For many New Zealanders the Gallipoli campaign persists as the defining experience of this country's participation in the First World War. It was not our deadliest, but the extreme difficulties of the landscape in which our soldiers were effectively trapped, the trauma of their daily existence and the sustained nature of their deployment in those conditions made a deep impact on our home population. This was not the war New Zealanders were expecting.

However, soldiers on the peninsula tried to remain resilient and look for the small moments of wonder and pleasure that might divert them even momentarily from horrors around them. 

A new small book edited by Gail Romano, Associate Curator, War History, explores some of those stories

Header image: Unofficial sketch plan of action at Gallipoli, 25 April 1915. PD-1975-1 

In the Midst of Death We are in Life is the third instalment of a series of publications that explore the Museum's collections. In this book, Associate Curator War History, Gail Romano and her co-authors connect the experiences of New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli to the richness of their lives beyond the peninsula. 

Drawing on perspectives from archaeology, botany, and entomology, the humanity of the soldiers is illuminated against the shadow of death and fearful reality that dominated their days.



Gail shares the publication journey with us below


AM: Where did the idea for the book come from?

GR: In 2015 I put together a small display case in the previous Armoury gallery to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. I had titled that case ‘In the midst of life’, using the first words of the committal phrase from the Book of Common Prayer, in their traditional order. It was during more recent reflection that I realised reversing the word order of the phrase was powerful and particularly meaningful. 

To encourage visitors to reflect more widely I wanted to use the case to tell a different story to that which most often marks the Gallipoli experience and I had recently come across the tiny amulet found on the site of Troy in late 1918 by a New Zealand officer and which is imaged in Deirdre’s chapter. I had also spent three weeks in Türkiye just over a year earlier and been completely blown away by the cultural and natural experience. Those memories together with the animal amulet started me thinking about the peninsula’s identity beyond its association with what was the world’s first industrialised war. Gallipoli is embedded in our memory in a fairly two-dimensional way: most people today have an eight-month time reference and associate the place with some of the worst experiences people can endure. This ‘flat’ characterisation is often true of descriptions of significant events and sometimes battlefield descriptions seem almost interchangeable if the action and destruction is all you focus on. But in 1915 the peninsula was much more rounded for those who were there. The horrors and trauma of the fighting indisputably dominated our soldiers’ experience but Gallipoli’s past and present life still made itself felt in a variety of ways and individual soldiers definitely acknowledged the personality of the place in which they found themselves. 

Amulet of a dog, 1964.147. Found on the site of Troy in 1918 by Major T Barrett. Probably Ordos.

AM: If you had more than 50 pages, what else would you have liked to include?

GR: Fifty pages is really a sampler and we had to be disciplined in the choices we could make for each chapter. We were helped in that selection by the need to keep the book focused on what we hold in the various collections that has a link with the Gallipoli Peninsula or its immediate environs. There are many examples in each of our respective disciplines that we would have loved to include had we had museum references and pages available, for example poppies on the peninsula. For these reasons we did not include chapters on birds, land vertebrates or marine life because while there may be some examples in our collections of species that are commonly found in that part of Türkiye we didn’t come across any in the collection that were specifically recorded as having been collected there. This meant that although in my introductory chapter I referenced skylarks and the nest that gave daily pleasure to a regimental runner, we had to put aside the numerous mentions of birds such as the flocks of storks that became target practice for some, and the other forms of life that our soldiers lived alongside. Neither did we consider the contemporary settlements that existed on the peninsula at that time despite the stories of orchards and cultivated gardens and the proximity of villages, particularly in the north. Space and collection representation were also the reasons we couldn’t say much about the French and British armies’ separate archaeological investigations during their time on Gallipoli, and there was so much depth in the classical and biblical histories we likewise ignored, despite its familiarity for many servicemen.

However, it’s also important to note that rather than just simply look at life on and around Gallipoli historically and contemporaneously to the conflict, the goal of the book was to emphasise the relationship of that life to the soldiers and how it affected them. We wanted to acknowledge that there was so much more they saw, felt and reflected on beyond the inescapable reality of the job they were there to do. 

Although the richness of the subject meant my co-authors and I each struggled with length and had to be ruthless in cutting our chapters and removing images, it was nevertheless a fascinating project, and one I’d certainly like to be taking further - one day, perhaps.

Interested readers who want to see living examples of such plants as Yumi discusses which Ernest Stocker recognised from home in New Zealand would probably be best to do an internet search for varieties, habitats and ranges. Yumi also mentions the purported plantings of Gallipoli-sourced pines in New Zealand and Australia while noting that verifying such origin may not be possible. The Aleppo pine growing to the north west of the Museum is not one of them. But for Auckland readers she does reference the memorial pine at Māngere Memorial Hall.


AMWhen reflecting on histories of major NZ conflicts, what draws you to the experience of individual soldiers?

GR: For me it’s in the individual stories and the human experience that the value of history lies. And that is also the kaupapa of war history in this Museum. While this domain building was initiated to address the issues of an institution which had already outgrown its premises and was bursting at the seams, the Curator Thomas Cheeseman recognised that the Auckland community needed something more following the First world War. Being so far from the battlefields and with so many young men buried in foreign soil never to return home, families needed somewhere to focus their grief and to remember. In promoting the melding of war memorial and museum he was elevating the value of individuals and the importance of not losing sight of the lives that were lost and the opportunities and promise that went with them. I work with so many affecting stories and I’m always aware that these are only the ones that surface in our work. Everyone who served had a story and mostly these are lost to public view. One of the stories in the book I can never forget is the short diary mention of the loss of Captain Alfred Bishop Morton by the deeply feeling medical officer, Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick. An Auckland Grammar School old boy and a member of the  permanent forces, Morton died in action at Quinn’s Post but his body was never found. The school’s archives website includes a short but fairly detailed biography of his life and family background, but such biographies seldom bring you closer to their subject. Fenwick’s lament, a few words only but powerful and insightful, brings Morton sharply into focus. It is this man, as known by Fenwick, who we can grieve for more meaningfully. There is certainly a role and a purpose in detailed recording and analysing of military action, decisions and results. But better understanding those who were part of it helps us to develop a deeper sense of what given war activity meant, to better reflect on that and perhaps to challenge assumptions or accepted versions of a story. Sometimes we learn more about ourselves in the process. 

Vase decorated with badges, 1970.140, Gallipoli, 1915. 

AM: The book takes a cross-disciplinary approach, including contributions from entomology, botany, and archaeology. What are the benefits of approaching war history in this way?

GR: Our lives are cross-disciplinary so it makes perfect sense to broaden rather than limit approaches if you want to more fully understand what people have gone through. How much closer do we feel to these men on the peninsula by reading about how they noticed and responded to the natural and cultural worlds around them which refused to be ignored and impinged on their consciousness? And then we remember the war reality that overlaid those moments. I think the book shows beautifully how our experiences and awareness are incredibly complex and multi-faceted.

My academic and career background is such that I always think laterally and across disciplines. I regard this as a strength because multiple perspectives and different ways of thinking about situations can bring about the most surprising insights. 

Tabletop. Gallipoli. 6th Aug 1915. PH-ALB-238-p15-4 More information ›
Gail Romano, Associate Curator, War History

About Gail Romano 

Gail Romano is Associate Curator, War History, a historian and researcher interested in the often-overlooked fringe experiences and the personal, social and economic legacies of post-19th century conflict, including an interest in the relationship of the Auckland community to its war-related heritage and the way in which that reflects in the material environment. 

Click below to explore Gail's recent articles and projects.