Culverden farmhand Alfred Cameron’s diary detailing everything from his enlistment to the ordeal of battle

When New Zealand artist Bob Kerr went to Gallipoli five years ago to research a series of paintings he was working on, he walked along the stony beach where the Anzac troops first started landing in April 1915. He took his shoes off and walked into the sea, the scene of such terrible carnage 100 years ago.

"I wanted to experience what the guys had done," he says. "They waded ashore, so I took my shoes off and waded out into the sea and turned around and had a good look. I took my camera with me and took photos. It's quite a popular place now, popular with Turkish families. It's very pleasant. You can hear birds and there are poppies growing along the shore which is almost maudlinly sentimental. People are very friendly. I'd always be walking back to town and I'd invariably be invited out to dinner by a Turkish family."

Wellington-based Kerr, who explores New Zealand history in his work, decided to visit Gallipoli after discovering a diary held in Alexander Turnbull Library written by Alfred Cameron, a 20-year-old farmhand from Culverden in Canterbury, who enlisted in the Expeditionary Force Mounted Rifles in 1914. Cameron also enlisted his horse Percy.

"I always find with all my work that I have to go to the place," says Kerr. "I can't just look at photos, it's always the actual physical place that sparks off the images."

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The Alexander Turnbull Library holds dozens of letters and diaries written by men who engaged in the Gallipoli campaign. "When I got to diary number 10 - Alfred's - I thought, 'You're my man'," says Kerr. "He wrote so clearly. He just noted down what happened."

Cameron's earlier entries were gung-ho, full of optimism. He had elegant writing at first, using a fountain pen to describe the training at Lyall Bay, the ship voyage in October across the Indian Ocean, the "little battle" with a German raider, the disembarkment at Alexandria and the weeks spent in the desert marching up and down. On Christmas Day 1914, he and his mate George Ilsley visited the pyramids, then, according to the diary, "took the tram back to Cairo and had dinner at the Cafe Parisienne, a real good dinner too".

When Cameron and his mates first arrived in Egypt, they thought they were going to be sent to France to fight. "But the First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided to invade the Dardanelles Strait," says Kerr.

By the time the Mounted Rifles sailed for the Dardanelles - "great news", wrote Cameron - he had started to use a pencil and the writing was losing its tidy elegance. They arrived at Gallipoli on May 12; the campaign had started on April 25. Cameron's words are replicated in Kerr's multi-panel work Hell Here Now which features on the cover of the print version of Letters From Hell, a special publication inside today's print edition of the Herald.

The words flow from left to right, covering Cameron's three-week ordeal at Gallipoli. They start on May 12: "I write these lines hoping they will be interesting to those at home ... we got ashore safely although we're under shellfire all the way ... we went straight to a bushy gulley for shelter."

The next day: "At three o'clock we started off for the firing line." Then there is a gap of just over 10 days. On May 24, Cameron notes, "Armistice arranged between both sides this morning to allow the burying of the dead." Two days later, "Trooper Skilton wounded. Trooper Hunter killed."

Monday May 31: "Going forward again tonight" and in much smaller writing, "we miss our cobbers." The same day, Kerr has blown up Cameron's words: "IT'S JUST HELL HERE NOW. No water or tucker."

His words end the same day: "Seven out of thirty three in number one troop on duty. Rest either dead or wounded. Dam the place. No good writing any more."

Cameron's friend George Ilsley had been killed, and when the diary stopped, Kerr assumed Cameron had died as well. Then he saw a little scrawl dated August 24: "Government School Hospital, Port Said. 21 today. Received cable from home."

Kerr managed to track down Cameron's grand-daughter, who lived in Wellington. Her grandfather had been blown up and buried while attempting to tunnel through to the Turks. When he eventually recovered, he returned to New Zealand in 1916 and took up farming near Fairlie.

His grand-daughter recalled him as a man who couldn't abide dirt in the house. "She said he used to walk behind them sweeping up any gravel they might bring into the house." He was most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Words from another soldier engaged in the impasse at Gallipoli sweep across the top of Kerr's panels: "I don't know these British soldiers and they don't know me. What can I say to those who made us come here and kill each other without reason."

They were written by a young man on the other side, a Turkish soldier called Major Ismail Hakki who was fighting at the top of the ridge alongside his lifelong friend, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, the man who would later create and lead the modern Republic of Turkey, and was given the honorific title of Ataturk - Father of the Turks.

Kerr discovered Ismail Hakki's words in the 2005 documentary Frontline Experience: Gallipoli, made by Turkish film-maker Tolga Ornek and narrated by Sam Neill and Jeremy Irons. He emailed Hakki's grandson, Bulent Atalay, a distinguished physicist in the United States and president of the Ataturk Society of America, which is dedicated to promoting the great leader's ideals of science and reason, to ask for permission to use the words in his painting.

Atalay later wrote in the National Geographic, "In the closing days of 2010, I received a puzzling package in the mail." It was a gift from Kerr, a scaled-down version of Hell Here Now.

The two men have since become good friends, with Atalay visiting Wellington last year.

Kerr took him to see the Ataturk Memorial on Wellington's south coast, "which is curiously very much the same kind of landscape as Gallipoli. He was very moved."

What happened to Ismail Hakki who wrote those powerful words? After the Gallipoli campaign, and the withdrawal of the Anzacs, he sent a photo of his company with a message to his aunt: "I've survived eight months of action in Gallipoli. I will soon leave for the Eastern Front to face the Arabs and their recalcitrant leader."

The "recalcitrant leader" was Lawrence of Arabia. "There he would die," wrote his grandson, Bulent Atalay. "My grandfather's body would presumably be interred somewhere in south-eastern Turkey."

Hell Here Now is on show at Whitespace Gallery, 12 Crummer Rd, Grey Lynn.