Key Points:

It is the stories of the wives and mothers of "boys" who perished on the battlefields of Europe that bring a catch to Professor Bruce Scates' voice. The acclaimed historian has spent years bringing together memories of the Great War. His research stretches from soldiers' letters of 1915 to emails and interviews describing Anzac Day at Long Pine at Gallipoli nearly 90 years later.

But it is the grubby, decomposing files from a Melbourne mental asylum, with their accounts of women who had literally gone mad with grief, that proved the most ambitious part of his book, Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of The Great War.

As he says, these women waved their young men goodbye fully expecting them to be "home by Christmas". The Australian - and presumably New Zealand - authorities were so certain the war would be a non-event, the soldiers' identity discs were made of compressed cardboard. And when they were mowed down in the trenches and their identity discs rotted into the mud, their mothers, sisters and girlfriends collapsed.

"You get this remarkable glimpse at the heart of what it must have been like to lose a husband, or son," says Scates.

Take Mary Jane, one of the thousands of mothers whose sons went away, and one of hundreds who was unable to deal with first the worry, then the grieving.

Her "frightful appearance" in a photo that fell, face-up, from the tatty mental hospital file he was researching, became one of the abiding faces of war for Scates.

"The eyes that fixed us in an unrelenting gaze, the deep lines that marked her mourning, the thin tense face of a woman who refused to eat; who dreamed every night of piecing together the scattered bones of her child's body.

"It was the face of grief and it howled its pain and its sorrow in the quiet ordered recesses of the archives," he says.

"Beatrice E believed her husband was 'destined to die in France'. Naked and shouting hymns, she was found wandering the streets with nothing but a Bible in her hand."

Another woman cried, "I've no darling now. Baby and I left alone in Shrapnel Gully."

Scates' version of history breaches a new and deeply challenging frontier. As he says, "Historians always treat emotions with scepticism. This book looks at history through peoples' memories that cross four generations."

His research is painstaking. "I scanned through the books and carefully recorded contact addresses," he says. "People would entrust me with their memories with such faith and emotion."

Scates, who worked at the University of Auckland between 1990 and 1992, has a refreshing angle on life. In an era when it was ground-breaking; he and his partner, Rae Frances, split the Auckland job in half. While their two young children attended the university creche, their parents marvelled at our kohanga reo movement and shared the lectures and marking.

They did the same when they returned to Australia. "In every situation the institutions were completely baffled," says Scates. "In each place it was pioneering."

The transtasman relationship, particularly its industrial history and labour movements in both countries, had always interested Australian-born Scates. "I was shocked when I went to New Zealand that the academic salary was so much lower," he says. "Things we'd taken for granted, like going out for pizza with the kids was beyond us."

Although he noticed subtle differences in the way the New Zealand economy operated, Scates does not believe that the strength of Australia's trade union movement underpins their higher wages today.

"The unions were successful in checking some of the destructive aspects of Australia's agenda," says Scates, now an acknowledged expert on transtasman relations. "But it has all been overtaken now by the decimation of Australian industrial law by the Howard government."

Scates recalls that New Zealand and Australia were much closer in the old days. It may have been a week-long ship's voyage between Wellington and Sydney, but the attitudes and loyalties of both countries were strongly linked.

"The 1890 Maritime Strike began on the Australian wharves, then spread into mining and geographically to Melbourne, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and across the Tasman."

And our soldiers fought side by side.

Scates and his partner were on research leave in 1996, when he became fascinated by the battlefields of the Somme, their epitaphs and the messages left with them.

"I experienced the acres and acres of tombstones. In the depths of winter, I found offerings left at the graves: poppies, photographs, poetry - a stone someone had carried from Dunedin.

"The Australian and New Zealand governments had made a decision not to repatriate the remains of long-dead soldiers, so there was no closure.

"And these pilgrims were making a concerted effort to lay that body to rest on the other side of the world - to somehow, emotionally and spiritually, recover the memories of these men".

As he explains, the immediate generation had not been able to do much. The Turks allowed very few pilgrims to visit Gallipoli during the 1920s. The fare over the Channel was £100 - more than a year's wages for a skilled male worker. In fact, says Scates, "It was amazing how many did go. Tens of thousands!"

Almost a century later, the trip to the Gallipoli Peninsula has become part of a new kind of pilgrimage, a rite of passage. Tourist buses ferry more young Australians and New Zealanders to Anzac Cove in a single evening, than all who were rowed ashore on the day of The Landing.

The trip costs probably less than a month's wages.

And, in many cases, the young pilgrims do not even have a great uncle who fought in the Great War.

Yet they are part of Scates' history too. Young Australians, particularly, have earned themselves a dubious reputation with their drinking, Mexican waves and cries of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" that echo over the old battlefields.

"It's like a football match at Lone Pine which is personally quite distasteful," says Scates, going on to discuss how New Zealand has been more successful in building a meaningful service at Gallipoli.

He notes that New Zealand was the first country to create a memorial, talks poetically about Chunuk Bair "the amazing pile of granite that rears above the headland".

Then, on Anzac Day, he says, "There's the haunting Maori lament and Helen Clark speaks beautifully. There's not the empty rhetoric of our own prime minister."

He is talking about John Howard, rather than Kevin Rudd. Howard, he says, used the great battlefields as a jingoistic tool - "It's showbiz patriotism, designed to appeal to the chauvinistic, national pride of the Australian psyche with a political purpose in mind - to use history to justify decisions [particularly his decision to send Australian troops to Iraq].

"What I really like is what happens to these kids when the shows are over and they start reading the epitaphs - then you get a more reflective response to the cost of war."

And there they are in the book: Blogs and emails detailing how about 10,000, exhausted, elated and possibly drunk young Australians and New Zealanders fall silent for the specified two minutes after the Last Post howls to a close.

"Contrary to what everybody tells you - including the media," writes Heather in the group email that has been part-published in the book, "there were no Aussie p***-heads to be found."

Why do the young pilgrims go, when much of the time they didn't lose anyone? "People are looking for meaning, for spirituality," says Scates. "In some cases they're appropriating the idea that Aboriginals have - a sacred association with the land. 'They're saying, this is our sacred place, this is our dreamland'."

When does it all go too far? Scates is unsure about the Australian Government's recent decision to recover and repatriate the bodies of 8000 soldiers, killed over 24 hours in Fromelles, France and buried in mass pits by the Germans.

"The generations that most suffered from those losses are long gone. Can you justify the horrendous cost [of bringing back and trying to identify fragments of bone and teeth] while children are dying in the world?"

On the other hand, "Some would say exhuming these bodies gives a sense of closure. "You can't doubt the sincerity of people who talk about a trauma passed down through the generations that becomes embedded in a family's mythology."

But just how difficult a thing is the subjective nature of memory, he ponders, admitting that while some say you can't grieve for people you never knew, he sometimes has to bite his lip to stop himself crying when he is researching a particularly moving case."

"When those young men went to war, the government promised they would be buried in a Christian grave and identified, if possible.

"When does that promise lose its validity?"

"If it was my family I'd want them to plant a gum tree.

"In a way, I want those wounds to stay on the landscape, I want the haunted places to remain."

Finding Harold at Lone Pine

Then there was Mac, who carried out a personal quest to track down his great uncle, Harold, who he had only imagined and who he finally found at Lone Pine.

"As a child, I was always fascinated by the portrait of 'Harold' which occupied pride of place in my grandparents' house.

"He was always 'there' somehow and when I asked my grandmother about him, she spoke of him as a living person. I somehow expected that one day I would turn up and there would be Harold sitting at the table. [But] I also knew he was dead ... killed on the Gallipoli Peninsula barely a fortnight after he arrived ...

"I was not prepared for the sense of loss that came with seeing his name chiselled into stone.

"I was surprised by an instinctive reaction to reach out and touch the letters. We were on the peninsula for three days. Every day I was drawn to Lone Pine, and every day I placed at the foot of the panel a scarlet poppy plucked from the fields of the peninsula."

When it came to writing his name in the Visitors' Book at Lone Pine, Mac added "Ivy always missed you". It was the message (and memory) of Harold's long-dead sister.

2008 Keith Sinclair Lecture

Professor Bruce Scates will present the 2008 Keith Sinclair lecture, Gallipoli and Beyond: Returning to the Battlefields of the Great War, Thursday October 16, 6.30pm Theatre OGGB4, Owen Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Rd, University of Auckland Business School.