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Chunuk Bair New Zealand National Service

Issue date: 
Saturday, 25 April 1998
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Nga mate, haere, haere, haere.

The Honourable Philip Ruddock, my fellow New Zealanders, friends from Turkey and Australia and all around the world, you in your thousands who have come to stand here with us, side by side, in solemn remembrance. Nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. Greetings to you all.

At the service at Dawn this morning, down there at Ari Burnu, by Anzac Cove, I said that we stood on hallowed ground. Here, on Chunuk Bair, we New Zealanders are on ground that is not only hallowed, but that is legendary too. For here was one of our great military calamities, yet at the same time one of the most inspiring and valiant actions ever undertaken by New Zealand troops.

But that was ten grim and bloody weeks away from the day we commemorate today: 25 April, 1915, the day the Anzacs, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, came ashore at the beach that has ever since borne their name; the day that was the beginning of a disastrous campaign, a nightmare of errors, and yet a time of unforgettable bravery.

On the anniversary of that day, New Zealanders at home and all around the world, gather as we did at dawn, and as we do now, to pay tribute to those who fought and died here; and on other battlefields too, in Europe and Africa, in Asia and the Pacific, where our small country played its part in support of our allies, or in defence of the values we cherish.

The New Zealand Anzacs left home on 16 October 1914, only a little more than two months after war had begun. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force, as it was called, numbered 8,427 men. It was the largest single fighting force ever to leave New Zealand. Drawn from across a fledgling nation, they answered unquestioningly the call to fight for King and Empire.

After arriving in Egypt, they spent weeks training in the desert, so very different from the steep and rugged terrain they were soon to face here on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The original plan of the British high command was to force a sea passage through the Dardanelles, storm Istanbul, and so defeat Turkey and bring relief to Russia. But this plan had to be abandoned when the British fleet was repelled by mines and strong fire from the Turkish forts guarding the narrow sea entrance. It was decided instead, and at very short notice, to mount an amphibious expedition that would take the defenders by surprise, overwhelm the Turkish fortifications and clear the peninsula of its defences.

And so an initial force of 30,000 troops - New Zealanders, Australians and British - was despatched to Gallipoli. They were soon followed by reinforcements, including troops from France and other Allied nations. The British and later the French landed further south but the New Zealanders and the Australians were put ashore below us here, one of their immediate objectives being to take this dominant height of Chunuk Bair. It was to be many weeks before they did so.

It is only when we come and see with our own eyes that we realise what a virtually impossible undertaking it was. The Anzacs were confronted by narrow beaches and high cliffs, a maze of ridges and ravines, bearing little resemblance to the markings on their maps. The Turkish defenders, so ably led by the then Colonel Mustapha Kemal, had had time to prepare, and first the Australians and then the New Zealanders came under murderous fire. At the outset they made some progress inland, but soon found themselves pinned down. 3,100 New Zealanders landed on Anzac Day. Over 600 were killed that day.

After the initial landings, the campaign became one of brutal trench warfare, with the opposing troops sometimes only yards apart, of hand-to-hand physical combat, of charge and countercharge under withering fire from the defenders high in the hills, of heat and flies and the cries of the wounded and the ever present stench of death.

Casualties became horrific. In one overnight attack, the Otago Battalion lost 400 out of 800 men. In another attack, the Auckland Battalion lost 300 men in 20 minutes for a gain of 100 metres. The Turkish defenders suffered equally. In one charge, they lost 2,000 men. By 24 May, the no-man's land between the two front lines was so carpeted with the dead that an armistice was called so that they could be buried.

It was in these desperate conditions that the legend of Chunuk Bair was born. This commanding position was the key to the success of the whole campaign. There had been many attempts to take it, all ending in disastrous failure. But then at dawn on 8 August 1915, the heights of Chunuk Bair were stormed. The Wellington Infantry Battalion, under Colonel William Malone, were the first there. They were at first supported by troops from England, and they were reinforced by the Auckland Mounted Rifles, and then replaced by the Otago Infantry Battalion and the Wellington Mounted Rifles.

From here the New Zealanders would have seen the ultimate objective, the straits of the Narrows down below. But they got no further. For three days, under continuous fire, and running short of water, they clung to this strategic key to the peninsula. Eventually they were relieved, but at what a cost it had been. Of the 800 Wellington soldiers, over 730 were killed or wounded. And on the stone plinth in front of this monument, you will see recorded the names of 852 New Zealand dead who fell here, but who have no known graves. Ten others are buried in the Chunuk Bair cemetery. One was just 17 years old. And for what did they die? Before long the summit was recaptured by Turkish forces and from then on the Allied campaign lost momentum. Four months later, it was all but over.

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." And another historian has written: "If New Zealanders have a day that is uniquely ours, it is 8 August, 1915."

There were many heroes among the Kiwis. Several of them were recommended to receive Victoria Crosses, though only one was awarded, and that was to Cyril Bassett, a signaller, for keeping the lines of communications open under intense fire. To the end of his life, this shy man tried to keep his Victoria Cross a secret, even to his children: "all my mates ever got were wooden crosses", was all that he would say.

In December 1915 the long ordeal ended. The Anzacs were evacuated. Of the 11,600 New Zealanders who eventually served on Gallipoli, 2,721 died on active service and 4,752 were wounded, many to die later of their wounds. It was a terrible price for a small country to pay. Our total population was then only a little over 1 million. Almost every New Zealand family was touched.

The tragedy of the Gallipoli campaign was not ours alone. Total Allied casualties in the eight months of the campaign were 33,500 killed and 78,500 wounded, another 7,600 simply described as missing. These have no known grave, but lie somewhere here on these hillsides, or beneath the sea below us. On the Turkish side, too, the losses were horrifically high: perhaps as many as 300,000 killed or wounded.

Yet out of this carnage a new sense of nationhood was born, for Australians, for New Zealanders, and for Turks. Mustapha Kemal, as Kemal Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey. New Zealanders and Australians had a heroic foundation on which our young nations could grow. Always, and still, rivals, we found a new affinity here. And between us Antipodeans and the people of this ancient land there grew, and grows still, a profound respect. Reconciliation between one-time foes came quickly. Friendship grew, and all of us today are the beneficiaries of that.

A recent book by a Turkish author, Professor Tuncoku, describes a meeting between a Turkish veteran and an Anzac veteran at the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in 1990: "The Turkish veteran was trying to stand up straight. The old ANZAC was looking round with tears in his eyes. Surely both of them were thinking of the terrible days of the war and of the friends they had lost. The Turkish veteran put his hand on the shoulder of the ANZAC. The meaning was obvious. Yes, my friend in arms, this war should never have happened. Nonetheless, it did. We experienced so many difficulties together. Over those hills and slopes we lost thousands of our friends ... but everything is now over. Do not be upset. Let us walk together ... "

Walking together will have been the experience of all of you gathered here today. I am sure all my fellow New Zealanders will have been welcomed in this country with the same warmth, the same generosity, with which we have been.

For friendship and trust underpin the strong bilateral relationship we enjoy today, with growing cultural, commercial and political exchanges. We have representatives of Turkish youth taking part in this service, along with their counterparts from New Zealand. They will be taking part also in the tree planting ceremony that is to follow. These trees will symbolise a common purpose, one that I am sure is shared by young people everywhere, to work for a better world, a world in which it will not be possible for what happened here to happen again.

I am delighted too that approval has been given for a memorial stone from Chunuk Bair to be placed alongside the colours of the Wellington Battalion as the centrepiece of the ANZAC memorial now under construction at Wellington Cathedral. That, along with the trees at opposite ends of the world, will be permanent, visible links of the bonds that grew from this bitter campaign at Gallipoli.

Just four months ago, the last New Zealander among the original ANZAC veterans passed away. Doug Dibley died in Rotorua on 18 December, at the age of 101. His advice to us all was simple and to the point: "Nobody wins at war". That truth will be so plain to all of us standing here.

Chunuk Bair is part of our shared heritage. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force wrote the ANZAC legend, and in doing so they wrote the opening pages of a new national consciousness in New Zealand. They gave us ANZAC Day, a day for recollection and comradeship, a day for us to reflect with gratitude on the contribution made by all New Zealanders who have served their country at war. But above all, a day for us, and for all those who share the day with us, to resolve ever more firmly to commit ourselves to peace, and not to conflict, to reconciliation and not to recrimination, to ensure that in our own lives, and in the affairs of our nations, the lessons of the past are taken to heart, and the mistakes, the tragedies, the heartbreaks of the past, are never repeated.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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