To mark the World War I centenary, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has joined forces with Weta Workshop to create an exhibition like no other.
We were ushered into an emotional journey as we walked through an orchestrated maze of giant sculptures. The breathtaking imagery and the remarkable attention to details (blood, hair, veins and sweat) made them look like real people, only bigger.
In the process of writing this post, it was impossible not to feel sentimental as I read deeper into the lives of these war heroes. Being so inspired, I took the liberty of compiling and shortening the biographies for you. I hope each story would speak to you in a special way, like it did to me.
Disclaimer: Texts are not mine. These are compiled excerpts from the exhibit’s blog series found in http://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/ (Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6| 7 | 8 ).“Gallipoli: The Scale of our War” tells a story through the eyes and words of 8 ordinary New Zealanders who found themselves in extraordinary circumstance during World War 1.
The exhibit took a staggering 24,000 hours to create with a cost amounting to $8m. Each diorama is captured frozen in a moment of time, on a monumental scale – 2.4 times human size.
LIEUTENANT SPENCER WESTMACOTT
Before the war Spencer was a farmer and an untrained but talented artist. He was part of the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915. He was one of the first New Zealanders to head up into the steep hills to join the Australians to fight.
He later remembered it as, “the most glorious day of my life”.
However on that day, by nightfall, he was evacuated due to severe wounds, his frontline service came to an end. His right arm was later amputated at a military hospital in Egypt.
While recuperating, he wrote, “I shall become a rigorous penman with my left hand. I shall be able to accomplish all sorts of things.”
A fellow officer and artist encouraged him to draw again. Throughout his life, he interwove work, soldiering and creativity – both painting and writing. He died in Wellington in 1960.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PERCIVAL FENWICK
Percival was among the first New Zealanders to land on Gallipoli. He kept a diary which vividly records the hellish conditions the men endured.
“The chaos became appalling. At one time over 400 wounded were lying on the stones waiting to be moved. I dressed as many as I could but it was a dreadful time.”
The 45-year-old surgeon’s despair is palpable, as he leans over a soldier, knowing that he has been unable to save the fatally wounded Canterbury infantryman.
“I shall almost certainly have eternal nightmares,” he wrote in one of his memoirs.
PRIVATE JACK DUNN
Jack was one of the thousands of keen young men who rushed to enlist at the start of the war in 1914. Along with his mates, he suffered the effects of bad food, heat and diseases spread by hordes of flies.
He went to the hospital with pneumonia after the first brutal month of fighting. When he returned to the front, still sick, he fell asleep at his post. He was sentenced to death for endangering his unit.
His death sentence was soon remitted and he returned to front-line service. This was just a few days before the Battle of Chunuk Bair where so many of the men, including Jack, were to die.
THE BATTLE OF CHUNUK BAIR
Maori Contingent soldiers, Private Rikihana Carkeek and Corporal Friday Patrick Hawkins, are defiantly manning the machine gun while Australian-born engineer Colin Warden, a crack sniper and machine gunner, lies slumped over a mountain of jute sacks.
As he took his last breath, Colin commanded, “Carry on boys”.
ENGINEER COLIN WARDEN
Colin landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. He was a fearless, intelligent and popular soldier, also a favorite scout of his captain.
On the night of 6 August 1915, he took charge of a 16-man Maori Contingent machine-gun team just below Chunuk Bair. From there they provided essential support to the infantry’s assault on the summit. On 8 August, they came under heavy fire and he was killed.
Rikihana Carkeek, who was also in the team, recorded Colin’s death in his diary:
“We were in a terribly exposed position and all the rifle fire of the Turks seemed to converge on our position…. Bullets seemed to be whizzing and sputtering from all sides…. Just after our officer, Lieutenant Waldren, had given us the range [for the machine gun] he was shot and fell back amongst us in a heap. He managed to say ‘Carry on boys’, then he died in the arms, I believe, of Private Lucas….”
Colin’s captain buried him and relayed the news to Colin’s son writing, “poor old Warden is shot in the heart…. Gallant soul + true comrade and soldier. Bravest and best of scouts. Died fighting his gun.”
PRIVATE RIKIHANA CARKEEK AND CORPORAL FRIDAY HAWKINS
From Rikihana’s diary:
“Almost immediately after the loss of our leader, our gun corporal Donald Ferris was shot through the head and killed instantly and I dragged him away from the gun and laid him beside our officer.
No. 2, Private F. Hawkins, took charge of the gun and I moved into position to feed the belt. Shortly afterwards he was out of action, shot through the wrist. Then I took charge and opened fire at 250 yards. I also did not reign for long for I was shot through the body at the base of neck and out of action….”
CHARLOTTE (LOTTIE) LE GALLAIS
Lottie was on the nursing staff of Auckland Public Hospital when war broke out. She was selected to work on the hospital ship Maheno, which would transport sick and wounded soldiers to hospitals away from Anzac Cove.
For three months, Lottie endured terrible clean ups on the Maheno as the ship shuttled sick and wounded men between Gallipoli and hospitals on Lemnos island and in Egypt, Malta, and England.
Her brother Leddra was already at Gallipoli when she embarked. Before he left for war, he wrote his father saying, “Well, Dad, I never thought that I would be a soldier, but now I am one, I am determined to be a good one … If I have bad luck, well I suppose it had to be”.
Lottie hoped to see her brother but their paths would never cross. He was killed in action a month before she arrived.
All of Lottie’s letters came back to her unopened – one of them stamped KILLED RETURN TO SENDER. He’d been dead 4 months.
SERGEANT CECIL MALTHUS
Cecil landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. His campaign included three stints at Quinn’s Post, one of the most exposed spots on the Anzac front line. He was hospitalised several times due to illness, but was still on the peninsula when troops were withdrawn in December.
In April 1916, Cecil went to France. He fought in the Battle of the Somme where 1.2 million Allied soldiers would be killed or wounded over 141 days. In a letter to his sweetheart Hazel Watters, Cecil described his experiences in that action as ‘a taste of hell’.
One night while deepening a trench, his shovel set off an unseen bomb. The shovel absorbed most of the blast, but his foot was badly wounded. Soon enough, he was declared unfit for active service and had to travel back on the New Zealand hospital ship.
Finding Cecil in a muddy shell hole at the end of the exhibit, reminds visitors that many Gallipoli veterans like him went on to face more hardships on the Western Front.
In total 2,779 Kiwis lost their lives on Gallipoli. But the conditions that awaited the survivors, as well as the thousands of reinforcements sent from New Zealand to the Western Front, were even worse. The losses and suffering were to continue for over two years, until the Armistice of 11 November 1918.
The red poppies that grew from the churned earth of Europe’s battlefields have become an international symbol of remembrance.
Located just before the Cecil Malthus sculpture is a station where you get to share your thoughts.
“Gather a poppy and share your thoughts. Feel free to lay your poppy at the feet of the soldier ahead of you, or take it home.”
At the exit of the exhibit is a cleansing water station.
“Feel free to cleanse yourself by sprinkling water on your body. This is the Maori custom after being in the presence of the deceased.”
In finishing this post, I am left to reflect on these questions:
What is my purpose? If I die, do I want to go quietly and fade away in time? Or do I want to leave behind a legacy that would touch the soul of generations to come?
What kind of letters am I leaving behind? Are they strong enough to influence others to “carry on” even amidst the fiercest battles? Or am I wasting a life saved by blood on the cross?
“If I am knocked out, don’t worry about it, dear. It is a good life and a good death here.” – Cecil Malthus
Know more about the Gallipoli exhibit: http://www.gallipoli.tepapa.govt.nz/