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McNeil Brothers on Gallipoli

Gail Romano
Associate Curator, Human History

In Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair, main character Colonel Connolly marks what turned out to be New Zealand’s short-lived capture and control of the contested hill on the Gallipoli peninsula by echoing Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous remark after summitting Mount Everest. ‘Just like that,’ Connolly says, ‘… we’ve knocked the bastard off.’ Easy to misinterpret as unthinking and arrogant bravado but more an expression of the responsibility, stress and impossible situation. New Zealand’s 2015–2017 poet laureate C.K. Stead took a simpler angle in a suite of commemorative poems he wrote for the centenary of the First World War 1

Yes they took Chunuk Bair
and lost it
and would be remembered for that.
C.K.Stead, Malone 

Portrait of William McNeil, Wellington Infantry Battalion.

Portrait of William McNeil, Wellington Infantry Battalion.

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19150909-41-15No known copyright restrictions.

‘They’ included the decimated Wellington Battalion: 760 men claimed the hill, 70 came back down less than a day later. Stead’s persona, the Roman poet Catallus, is matter of fact. Apparently, he didn’t put much store on heroism. No words can effectively convey the real cost and the multiple legacies of such losses, so perhaps the bald, emotionless statement is the only way to record it. Especially when we remember that valour and heroism were far from the minds of the men on the hill. ‘Does this usually have anything / To do with being brave?’ asked Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet in the 1940s. 2  In any case the concept is cold comfort for families and communities that are changed forever.

The years and layers of nation-building debate and military reconstruction of the experience have obscured the faces of the men who died on Chunuk Bair, most of whose graves have never been identified. Chris Pugsley acknowledged in a 2014 interview on RNZ that ‘whatever we do, in a way we’re only scratching the surface, and if you think of a 100,000 New Zealanders who went to war there’s 100,000 stories. 3 Most of those stories will never be told.’ The Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial carries the names of over 800 men lost on this hill and environs and is the tool that anchors their memory even though most will remain mute to history. 4

One of these men was 19-year old seaman, William Waihora McNeil known as ‘Scotty’, grandson of early settler James McNeil who arrived in Otago from Scotland in January 1850. The McNeil family were devout Presbyterians and Scotty’s father was a temperance advocate and one of the founders of the Knox Church in Invercargill. Scotty McNeil joined the New Zealand government training ship Amokura when he was 14 and at 15 was taken on by the Union Steamship Co as an ordinary seaman, later working on the ferry steamer Maori. Other than this we know little more about him than the practical facts recorded in his NZEF personnel file, his life leaving as little impact on history as did his death. 

Sutherland Sinclair McNeil, Otago Infantry Battalion.

Sutherland Sinclair McNeil, Otago Infantry Battalion.

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19150902-40-22No known copyright restrictions.

Scotty’s brother, Sutherland Sinclair McNeil, also died as a result of his service on Gallipoli, the McNeils being one of 55 pairs of brothers who lost their lives on the peninsula. Tram conductor ‘Sus,’ as he was affectionately known, left more of an imprint. Older by two years he followed his younger brother into service, both young men embarking with the Main Body. While Scotty was posted to the Wellington West Coast Company (WWC), Wellington Infantry Battalion, Sus was posted to the 8th Southland Company, Otago Infantry Battalion and he was severely wounded on 9 May during the Daisy Patch action at Cape Helles. He died several days later in the No. 17 General Hospital in Alexandria. In a letter subsequently published, a nurse at the hospital passed on his dying wishes to send his love to his mother. Two days before the family at home received official news of his death Sus’s fox terrier Rouse, which had been left in the care of his sister Iris, went under the house, hid and ‘cried’.

Iris McNeil with Rouse the fox terrier and a family dog.

Iris McNeil with Rouse the fox terrier and a family dog.

Image kindly provided by family. No known copyright restrictions.

Sus was clearly a man of moderate habits and his death prompted local resident Bessie Lee Cowie, World Missionary of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and family friend, to eulogise him and his lifestyle in a long poem published in the Southland Times: 

He grew up in truth and pure manhood,
A whole-hearted clean-living lad.
An example to those who were wavering.
A reproach to all who were bad.
Bessie Lee Cowie, ‘In Loving Memory of Sutherland Sinclair McNeil,’ Southland Times, 25 June 1915, 5

Without personal documentary memorabilia, sometimes the only way into the lives of those who are lost to the past is through the material objects they have left behind. Scotty and Sus are thus remembered in AWMM’s history collection and in this small way their stories remain alive and part of our wider memories of the First World War and its legacies.

He toa taumata rau.


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McNeil Family

Related objects from the McNeil Family, held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 records


[1] C.K. Stead, WW100 Commemorative Poems 

[2] Nazim Hikmet, ‘Human landscapes from my country’. In Kevin Fewster, Vecihi Hürmüz Basarin, Hatice Hürmüz Basarin, Gallipoli: The Turkish Story, 2003, 143. 

[3] Christopher Pugsley on Military History, Radio New Zealand Interview.

[4] Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial

[5] In Loving Memory of Sutherland Sinclair McNeil, Southland Times, 25 June 1915

Cite this article

Romano, Gail. McNeil Brothers on Gallipoli. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 August 2020. Updated: 7 August 2020.