Writing home: Letters from Gallipoli

Kereama Beal talks to Professor Glyn Harper, the editor of Letters from Gallipoli, New Zealand Soldiers Write Home

Never have New Zealanders gone through such an experience…. Losses have been the means of binding the survivors with a tie of sympathy and fellowship. I can truly say we are linked together in comradeship.

We are on one of the greatest and saddest battlefields of history and the lads are enduring, fighting, suffering, dying with a courage that cannot be eclipsed… If I ever reach home I’ll give definite instances.

Chaplain-Major John Alfred Luxford writes home from Gallipoli. He died six years after returning to New Zealand from the effects of his war service.

 Letters from Gallipoli, New Zealand Soldiers Write Home is the history of the Gallipoli campaign set out in the words of combatants writing home from trenches and dugouts to their friends and loved ones.  Professor Glyn Harper and his wife Susan collected some 600 letters over the course of two years, about a third of which appear in the book. The sources they have turned to include the National Army Museum in Waiouru, the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and Dunedin’s Hocken Library. Many letters came from newspaper archives and around 80 from private family collections.

“We have included the letters we consider to be most vivid,” Harper says,“letters often written under the most extreme circumstances.”  The letters have an “immediacy, descriptive power, intimacy and direct appeal” unrivalled by any memoir or oral history, and he has chosen to publish them largely as they were written, with the original grammar, punctuation and spelling intact.

I suppose it is getting cold in Dunedin now – goodness knows it is hot enough here. We sat for a break behind a big hill facing west and in the afternoon the sun simply blazes in. Well a furious bombardment has just started which I must go and watch.”

Colonel Charles Mackie Begg, the most decorated member of the Medical Corps in the World War I.

 “Throughout the war, letters were used as a means of expressing how the soldiers really felt about the dreadful conditions they endured and the terrible fates that could befall them and their friends,” Harper says. Yet from the suffering came solidarity: that ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) spirit.

The experience is such as to give one an abiding faith in one’s fellow men. Hard swearing, hard living, rough men. Yet, when their comrades are wounded, and in need of assistance, nothing is too great trouble. They give everything and everything they have. They, tho perhaps badly wounded themselves, lend whatever assistance they can.

In fact, in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred, as opposed to warless conditions, it is all for their comrades and nothing for themselves. It is grand!

Keep up the address given by the Gov. & I shall continue to get the precious letters from Home.

Lieutenant George Tuck of the Auckland Battalion.

 Unlike most nationally celebrated campaigns, Gallipoli, regarded as a formative event and a part of national identity by both Australia and New Zealand, was an unequivocal if valiantly fought defeat.

You will be surprised to hear that we are still occupying practically the same ground as at the start of the job here. The only advance we have made has been with the pick and shovel, with which handy tools we have straightened our line and strengthened our position…

I have not stopped any lead yet, but I had a narrow shave the other night. The Turks tried to blow up one of our advanced trenches. I was hit with fallen earth, which must have missed my head by inches, but I got out of it with only a bruised thigh, though the man next to me had his leg broken and died the next day. I can only hope for my luck to continue.

Private Henry Williamson, an Aucklander serving with the Australians, died of wounds three days later.

 Beyond battlefield exploits, the letters reveal the nature of daily life. Down at the beaches, although at risk of shell fire, the soldiers bathed or swam to escape the heat. Parcels from home carrying news and luxury items helped to keep spirits up.  Among requests was an occasional block of plain chocolate, “as we can never buy any here”.

The parcel of smokes arrived yesterday, and I gloated just like Storky, and I tell you every mouthful of the ‘yellows’ went right into my lungs. Blessings on your head.

Private Wally Cookson, a well known Canterbury swimmer.

Just now we are doing plenty of swimming. The enemy is not at present so persistent with shrapnel, so we are able to get two decent swims a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Sergeant Keith Melvyn Little, New Zealand Headquarters staff.

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  1. Books like these allow today’s readers a glimpse into the life and experiences of the Soldiers of the Great War through their letters home; usually written in the quiet moments on the battlefield. All these years later we still have the chance to see and understand the hardships these Soldiers endured.

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