Breaking ranks with Empire

by Christopher Pugsley

IN 1920, THE New Zealand official war artist George Edmund Butler presented a painting to the New Zealand Government for the proposed National War Memorial Museum. It is titled Butte de Polygon with the subtitle, Thy Father and I have sought thee sorrowing. Luke II: 48. It depicts an aged couple standing over a soldier’s grave in the wasteland of the Western Front. In the background is the Butte de Polygon at Polygon Wood, to the east of Ypres, in the half circle of hills savagely fought for in the battles of Ypres from 1914 to 1918. This ground was occupied by the New Zealand Division in the winter of 1917–18.

What the picture depicts was the hope of every New Zealand family that had lost a loved one in the First World War. They needed to believe that it was possible to travel across the world and visit a battlefield where their boy had fought and find his grave. The difficulties can be imagined, but Butler understood the powerful emotional impulse of what he portrayed, encapsulated in the words of the subtitle. Most would never be able to attempt such a journey but every family in New Zealand wanted to believe that it was possible and that once there they would find a grave or memorial on the battlefield where he fell.

This desire of the mothers of New Zealand grew out of the Gallipoli experience. Unlike Australia, we did not claim that Gallipoli is where New Zealand became a nation. However, the New Zealand Gallipoli experience forged a national response that led to New Zealand taking an independent stance on the question of war graves and battlefield memorials that still resonates today, even if we – as New Zealanders – have forgotten why.

The scale of the Gallipoli casualties shocked the country, and delays and the breakdown in the system of official reporting of the losses shook the public’s faith in William Massey’s Reform government, forcing him into a national government with the opposition leader, Sir Joseph Ward. In setting out to regain the country’s trust, Massey determined that it was not enough to have an imperial memorial to commemorate where New Zealanders fought and died, it must be a New Zealand monument that reflected our achievement and not one subsumed into an Empire’s efforts. He also determined that the Gallipoli Peninsula should be annexed to the British Empire. This became an important plank in government policy, even if New Zealand had little or no influence on the operational conduct of the war. Massey’s war cry became one of ‘Gallipoli graves’. This continued to resonate into the 1920s, and today is the answer to questions as to why New Zealand has its own memorials to the missing both on Gallipoli and in France and Belgium, and why there are no New Zealand names on the major imperial memorials at Cape Helles in Turkey, Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium and at the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France.


THE NEWS OF New Zealand’s involvement in the landings on 25 April 1915 was received with great pride throughout the country. The congratulations of King George V was proof that New Zealand was playing its part as a junior partner in the British Empire. It had committed a New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) numbering some 8,500 personnel. This was less than half the strength of a standard British infantry division – the normal battle formation. In Egypt, the New Zealanders – under the command of Major-General Alexander Godley – had joined with Australian units to form a mixed New Zealand and Australian Division that, together with the First Australian Division, formed the Anzac Corps. For both countries, forces were largely made up of citizen soldiers with a small cadre of professional officers, with the majority of its officers and soldiers lacking military experience and any depth of professional knowledge. This amateurism was to be exposed in the Gallipoli landings.

The high hopes of the Gallipoli landings foundered in the mistakes made by the Anzacs in the first day’s fighting. Instead of a rapid advance across the peninsula, they found themselves besieged by a professional and experienced Ottoman Army that was intent on driving them back into the sea. Neither country had thought through the implications of sending a citizen army to war. The time spent training in Egypt had already raised questions of national administration concerning what had previously seen to be mundane matters – pay, reinforcements, mail and hospitalisation. These suddenly became some of the many questions that both governments needed to answer to satisfy the public at home that their boys were being effectively cared for. Answering such questions by putting an efficient system of administration into place became an umbilical cord between each country and its army overseas.

In the first weeks after the landing, Massey’s government suddenly found that it did not matter how effusive King George V was in his praise of the Anzac achievement; it meant little if the women of New Zealand could not hear news of their sons. It brought home to Massey and his ministers the sober reality that war was a political act with immediate political consequences, where pragmatic matters of news of the dead and wounded became one of immediate national concern, outweighing New Zealand’s role in the larger imperial strategic picture.

Praise was irrelevant if the government was not able to tell its citizens who of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) were dead or wounded, and if wounded, what was their condition and where were they being treated?

The chaos of the first days ashore saw the Anzacs intermingled and fighting for their survival. It was not until May 1915 that the survivors carried out an effective rollcall. In the first hours on that crowded beach, the evacuation of casualties broke down, no records were kept and hospital ships and transports carrying wounded were directed to wherever hospital beds were available: Egypt, Malta, Gibraltar or the United Kingdom. The news of the wounded was cabled back to New Zealand as and when the hospital ship or transport arrived at port. This meant that, apart from a handful of names and vague suggestions of heavy casualties, no word at all was received by the New Zealand public.

It was not until 3 May 1915 that the first names were released. Two officers were listed as wounded, and in addition private cables notified relatives of a further five wounded. The first official lists were published on 4–5 May 1915, ten days after the landing. They reported eight officers killed in action, two officers dead from wounds, nineteen officers and 107 men wounded. These reports were cabled back from the New Zealand Base Depot in Egypt. Here, New Zealand staff met the hospital ships as they arrived and compiled the cables to be sent home. The information they gathered concerned only the wounded who had arrived in Egypt and those who were known to have died of wounds on the voyage from Gallipoli. There were as yet no reports from the front at Gallipoli.


IN NEW ZEALAND, there were already disquieting undercurrents. The first wounded to reach Egypt sent private cables home to inform parents and next of kin. In many cases, cables mentioned men killed and wounded who had not yet been reported in New Zealand. The Defence Department and the government were inundated with inquiries from anxious parents and relatives. On 4 May 1915, Massey attempted to reassure the country that the government was releasing all details as they came to hand: ‘…and I deprecate the mischievous rumours which have been put into circulation.’ On the following day, he acknowledged the current anxiety at the absence of a complete list of casualties. ‘Only a few particulars as to the killed have yet been received. We are working at high pressure.’

On 5 May 1915, the national dailies reported that ‘a conviction was secured against Isabella Margaret Morpeth of Picton Street’, Auckland. She had sent a ‘misleading telegram’ – contrary to the War Regulations Act of 1914 – to her aunt, who had two nephews at the Dardanelles, stating ‘700 New Zealanders killed’, which she had overheard from a gentleman in the street. The Defence Department stated such prosecutions were necessary to ‘stop a prevalent and most deplorable practice’. Each private cable and then the letters home became ripples in an increasingly disturbed pond. By mid-May, the casualties published in New Zealand totalled 1,162, seventy-six men killed or dead from wounds, four dead from disease, two missing and 1,080 wounded. But New Zealand casualties from Anzac operations were already double that figure.

The first lists compiled by the New Zealand units on Gallipoli were not received in New Zealand until 17 June, and inevitably were riddled with error. Many soldiers reported wounded on the first day – seen by their comrades to be making their way back to the beach – collapsed and later died in the scrub on ground that was retaken by the Turks, and so they lay unknown in no-man’s land. Private cables continued to arrive that contradicted the official lists and the growing demand for information could not be stilled. The feeling grew that the casualties were so bad the government was holding the true figures back.

In every district, telegrams were arriving: ‘We regret to inform you that Private…has been wounded in action at the Dardanelles.’ Parents anxiously waited for more news, and were assured by the government and the Defence Department that further details would be sent and that ‘no news was good news’.

This backfired when, for the first time, men previously reported wounded were now said to be missing. These soldiers could not be found in any hospital in Egypt, Malta, Gibraltar or the United Kingdom and so next of kin were informed that the casualty was now ‘wounded and missing’.

These lists were published on 13 August 1915, concurrent with a flood of casualty notifications from the August offensive. All this simply added to the disquiet. Ministers and members of parliament were besieged by deputations of soldier’s mothers, ‘who urged an immediate improvement in the system of notifying casualties and the progress of wounded soldiers in hospital’.

The government had no immediate answer and bore the public’s anger. Massey had a minority government and, in August 1915, was forced into forming a national government with the opposition for the duration of the war. A Cabinet minister with military experience was sent to Egypt as a ‘Special Representative’ to seek advice on how casualty reporting could be improved. By now Gallipoli was a stalemate and, increasingly, a sideshow; yet it was clear that it had consumed almost all of the 8,500 men of the original main body that had sailed from New Zealand on 16 October 1914.

In all, 8,556 New Zealanders of the NZEF served on Gallipoli: 2,779 died, 5,212 were wounded. A soldier could be wounded and later killed and so appear a number of times within the statistics, but even allowing for this the figures are horrific. Out of 8,556, that 7,991 is 93 per cent of those who served on the Peninsula: far in excess of any other country involved in the campaign, and this figure does not include those evacuated with sickness and disease.

Australian battle casualties numbered 28,150, including 8,709 dead. This dwarfed the New Zealand total, but as a percentage of the fifty to sixty thousand Australians who served in the campaign – curiously still an estimate, given the Australian preoccupation with Gallipoli – amounts to 47–56 per cent. Indian Army casualties were similar, with 46 per cent of their estimated 10,500 soldiers. French battle casualties numbered twenty-seven thousand or 34 per cent, British battle casualties numbered 73,485, including 21,225 dead – 22 per cent of 330,000 soldiers, many of who were logistic and supporting troops. Newfoundland’s contribution of a battalion numbering 1,076 in September 1915 suffered 146 casualties, 13 per cent of those serving on the Peninsula.

New Zealand’s share of the burden was out of proportion to any other member of the British Empire and the implications of this preoccupied Massey’s government for the rest of the war. No country had come so far to fight in this campaign or had suffered so much.


THE ANZAC PERIMETER was evacuated in December 1915 and Lieutenant-General Godley, having been promoted and now commanding the Anzac Corps as well as the NZEF, wrote to James Allen, the New Zealand minister of defence.

I have written to the Turkish commander who will come in when we leave asking him to take steps to preserve the graves of our men. I feel sure that this will be effected, as the Turks have been most honourable during the eight months we have been fighting them, and will not do anything to desecrate our men’s resting places.

In January 1916, New Zealand girded itself for a long war with the prospect of further heavy casualties. Massey gave a manifesto to the people, setting out New Zealand’s war aims and the need for volunteers to maintain the numbers of what was to be a New Zealand Division of some eighteen thousand men. At this point, New Zealand had sent thirty-four thousand men overseas and had twelve thousand in training at home. It was committed to sending 2,500 men every month for the duration of the war.

The New Zealand dead on Gallipoli were central to his appeal. ‘The graves of Gallipoli appeal to us silently, yet eloquently, that the sacrifices made there, and the heroic lives laid down on that shell-swept Peninsula shall not have been given in vain.’

The New Zealand government willingly spoke out on the blunders and mistakes of the Gallipoli campaign. This willingness not to whitewash what had gone wrong was reflected in Sir Thomas Mackenzie’s stance as New Zealand High Commissioner in London and member of the Dardanelles Commission, which reported on the conduct of the campaign. The Australian High Commissioner and former prime minister, Andrew Fisher, absented himself from much of the consideration and chose not to sign the final report. Mackenzie, while ‘substantially in agreement with the findings of the Commission’, held stronger views on some of the issues that he included in a supplementary report, which was far more critical about the planning and conduct of the campaign, raising questions on command performance that he believed had not been adequately answered and were particularly critical of the treatment of wounded. This willingness to speak out was also reflected in New Zealand’s dealings on the issue of war graves.

Throughout the war, Massey and his coalition partner, Sir Joseph Ward, visited the Western Front and England for extended periods and returned again for the treaty negotiations at Versailles. As a member of the Imperial War Cabinet, Massey accepted that he had no voice in the conduct of operations but insisted that he be listened to on the matter of Gallipoli graves.

It was a promise he repeated to the New Zealand public each year of the war. He wanted the Gallipoli Peninsula to be ceded to the British Empire and argued for this at Versailles. He was rewarded with agreement by the major powers that the peace treaty with Turkey would include a clause ceding perpetual ownership of the Gallipoli battlefields to Great Britain.

Massey did not get all that he wished. The Treaty of Sevres dismembered the Turkish Empire and led to the rise of Kemal Atatürk. The Gallipoli area was garrisoned by a British Army Corps and Atatürk’s advance threatened British control of the straits, and with it the Anzac graves. British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George appealed to the Dominions for military support and New Zealand offered a contingent of twelve thousand men.

The military crisis was defused and the contingent was never sent, but historians see this as proof that Massey remained a fervent imperialist. This is not the case: Massey’s offer was not to protect the Empire’s interests but to protect New Zealand’s graves and ensure that they remained under British control. He was honouring his promise to the people of New Zealand.


THE TREATY OF Lausanne was signed in 1923 and, while it did not meet the full extent of Massey’s wish in terms of control, it ceded ‘the land occupied as British war cemeteries…together with the area known as the “Anzac” area…for the perpetual resting place of those who are laid there.’

Control was vested in the Imperial War Graves Commission, which recommended the erection of an imperial memorial at Cape Helles to represent the British Empire’s efforts in the campaign. The walls surrounding this would list the names of those with no known graves. By now, it was evident from the reports of the grave identification units working on the Peninsula that there were very few identified New Zealand graves. In fact, of the 2,779 New Zealand dead there were only 344 known graves on the Peninsula, on Lemnos or in Istanbul. In addition, 252 were buried at sea.

Massey’s government determined that New Zealand names would not appear on the imperial monument but be recorded on New Zealand Memorials to the Missing, located where the men had fought and died.

Over the opposition of the Imperial War Graves Commission, New Zealand decided on four locations for the memorials. One is at Twelve Tree Copse at Cape Helles, for the 179 who had no known grave after the Second Battle of Krithia on 8 May 1915. Another is at Lone Pine, for the 709 unidentified dead who died between April and December 1915 and also to commemorate the 252 buried at sea. The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing on Chunuk Bair carries the names of 853 New Zealanders who died in the August offensive and had no known graves. This is in stark relief to the ten identified graves in the Chunuk Bair Cemetery, eight of which belong to New Zealanders. There are 632 unidentified graves in the cemetery. The New Zealand Memorial to the Missing at Hill 60 records the names of 183 New Zealand names with no known graves. By contrast, the Australian dead with no known graves are only recorded either on the Cape Helles Imperial Memorial or at Lone Pine.

Today, many assume that the Australian national memorial is at Lone Pine. This is not the case – it is a shared memorial with the names of the Australian missing on the walls in front of the memorial while the New Zealand names are on the memorial itself.

Australia has no national memorial at Gallipoli.

New Zealand was also the only member of the British Empire to insist on its own national ‘battle exploits’ memorial on Chunuk Bair, to commemorate New Zealand’s achievement in taking the summit during the August 1915 offensive. At its unveiling on 13 May 1925, General Godley stressed why it was important:

Can there be any doubt as to the suitability of the site of this great New Zealand memorial or the right of New Zealand to it?… What can I say? Only this – that the leadership, the spearpoint, the backbone and the impetus of the attack was provided by the New Zealanders, that it was primarily a New Zealand feat of arms, and that never in the history of the world has a more beautiful or a more suitable monument been erected to perpetuate the memory of a more gallant exploit.

Once again, this was against the wishes of the Imperial War Graves Commission, who wanted the campaign memorialised with the single Imperial monument at Cape Helles. New Zealand determinedly got its way and indicated that it would erect similar national Battle monuments in France and Flanders. These were erected at Longueval on the Somme, at Messines and at Gravenstafel, to record the New Zealand battles before Passchendaele on 4 and 12 October 1917, and at Le Quesnoy to mark New Zealand’s taking of the town on 4 November 1918 in what was the New Zealand Division’s final battle.

NEW ZEALAND’S INSISTENCE on having its own battle exploits memorials won support from both Australia and Canada and led to them following a similar policy in erecting national memorials – Canada at Vimy and Australia at Villers-Bretonneux. But of all the Dominions, New Zealand alone marked each of its major battle sites with a national memorial.

In addition, New Zealand also insisted – as on Gallipoli – that its Memorials to the Missing be located on the actual site where New Zealanders fought. Because of this, one looks in vain for New Zealand names on the major imperial monuments to the missing in Belgium and France. There are no New Zealand names on the Menin Gate Memorial, nor on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. Instead, New Zealanders with no known graves are recorded on national memorials at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery with views towards the New Zealand Battlefield Monument that marks the first objective taken on the morning of 15 September 1916. There are New Zealand Memorials to the Missing at Armentieres, Messines, Tyne Cot Cemetery, Polygon Wood, Grevillers and – smallest of all – at Marfaux, with ten New Zealand names from the Cyclist Battalion who died in 1918.

The Imperial War Graves Commission also made provision for headstones to have inscriptions from the family, which incurred a small charge. The New Zealand government determined that, with so few known New Zealand graves on Gallipoli, it was iniquitous that 344 families would have that right when most New Zealanders who died in the campaign had no known graves.

Unlike Great Britain, Australia and Newfoundland, New Zealand families were not given that choice – any words expressed remained in the hearts of the families that mourned them. This extended to the New Zealand graves on the Western Front and in Sinai and Palestine, and continued to be policy in the Second World War and ever since.

Today, one is conscious of the many new memorials that Australia has erected to its soldiers in France and Flanders. On the Gallipoli Peninsula, it is the multiplication of Turkish monuments that grab one’s attention. It is easy to overlook the comparatively large number of New Zealand sites and the boldness behind the siting of the Chunuk Bair Memorial, which – when it opened in 1925 – was deliberately designed as a visible beacon that would reveal to ships passing through one of the world’s key strategic waterways the efforts of the soldiers of a small nation, who journeyed ‘From the uttermost ends of the earth’ and who saw it important to record New Zealand’s achievement.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.