Thursday, 6 August 2015

The battle of Chunuk Bair (Gallipoli campaign) and family history

This post is somewhat 'off topic' for this blog but it is the centenary of the Battle of Chunuk Bair next Saturday (8 August) and I feel that I should remember it.  Most Australians and New Zealanders see 25 April, 1915 as a very important day in their countries' histories but 8 August is equally important and it is now suggested that this is the day that forged New Zealand's identity.

My maternal grandfather, William Cunningham fought in the battle but like most people he did not really talk about it.  As a child I knew that 8 August rather than 25 April was the day he used to commemorate and that he had been shot and had the bullet in his shoulder until the day he died. I also knew the name Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (commander of the Ottoman forces).  My grandfather was carrying a small bible in his backpack when he was shot.  The bullet grazed the bible's cover and it was a very precious object which I inherited.  I am not a historian so the other details passed me by.  When I lived in Australia in 1968 I realised that Australians consider Anzac Day to mark the foundation of the Australian nation, as it had originally been settled as several separate colonies and they saw the Gallipoli campaign as the first time they were 'Australian'.  I do not think New Zealand had the same feeling in my youth but in recent decades, as the country shed its colonial past, it became more like Australia in its view of the birth of the nation. Now 'going to Gallipoli' is considered a very important part of young New Zealanders' 'OE' (overseas experience).

It was only this year that I began to find out more about Chanuk Bair.  At the Anzac Day centenary commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall the BBC interviewed the family who had the most descendants present (there were almost forty of them).  When they said their name was Malone and mentioned the Wellington Regiment the penny began to drop and I rushed to find out what I had on the computer as that was my grandfather's regiment.  Now several of my school friends have been in touch to tell me about the exhibitions that are on in Wellington this year and to point out the role my grandfather played in the battle.  It was a horrendous battle and much has been written about it.  My grandfather was second-in-command to Colonel Malone and when Malone was killed by friendly fire my grandfather took over only to be seriously wounded some hours later.  Apparently everyone who was in the trench with Malone apart from my grandfather and one other, were killed and Colonel Malone collapsed into my grandfather's arms.  The Wellington Regiment held the ridge but two days later the Ottomans under Mustapha Kemal Ataturk counter-attacked and they lost it again.  Of the 750 members of the Wellington Regiment who reached the summit, 711 were killed or wounded.  Photographs of the ridge show it to be  incredibly steep and they must have been extremely fit to climb it.  Colonel Malone was 56!  And we always thought of my grandfather as being older than most of those who fought. (He was 31.)

Of course there were other regiments at the battle in addition to the Wellingtons and these also suffered terrible casualties.  The Auckland regiment was basically wiped out because they ascended the ridge in daylight.  Colonel Malone refused to do this so the Wellington Regiment went up under cover of darkness and reached the ridge about 3 am.  There were also very heavy casualties in the Christchurch regiment.  But the battle was not fought just by New Zealanders.  There were also English and Sikh regiments. There were 417 casualties among the 'New Army' Welch pioneers and 350 casualties in the Gloucestershire regiment.  If you are into military history (you can tell I am not) follow the links to read the details

It is interesting looking at what has been written in relation to our knowledge of more recent conflicts and how battles and wars are reported at the time and them much later.  Letters, including those written by my grandfather, turned up decades later and led to a reassessment of the battle, there are books and a play by Maurice Shadbolt: Once on Chunuk Bair.

I am sorry this post has no illustrations but I have been defeated by the problems of copyright in using photos from the Web and I notice that the relevant Wikipaedia entries to not have photos either.