Following 'unlucky Otagos' an honour

Joseph Brosnahan and his father Sean Brosnahan retraced the footsteps of Otago soldiers in World...
Joseph Brosnahan and his father Sean Brosnahan retraced the footsteps of Otago soldiers in World War 1 for a documentary showing at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Map of central Dunedin showing where World War 1 casualties from the city lived. The map was...
Map of central Dunedin showing where World War 1 casualties from the city lived. The map was displayed in the ''Dunedin's Great War'' exhibition.
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator and historian Sean Brosnahan has a black belt in karate, and...
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator and historian Sean Brosnahan has a black belt in karate, and has been researching the impact of WW1 battles on Dunedin and Otago.

Dean Brosnahan vividly recalls an ''amazing experience'' when filming a documentary about Otago soldiers in World War I.

The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator and his cameraman son Joseph were shooting a segment about the Battle of Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli.

The pair had walked down from the summit, retracing the tortuous route the ''unlucky Otagos'' took to the top of the Sari Bair range in August 1915.

''It was really hot and the route is very steep so it was physically taxing,'' Mr Brosnahan says, recalling the documentary shoot last year.

When he came to an area where trees were now growing, he was unexpectedly greeted by a Turkish woman in traditional dress.

She walked down the slope towards him, extended her hands to shake his, and said in English, ''Welcome''.

''I found that a very moving gesture because she clearly knew that I was from the old `enemy' side of things and she made that effort to demonstrate the Turkish approach to the Anzacs.

''It's a pretty impressive thing when you consider that in 1915 we were invading their country, for no very good reason.''

The documentary was a cornerstone of the recently-ended museum exhibition, ''Dunedin's Great War'', which told the story of the war's disastrous impact on the city and the region.

The exhibition ''really connected'' with a wide audience, drawing more than 164,000 visitors.

''We brought the big story of WW1 down to a short but detailed account of Dunedin/Otago's experience of it,'' Mr Brosnahan says.

There was a ''real hunger'' in the community for information about WW1 service, with a strong family focus, and the museum tried to address this through the exhibition and the 11-part documentary, shot at battlefields from Gallipoli to Passchendaele.

He says he revelled in the work, but filming the documentary in 14 days, on a shoestring budget, with only his son to help, was gruelling in many ways.

Filming with his son was a bonus.

''Joseph was up for whatever was required to get a good job done and didn't moan or complain if that meant an unbroken 10-hour stretch.''

''It was my first time at Gallipoli and on the Somme, and it was tremendously exciting to drive along the road and finally see places whose names had been the focus of so much research for so long.''

The ''unlucky Otagos'' label was attached to the Otago Infantry Regiment during the war because of the ''repeated disasters it faced'', he says. The regiment's men were ''often in the wrong place at the wrong time'', first at Gallipoli and later in other action on the Western Front.

About 475 from the regiment died at Gallipoli - the ''highest fatality rate of any of the New Zealand units''.

By the end of the war, 2540 of the Otago infantry died, again the highest toll of any New Zealand regiment.

Another 155 men of the Otago Mounted Rifles also died, mainly at Gallipoli.

The exhibition displayed a 1917 street map of central Dunedin, showing the many street addresses to which casualty telegrams were sent.

''No area was untouched, and this heavy burden was spread right across every suburb,'' he says.

Born and raised in Timaru, Mr Brosnahan, as a youngster, never had any idea what he would do when he ''grew up'', but ''somehow found myself drawn inevitably to history''.

Even when not at work, he still delves into the past ''for fun and profit'', including writing commissioned histories, and reading a great deal of history, historical fiction, action adventures and thrillers.

Besides Mr Brosnahan's passion for history, he also has a black belt in karate.

He has been practising for 32 years and enjoys this form of combat -''as much a mental discipline as a physical one''- among his leisure activities.

The hard work rediscovering a partly forgotten story about WW1 has been vindicated through a strong public response to both the exhibition and the documentary.

In the recent Museums Aotearoa national museum awards, the exhibition was ''highly commended'', and the documentary named as joint winner of the ''best project'' award.

He credits much of the project's success to his colleague, museum exhibition developer Will McKee, who organised funding and logistics, and did all the production work to turn raw footage into the documentary episodes.

The documentary was ''entirely'' Mr McKee's idea.

Back in Gallipoli, while filming the memorial near the beach, Mr Brosnahan paused to read the stone engraving of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal's

1934 speech, in which he addresses the mothers of all the Allied fallen and assures them ''they are our sons now too''.

''As I read his words to camera there was a catch in my throat and a tear in my eye.''

While the project impressed a wider audience, its impact was also deeply personal.

''Gallipoli was so beautiful and so peaceful, it made a deep impression on me.

''It hooked me completely and I can't wait to go back and explore it some more.''




Name and age: Sean Brosnahan (52).

Occupation: Toitu Otago Settlers Museum Curator

Qualifications: Include MA (hons), Canterbury University.

Work history: Entire professional career at Toitu OSM.

Proudest achievement: Being a father and watching four fine children grow to adulthood.



Making an historical journey of research discovery, preparing for the Dunedin's Great War exhibition and associated documentary.

What is your research about?

My research has been about the WW1 experience of Otago soldiers, principally the men of the Otago Infantry and Otago Mounted Rifles. Preparing for our Dunedin's Great War exhibition, we made a documentary series called Journey of the Otagos, retracing the footsteps of the Otago units throughout the war, from Gallipoli to the Western Front.

Why is it important?

No-one has really done any substantial study of the Otago Regiment in WW1 since the official history came out in 1921. The Otago Mounted Rifles missed out on an official history post-war but their story was told magnificently in the late Dr Don Mackay's book The Troopers' Tale in 2012. Journey of the Otagos is a supplement to both; a popular account of all the places the Otago units went and what happened to them.

Most interesting aspect of your research?

The privilege of being there, tracking the routes, engaging with the places, and honouring those who had gone before.

In what way is it unique?

Journey of the Otagos was filmed in only 14 days, with no breaks or rest periods. The film crew consisted of myself and my cameraman son Joseph.



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