Exhaustive search of searching tragedy

Oliver Riddell reviews "The Nek"

A Gallipoli Tragedy
Peter Burness

With the rapid approach of the centennial of the beginning of World War 1, there is also a rapid increase in the number of books being published to cash in on the event.

The Nek is part of the Anzac Battles Series of books and recounts in exhaustive detail one of the searing tragedies to which young Australia was subjected in 1915 during the Dardanelles campaign.

Gallipoli was directed by generals whose knowledge of the military arts was limited to discipline and courage.

They had virtually no concept of flexibility and initiative, and the resulting disasters have been well documented in the decades since.

The series is intended to be a collection of books describing "the great military battles" fought by Australian and New Zealand soldiers during the wars of the 20th century.

This particular book has hardly anything about New Zealand soldiers, and nor should it. The Nek was an entirely Australian experience, although there is a slighting reference to "the New Zealanders had made unnecessary halts" to explain the Kiwi failure at Chunuk Bair, which had been intended to support the Aussies at The Nek. It is not clear if Burness wants New Zealand's soldiers to share the blame for the resulting bloodbath at The Nek.

As a textbook military disaster it is hard to imagine what The Nek lacked.

It had elderly and incompetent commanders who generally loathed each other. So four waves of men were ordered to charge one after the other into unsubdued enemy fire. The capacity for sensible direction was entirely absent.

The soldiers, on the other hand, were light horsemen and were not trained or equipped to fight as infantry in Gallipoli's conditions.

Their courage was frequently sublime. The author equates their performance with the much better-known Charge of the Light Brigade, of which a French general commented "it is magnificent, but it is not war". The comparison is apt.

The Nek is not as well known to New Zealanders as it deserves to be. This book will go some way towards remedying that.

Oliver Riddell is a Wellington writer

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