The homecoming from Gallipoli, by Walter Bowring

The homecoming from Gallipoli, by Walter Armiger Bowring, 1916

On 15 July 1915, SS Willochra arrived in Wellington carrying the first batch of New Zealand wounded from Gallipoli. Bowring’s The homecoming from Gallipoli depicts the poignant loss-of-innocence moment when civilian New Zealanders first confronted the grim reality of wounds, amputations and psychological trauma. The painting is dominated by a seemingly unending line of bandaged men in khaki limping down from the ship into a crowd of anxious civilians. Flags and coloured streamers hang limply, suggesting that the waiting families had expected a celebration, not a column of exhausted men.

The return of Gallipoli soldiers

Rhetoric around the return of the Willochra and the other vessels in 1915, and subsequent portrayals of these events, focused on the men who had been wounded at Gallipoli. Speakers referred to their ‘battle scars’ and ‘wounds of honour’. [1] Reports of the receptions were accompanied by detailed descriptions of how men had sustained their wounds and how they were recovering.

The close-up photographs published in the New Zealand Observer were mainly of men on crutches or with visible wounds. Yet the vessels also carried many men who were coming home for other reasons. Some had become sick while at Gallipoli, or after sustaining wounds there. Others had not set foot on the peninsula, having been deemed ‘medically unfit’ because of conditions identified after they left New Zealand, or because of illnesses they had contracted overseas. These men were not unlike those who had returned to the country unheralded earlier in the year.

Most men who returned to New Zealand during the war in drafts associated with illness or misconduct, or who arrived individually or in small groups, missed out on the welcomes that were extended to ‘worthy’, representative or large drafts. Men who accompanied such drafts usually found themselves being welcomed alongside them. 

About the artist

Deaprture of the Hospital Ship Maheno by Walter Bowring, 1915 Arrival of HMS New Zealand by Walter Bowring, 1913

Auckland-born Walter Armiger Bowring was a talented illustrator and a successful landscape and portrait painter. In 1918 he applied unsuccessfully to become an official war artist. The New Zealand government preferred to appoint artists who were serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, or were already living in Britain or France and so could be sent to the Western Front quickly and cheaply.

In 1920 Bowring was commissioned by the government to paint portraits of General E.W.C. Chaytor and Victoria Cross recipient Bernard Freyberg. Later that year, The homecoming from Gallipoli and two of his other paintings, The arrival of HMS New Zealand (1913) and Departure of the hospital ship ‘Maheno’ (1915) – seen above – were acquired for New Zealand’s official war art collection. These works are two of the few paintings in the collection that document New Zealand’s experience of the war at home.

[1] Dominion, 16 July 1915, p. 6; Otago Daily Times, 20 July 1915, p. 7

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