It’s Not the Danger

  • “It is not the danger, dirt, and misery – it is the ghastly waiting to be killed that wears us all to shreds.” – Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick
  • “I shall become a rigorous penman with my left hand. I shall be able to accomplish all sorts of things.” – Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott after having his right arm amputated from a wound
  • “A man just above my dugout was practically beheaded. War is a devilishly silly thing.” – Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick

We all know of war. Its hand has raped our history from the ground up and its smile has brought Death’s trade to many an unnecessary boom. But I think we forget that war is rarely comprised of grand D-Day like triumphs and losses. War is the battles we never knew and the ended lives we forgot to count.

Te Papa Museum called forth a particular conflict that I somehow doubt is on the radar of most Europeans and Americans. The Gallipoli Campaign in World War I was one of the most significant battles in New Zealand history, taking place over the course of eight months on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. Australians and New Zealanders held a small ridge on Turkish territory, firing at the opposing trenches mere meters away.

‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ is another of Te Papa Museum’s partnerships with Weta Workshop, (they worked on Lord of the Rings), to tell the stories of individuals and educate us on their context. This exhibition was not about the politics of, the current thoughts on, or the implications of this campaign. It was designed to give you permission to delve as deep as you wanted into the lives of these men living through hell.

I only made it halfway through the exhibit.

I pored over each piece of information provided, watching short films, reading quotes and chronicles of men’s lives. I listened to the movements of the infantry and pulled open maps of the battlefield. I gazed wide-eyed at the photographs of men scraping existences from steep hills and dirt terraces. And still I kept finding more and more of the exhibit to understand.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where I couldn’t go further, but I know it was there. I felt myself grow heavy from holding the experiences of these soldiers in my heart. My voice was straining from the pain of deep longing to tell their stories. My empathic little soul was crying at me to walk away.

I was admittedly a bit confused. I have read book after book on PTSD, the Vietnam War, and soldiers’ experience in general. I always feel the stories deeply, but never to the point that my whole being is practically brought to its knees.

This is where I gush on the beauty of the exhibit itself. Every part of you is engaged in it. You are listening to sounds and music highlighting each room. You are seeing and reading and touching and observing and being sucked into every possible reproduction of a story that happened over a hundred years ago. You are called to see in a personal way something that is very important to New Zealand history.

And it works.

Thank you, Te Papa Museum, Weta Workshop, and all of the other organizations and individuals who poured their being into telling these stories. You are touching souls and educating us well.

(All of the photos are my own. These sculptures are larger than life and were some of the most incredible pieces of art I have ever seen. Wellington is lucky to have Weta so close and willing to share its talents with its home.)

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To the soldiers of the past and present: I hope your stories are heard. We are listening.

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