Clay carvings considered the "Gallipoli Holy Grail" have given an extraordinary new meaning to Anzac Day for one Rotorua whanau.

It's July 1915 and 500 fresh reinforcements from Te Ope Tuatahi Maori Contingent have landed on the shores of Anzac Cove.

The contingent was delegated hard labour jobs such as digging and building trenches such as the "Big Sap" which connected Anzac Cove near Ari Burnu to No. 2 Outpost.

This photo shows multiple carvings on different walls of the sap at Gallipoli, July 1915. Photo/Australian War Memorial
This photo shows multiple carvings on different walls of the sap at Gallipoli, July 1915. Photo/Australian War Memorial

Conditions were hot and dry, and water was scarce.

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For the past century history books have mentioned the Maori carvings at the Big Sap.

Some included photos and drawings.

Australian soldiers pictured with the carvings at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo/Australian War Memorial
Australian soldiers pictured with the carvings at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo/Australian War Memorial

But the mystery soldier who carved the designs into trench walls was not identified until 2015 when Te Papa staff researched the Te Ope Tuatahi Maori Contingent.

The head of Te Papa's Matauranga Maori collection, Puawai Cairns, approached Weta Workshop to recreate the carvings from the pictures for the "Gallipoli: The scale of our war" exhibition ahead of the opening in 2015.

The carvings appeared to be in the style of Te Arawa, and Cairns wanted to put a name to them.

About a week before the opening, she came across a big clue in a photo caption in the digitised Australian War Memorial records.

"'Taratnoke [sic] and the man of the arawa [sic] tribe who carved it."

 Private Mekiora Akapita, also known as Tuoro Akapita Pango, beside his carvings at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo/ Collection of Major Charles L. Mason, British Army, Australian War Memorial
Private Mekiora Akapita, also known as Tuoro Akapita Pango, beside his carvings at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo/ Collection of Major Charles L. Mason, British Army, Australian War Memorial

She posted the image on her Facebook page and Sarah Johnston from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision contacted Cairns to say the carvings were mentioned in the introduction of an archived interview.

"Here is Tuoro Akapita Pango, M.B.E., the spokesman of the Arawa tribe and himself an artist of distinction. When he was on Gallipoli he carved a figure on the side of a trench ..."

Pango was not listed in the army service records, but Private Mekiora Akapita 16/128 from Rotorua was the most likely link to Te Arawa.

Te Papa's iwi relationships team made contact with Kingi Biddle, a great-grandson of Private Akapita, who confirmed his koro went by multiple names including Tuoro Akapita Pango.

Biddle and his sister Lauren James never knew about the carvings but they identified their koro in the Australians' photo.

Kingi Biddle holds a photo of his great-grandfather Private Akapita, also known as Tuoro Akapita Pango. Photo/Stephen Parker
Kingi Biddle holds a photo of his great-grandfather Private Akapita, also known as Tuoro Akapita Pango. Photo/Stephen Parker

"In other pictures we have seen he looked quite frail, but seeing him as a young strapping man, that was a real eye-opener for us," James told the Rotorua Daily Post.

Biddle still lives in his great-grandfather's former house in Koutu.

He was taken aback by the photo.

"My first thought was 'Gee my koro's handsome! What happened with some of us?'."

Kingi Biddle is a descendant of war veteran who carved into walls of Gallipoli. Photo/ Stephen Parker
Kingi Biddle is a descendant of war veteran who carved into walls of Gallipoli. Photo/ Stephen Parker

Akapita died in the early 1960s before Biddle and James' father was a teenager, and they knew very little about his time at war, so Te Papa's discovery was "huge", James said.

"There was a whole new sense of pride that he still undertook traditional practices there. He did what he knew best with the carvings."

Biddle said carving would have been "second nature" to his koro who was of Ngati Tarawhai and Ngati Whakaue descent.

Carving was in Akapita's bloodlines on both sides, especially his mother's.

"He was away from home, it seems he was bringing home to him, and his guardians too."

Cairns said finding the identity behind the famous carvings "was like finding a Gallipoli Holy Grail".

Recreation of the Gallipoli carvings in the Te Papa exhibition. Photo/Puawai Cairns
Recreation of the Gallipoli carvings in the Te Papa exhibition. Photo/Puawai Cairns

She was honoured to meet Akapita's whanau.

"Sarah Johnston led to the solution. She is wonderful. She has a thankless job as an archivist."

It is not known what happened to the carvings when Gallipoli was evacuated.

"It is likely they crumbled and disintegrated," Cairns said

Te Papa had intended on closing the Gallipoli exhibition next year but Cairns said they were now looking at extending it.

"We are still getting queues there, so we hope to keep it open as long as we can. We are trying to be sensitive to the public in that respect."

She was not sure what was intended for the exhibition items in the long term.

"When, and if, we can contemplate distributing them, I would love to see the carving replicas go back to Rotorua to the museum."

Biddle has since learned more about his koro through speeches Akapita wrote and delivered on marae later in life.

"In his writings when he spoke of war he described 'te ahi whanaariki [sic]' or 'fire and brimstone'. He called it hell."

Akapita was considered too old to fight in WWII, but he spoke of his hopes for peaceful korero.

"He said 'let's go talk to Hitler and have a gentlemen's conversation'. That reflects the attitude of our people at that time, they took people for their word.

"Koro, his cousins and his friends, they lost and took lives in a bid to create a world where this would never have to happen again. The best way to honour those men is to be good to each other and act with kindness."