Remembering Chunuk Bair 100 years on

New Zealand wounded at the No.2 Outpost on August 7, 2015, at Galipoli

Cover of Johnny Enzed


Modern and traditional forms of storytelling will evoke the First World War at a special event in Palmerston North this Friday to mark 100 years since the renowned battle of Chunuk Bair – one of the most significant events in the Gallipoli campaign for New Zealand.

Awapuni Racecourse, where New Zealand Medical Corps were trained for service during WWI, is the location for the Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of Chunuk Bair. The event is being hosted by Massey University, Palmerston North City Council, New Zealand Defence Force, and the World War One Centenary History Project.

Highlights include: a lecture by a visiting Australian military historian; a visual-sensory installation by a Massey University School of Design performance artist, and the launch of a new book Johnny Enzed: the New Zealand soldier in the First World War 1914-1981 (Exisle Publishing), based on soldiers’ wartime letters and diaries.

'Blackest day' at Chunuk Bair for New Zealand troops

Chunuk Bair was part of the vital heights on the ranges above the coast and a significant objective of the August offensive at Gallipoli against Ottoman defenders in Turkey during the First World War. The name ‘Chunuk Bair’ is synonymous with the tragedy of the Gallipoli campaign for many New Zealanders, and with the bravery of Anzac soldiers who fought and lost their lives there. 

New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade occupied the heights of Chunuk Bair between 7 and 10 August 1915, but were overwhelmed by Turkish troops. Thousands on both sides were killed or wounded in the ‘August offensive’.

Massey University’s professor of war studies Professor Glyn Harper says the Friday event commemorates a pivotal battle of the Gallipoli campaign for New Zealand.

“Unlike the landing of 25 April, New Zealand had a key role in the August offensive and the capture of Chunuk Bair was regarded by the senior generals as the possible turning point in the campaign,” he says.

“The New Zealand historian Fred Waite was more realistic though. He called 8 August, 1915 New Zealand’s ‘blackest day on the Peninsula’ and that while part of Chunuk Bair had been captured, ‘many of the finest men of the Dominion lay dead upon the crest’, as he put it.”

Watch the full lecture on YouTube

Stories from Australian military memorabilia

Special guest at the event is Dr Peter Pedersen, one of Australia’s leading military historians, curator and former head of the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial. In his talk: Anzac treasures: Gallipoli collections at the Australian War Memorial and across the Tasman, he will elaborate on the priceless objects such as personal memorabilia, photographs, diaries, documents and works of art held in the Australian War Memorial’s Collection.

Many of these items belonged to the soldiers themselves, or were assembled by Charles Bean, the official historian of the war and founder of the Memorial, who was with the men throughout the campaign.

A graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, the Australian Command and Staff College, and the University of New South Wales, Dr Pedersen commanded the 5th/7th Battalion in the Royal Australian Regiment. He has guided former prime ministers over the Gallipoli battlefields, and has led many tours to the Western Front and other battlefields in Europe and Asia. He is the author of eight books on the First World War and is currently consultant historian for the Australian government’s commemorative projects on the Australian battlefields of the Western Front.

Emotional connection to war through music and art

Taking a contemporary storytelling approach, Euan Robertson’s multi-sensory performance piece, titled Rain, a hot meal and a tot of rum: a New Zealand soldier’s Great War narrative, memorialises the New Zealand soldiers who fought during the Great War.

His multi projection and sensory performance piece evokes the everyday lives of New Zealand soldiers during wartime, and deploys bagpipe music, soldiers’ quotes and historical imagery. The audience is encouraged to participate by interrupting the projections to become part of the performance and reconfigure the visual narrative and meaning, he says.

Significant battles and other aspects of a soldiers’ experiences – enlistment, training, transportation, hospitalisation and life in the trenches from Gallipoli, the Middle East to the Western Front campaigns – are accompanied by excerpts from soldier's personal diaries and letters to juxtapose with the imagery to give context and connection for the audience.

“Research has established how emotions generated from music transcend the mere aesthetic,” says Mr Robertson, a senior lecturer in the College of Creative Arts. “Combining music and visual stimuli embeds the emotions, resulting in a memory of greater richness and cultural importance.”

Realities of soldiers' lives told in new book

Another highlight is the launch of Johnny Enzed book, by Professor Glyn Harper. It is based around testimonies from over 2000 letters, diaries and journal entries of New Zealand soldiers who served in the Great War.

First hand accounts expose the realities of soldiers’ lives as they experienced the war. The book gives readers a direct view of what it was like for the ordinary soldier a century ago, Professor Harper says. Diverse topics such as barbed wire, the use of the bayonet, gas attacks, rats, horses, food, communal singing, infectious diseases – as well as the role of brothels and booze in escaping the hardships of the battlefields – are revealed in the poignant, personal words of the soldiers.

Professor Harper is Massey Project Manager for the Centenary History of 13 volumes of the New Zealand involvement in the First World War. His latest book is one of five produced by Massey historians.

The Chunuk Bair commemoration will also feature static displays and artefacts set up by the New Zealand Defence Force, including a stretcher and trolley from Palestine and Passchendaele, a German Bugle, a Turkish Doctors medical kit, reconstructive surgery constructs, cabinets and other items.

Professor Harper says it is “very appropriate” that Awapauni, Palmerston North is the venue for this event.

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