Key Points:

No matter how familiar you are with the Gallipoli story it is impossible to read any account of that tragedy without being moved and troubled; moved by the suffering and troubled by the fact that such anguish seems to be the price of creating a national identity.

More than 90 years on, Anzac Day is celebrated as wholeheartedly as ever and new generations of New Zealanders are reflecting on the sacrifice of their forebears. Christopher Pugsley's book records in harrowing detail exactly how that price was paid.

This is not a new account. Just as Alan Moorehead's classic account of the campaign, first published in 1956, was reissued last year, so this book is a new edition based on a 1998 revision of Pugsley's original 1984 work, in conjunction with a TVNZ documentary. But among the wealth of books on the campaign - almost every local library has at least half a dozen - Pugsley's has a specific New Zealand perspective.

He is a military historian and the campaign is thoroughly analysed but the strength of the book is the wealth of personal histories, from high-ranking officers to the humblest orderlies. Frequently told in flat, unemotional language, they tell how men were willing to walk into a slaughterhouse in which their companions dropped all around them, without any faith in how they were led.

The big picture version is brutally simple. In 1915, the Allies, including Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand, mounted an attack on the Gallipoli peninsula on the southern-most shore of the Dardanelles, the channel between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, a strategic waterway linking the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The aim was to help Russia by breaking through to the Dardanelles and driving on to the Turkish capital of Constantinople.

After two attempts by the Royal Navy failed to force the straits, troop landings were made. But despite bitter and heroic fighting, the Allies made no significant progress inland. Some eight months later the invading forces were pulled out with the evacuation, like Dunkirk later on - the most successful part of the ill-fated operation.

But compressed into this short episode was a saga which created a national myth, both for Australia and New Zealand.

Although the whole enterprise has been described as the fantasy brainchild of Winston Churchill, and it was certainly regarded by many in British high command as a wasteful sideshow from the main on the Western Front, it had real potential.

Major Arthur Temperley, a British regular officer and no great supporter of the colonial effort, commented of the second phase battle for the heights of Chunuk Bair: "The New Zealand Infantry Brigade was for 48 hours at the throat of the Turkish Empire and had support been forthcoming at the right time and place, the Turkish Army would have been beaten, Constantinople would have fallen and the war might have been shortened by two years."

Pugsley quotes the New Zealander Lt Col Herbert Hart watching the evacuation: "So all we have suffered and sacrificed here has been in vain, a most glorious chance in the history of this war absolutely foiled and lost by the most absurd and ridiculous manner the scheme was commenced."

It was those failings in the execution of the scheme that doomed it and which led to New Zealanders, at least those who experienced it, to question the relationship between the colonies and the home country.

As the expeditionary forces were gathering, it seems few thought in terms of national identity. They joined as the boys from Greymouth or Ashburton. "It would be the home town first, the regiment second and for the moment no one saw themselves as New Zealanders."

Later this changed. "It seems great to be such a long way from home but we are all New Zealanders and now that we are away from our own country we all stick together like glue."

The shortcomings of the British military establishment removed the cultural cringe. Far from being efficient world leaders, the British became seen as incompetent and arrogant, and a growing sense of the worth of New Zealand values developed.

The first and most crucial error, as far as the New Zealand and Australian troops were concerned, was that the Royal Navy landed them at the wrong beach. Instead of being confronted with a gradual slope they were hemmed in on a tiny cove - perhaps never in history had 2000 men been wedged in such a small triangle of inhospitable ground - overlooked by rugged terrain which afforded the defending Turks perfect firing lines. And the Turks, regarded with some scorn, turned out to be skilful and tenacious fighters, brilliantly led by Mustafa Kemal with typically competent German advisers.

That the Anzacs, who first had this name attached to them here, did not succeed in breaking out is perhaps less remarkable than that they managed to hold on to their precarious foothold for so long.

The conditions at Gallipoli were beyond our imagining. "Each man's world was his area of the trench, 2 to 3m deep and perhaps the same in length with a niche in the trench wall covered by a blanket where he rested by day and tried to sleep. His belongings were a greatcoat, webbing, rifle and bayonet. His food was beef and biscuits, the first salty, the last rock hard. Bacon fat and rotten cheese and jam that ran like thin watery juice completed his fare. His water allowance was half a gallon a day, New Zealanders marvelled that the greatest empire on earth waged war in this fashion."

If the basics of existence - lice, flies, dysentery - were grim, the nature of the fighting was inconceivable. As the trenches spread up the hillsides the opposing forces were within metres of each other. The dead and wounded choked the gullies and men stood on the bodies of their comrades to fight. "The first one [Turk] that Robin bowled over was so close that the blast of the machine gun set his clothes on fire."

The Turks were better supplied with weaponry than the Allies, who had to make grenades from jam tins and essential periscopes with bits of glass cut from ship's mirrors. Initially too, the medical arrangements were just as appalling. After the first days in April 1915 some of the wounded were moved to the Lutzow. "Although designated as a hospital ship for 200 seriously and 100 slightly wounded, there were only two medical men aboard, Major Young, a veterinary surgeon and a medical orderly, Private O. E. Burton."

And yet in the midst of this shambles the Allied forces were required to make doomed attempts to attack - "senseless and avoidable Balaclavas". The high commands on both sides were incapable of absorbing the lesson that courage was not enough.

The losses were beyond imagination.

Just over 8500 New Zealanders served on the Peninsula. Many wounded or sick were evacuated, only to have to go back again. The number of casualties is almost incalculable as many were wounded more than once but the death toll alone was 2721, of whom the great majority were never found.

With these losses came a new perception. Quite early "the feeling grew among some of the officers that New Zealanders have nothing to learn from the imported [Imperial] men. They are not practical men." The New Zealanders also distinguished themselves from the Australians, formidable in attack but less fitted for the defensive role, "requiring patience and the steady development of defence work".

The New Zealanders displayed a peculiar inhibition, a seeking as it were to avoid all distinction. This reticence with a practical professionalism in battle set them apart.

The lessons learned by the men of Gallipoli were slow to percolate New Zealand society as a whole.

The Dardanelles veterans, like those of the later killing fields of the Somme and Passchendaele which some historians view as more significant to New Zealand than Gallipoli, were reluctant to tell their tales and the notion of Empire persisted longer at home than with the fighting men.

Pugsley quotes the stretcher-bearer O. E. Burton: "But the way men died at Chunuk is shaping the deeds yet to be done by the generations still unborn. When the August fighting died down there was no longer any question but that New Zealanders had commenced to realise themselves as a nation."

This book is a beautifully produced and moving tribute to those men, lavishly illustrated and with good notes, indexes and appendices.

Like all the best histories it raises contemporary questions, not least the question that hangs unanswered as the notes of the Last Post fade at the Anzac Day parades.

Have we justified the agonies of those young men and the thousands who followed?