WWI: What else do we have wrong?

One of the notebooks which have rewritten New Zealand history
One of the notebooks which have rewritten New Zealand history

Today's revelation there were twice as many Kiwi troops at Gallipoli than previously believed could be the beginning of a significant revision of the price New Zealand paid in World War I.

Century-old notebooks kept by a British staff officer on the peninsula have proven long-running suspicions there were more than 8556 New Zealanders fighting in the doomed campaign -- the true figure closer to 17,000.

"It's a very important find, although it's been known for some time the figures were probably far too low," says Massey University professor of war studies Glyn Harper.

Prof Harper points to 2005 book Bloody Gallipoli: The New Zealanders' Story by Richard Stowers as the first signs something in the official history wasn't quite right.

"One of the most prevalent myths that had been created in the past was that New Zealand's casualty figures on Gallipoli were far higher than anybody else's -- a casualty rate of greater than 90 percent. That just doesn't make sense," he says.

Newshub reporter Tony Wright, who broke the news this morning, agrees.

"If you take that 8500 which is quoted in the official history of the campaign written in 1919, we would have a 93 percent casualty rate. There would have been no guys left to take off the peninsula when it was evacuated in December 1915."

The new figure puts it closer to 50 percent, which aligns with the Australian casualty rate.

Mr Wright discovered the existence of the notebooks yesterday, and flew down to Wellington to get a closer look.

"I couldn't believe what I had in my hands -- my hands were shaking," he says.

"These things are like little time machines, these notebooks. They are absolutely fantastic. It rewrites the ANZAC story once and for all."

But the rewriting of history is unlikely to end at Gallipoli. Mr Wright says there are a number of WWI battles, in which New Zealand suffered massive losses, open to revision, such as at the Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917.

New research suggests the official death toll could be far higher than the official 845 -- already the bloodiest day in New Zealand's military history -- because many recovered from the battlefield alive later succumbed to their injuries.

"It could be as high as 1000 Kiwis dying in a single battle that occurred in just a couple of hours."

While more Kiwis made it out of Gallipoli unscathed than previously believed, that doesn't change the fact 2779 died and more than 5000 were wounded.

"The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for the Allies, for Australia, New Zealand, Britain," says Prof Harper.

"The best part of the campaign was when we left, because it was meticulously planned and we didn't lose anybody. Apart from that, it was an absolute disaster."

He says while Gallipoli is "stamped into the national psyche of both Australia and New Zealand", it could be time to make room for other key battles in New Zealand's history.

"We have the Battle of the Somme coming up soon, which is September 1916 for the New Zealanders. In 23 days of service on the Somme, we lost as many casualties as we did at Gallipoli -- 7500 casualties in that space. It remains our bloodiest-ever military conflict. To be honest, it's virtually unknown in New Zealand."

The exact number of Kiwi troops who served at Gallipoli might never be known, but the figure of 17,000 is just an estimate at this stage. New Zealand Defence Force historians and colleagues at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage are still looking at the documents.