemorations” invariably end up proudly proclaiming the value of giving one’s life for one’s country. To boldly die in the armed forces.

    This is just blatant militaristic spin.

    Both my grandfathers and a number of my great uncles did not die for any “glorious” purpose. The poor sods were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    It is totally offensive to me that their deaths (along with the millions of other grandfathers involved) are considered sacrifice.

    That’s like Al Capone calling the loss of some of his men a sacrifice.

    They were all fucking expendable and that’s it.

    The sooner we drop all this jingoistic nonsense about war and nationhood the better. You shouldn’t be proud of this past; you should be deeply, deeply ashamed.

    But maybe the reason we all choose to ignore this aspect of war is because we simply cannot learn from history and we know where that statement goes…

    It goes on; Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria etc, etc.

    You are repeating it all over again…

  3. I agree with about half of the content of this article. It’s true that the Gallipoli campaign had everything to do with British imperial interests, and nothing to do with democracy or morality. It’s also true that the Gallipoli campaign can be seen as just one part of a broader imperialist assault on the entire middle east region, and that current day conflicts in Palestine, Syria and Iraq have a big part of their origins in the post WW1 carve up of the Ottoman empire by Britain and France.

    But considering that the same kind of brutal, hypocritical and thoroughly contemptible politics of empire is STILL playing itself out in the region, and that NZ is STILL committed to the same lie (in a different guise) and continues to send troops to places like Iraq – considering this, and other related facts, should we focus on the moral qualities of dead soldiers and “forgive” people like William Massey for decisions which had only negative consequences?? I’d much rather challenge this whole sentimental narrative entirely and call a spade a spade. 100 years on, it’s time we grew up.

    Check out my blog for an alternative take

    • World war 1 and the Gallipoli campaign/fighting the Ottoman Empire ,wasn,t British imperialist interest..they were just doing as they were told …it was Powerful Zionist interest in wanting Palestine in their eventual grasp to create their Jewish homeland (of course at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs. …. now look at the Middle East,each country like a deck of cards has been fucked over….the world is a very murderous mean place these days. “The Zion Contoversy” by Douglas Reid is a good start…there is so much evidence out their to support this very intensely written narrative.

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