Historic Reflection on Chunuk Bair by Huia Ockwell
Dunedin RSA Choir Subscriber's Matinee Concert 9 August 2015
Chunuk Bair is now being remembered as the defining First World War battle for New Zealanders on Gallipoli.
Throughout this weekend, radio, Press and Memorial Services are bringing the tragedy of events 100 years ago to the fore.
The Otago Daily Times recording of 115 deaths of men south of the Waitaki between the 6th and 9th of August 1915 highlights the enormity of this battle
As we reflect, I gratefully acknowledge the writing of Charles Bean, Glyn Harper and Christopher Pugsley.
100 years ago, by the evening of this very day, the Otago Infantry Battalion had lost 17 officers and more than 300 men killed and wounded. 24 hours earlier; in the company of the Wellington Mounted Rifles; they had been called on to relieve the Wellington Infantry who had captured Chunuk Bair by 4.15am on August 8.
As the Wellington Infantry came down, the Australian Official Historian observed ' . . . of the 760 who had captured the height that morning, there came out only 70 unwounded or slightly wounded men . . . their uniforms were torn, they had had no water since morning; they could talk only in whispers; their eyes were sunken; their knees trembled; some broke down and cried like children'.
The intense August offensive was part of a strategic plan to break through the Ottoman lines at ANZAC and seize the heights of the Sari Bair Range. If this could be achieved, it would provide a launching pad that would threaten Turkish control of the entire Gallipoli Peninsula.
Sadly, after 15 weeks on the peninsula, the ANZAC men were in poor physical condition, reinforcements were in many cases not yet battle hardened and our men thought the British of 'Kitchener’s New Army' young and inexperienced.
Capturing the vital heights of Sari Bair was a highly ambitious plan asking much of the troops who would have to put it into action. To have any chance of success it needed detailed planning, tight coordination, a skilled decisive battle commander calling the shots and a modicum of luck. All these essential factors were missing.
However, none of this diminishes the outstanding bravery and fortitude of the New Zealand Infantry and Mounted Rifles Brigades. The soldiers who fought upon Chunuk Bair performed one of the outstanding feats of arms in New Zealand history. It was a soldiers battle; every man on that ridge knew the thin line of New Zealand men was holding wide the door to victory; how men were to die on Chunuk was determined largely by the same traditional moral courage men and women displayed back home on the farms and in the towns, throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand.
Many here this afternoon will have visited the Otago Settlers Museum’s superb 'Dunedin's Great War' exhibition. I hope you were able to watch curator Sean Brosnahan’s award winning documentary and the segment he recorded on Chunuk Bair.
You may have been privileged to have visited Gallipoli and climbed the Sari Bair heights. You will undoubtedly have been moved by the New Zealand Memorial on the high point of Chunuk Bair. On that memorial are recorded the names of 852 men who died and have no known graves. There are also 10 New Zealand gravestones in the cemetery, including one for Private Martin Persson of the Wellington Infantry Battalion. Keep 17-year-old Martin in your thoughts as you listen to Brian Hogue’s words in song following the Ode and ponder what Ormond Burton wrote in his recently republished: 'The Silent Division': 'an army is a mirror of its own society and its values . . . an agent of national pride . . . and a bulwark against national fears'.
I close with these words from Binyon's ‘For The Fallen’
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow,
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.