After Gallipoli last week hosted its biggest ever crowd for Anzac Day services, CONAL HANNA looks at the changing face of this annual pilgrimage and rejects the criticism aimed at those who were there.

Anyone who’s been to a party, festival or sporting match knows celebrating as a group is easy. Anyone who’s been to Anzac Day services at Gallipoli knows commemorating as a group is far more difficult. People have very different ideas about what’s appropriate at such an event. And as the numbers attending services on Gallipoli Peninsula continue to swell, these differences are becoming more apparent.

In the space of 15 years, the ceremonies at Gallipoli have gone from being a relatively small gatherings of young, London-based Antipodeans to large-scale events. As recently as 1997, the crowds numbered less than 3000. This year, more than 17,000 people attended. As well as growing, the crowds have diversified, with Turks and older visitors who’d flown direct from Australia and New Zealand having a noticeable presence at last week’s 90th anniversary services.

Such growth is in itself wonderful, but has led to logistical concerns as traffic jams worsen and toilet queues lengthen. The fact organisers are dealing with a sacred site only makes their task more difficult, as evidenced by the minor uproar that accompanied roadworks completed to accommodate this year’s record crowds. The other problem is that of expectation, as older people and the media now turn up to find the mood surrounding the event doesn’t necessarily meet their rigid definition of what a remembrance service should be like.

Having had goosebumps run up my spine as I listened alongside a respectful crowd to The Last Post at Anzac Cove, I was shocked to return to London and read criticism of the gathering from media at home. The complaints focused on two factors: the mess left behind by the crowds afterwards and the fact The Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive was played during the night before the dawn service. The latter of these then snowballed into a debate over whether entertainment was necessary at all.

It seems some people are never happy. Judging by past reports from Gallipoli, last week’s crowd was one of the best behaved in recent years. There were predictable problems caused by having 700 buses ferrying people around a small area, but the crowd handled the long waits admirably. The newly-introduced alcohol ban had the desired effect, and there was very little noise throughout the night – the only ‘rowdiness’ I can remember was an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday. On top of that, the attitude throughout the services was one of solemn respect. Sure, a flippant Mexican wave might have preceded the Australian service at Lone Pine, but it was followed by a moving, spontaneous standing ovation for the former servicemen in the crowd. New Zealand veterans were reportedly given a similar reception at their service.

Scott Braidwood, a director of On The Go, who’ve been running Anzac tours for five years, said he’s continually surprised by the media’s negative reaction to the services. People seem to assume that because it’s a gathering of Aussies and Kiwis, then that’s way we’re going to behave,” he said. “But it’s not a Pamps or an Oktoberfest.”

Ben Misfud, of Travelmood, said Anzac Day is logistically more difficult to organise than other festivals. “It’s a very emotive thing so it’s very tricky to get right,” he said. He admitted to being surprised at the increasing demand for Anzac trips, despite the fact the Gallipoli veterans were all now dead.

National pride

Critics of Gallipoli’s Anzac Day ceremonies have surely lost sight of the bigger picture: that 17,000 largely young Australians and New Zealanders have such a strong sense of national pride and respect for those who shaped it. My guide in Turkey, Deniz Kilic, summed it up when I asked if he found it bizarre that so many Antipodeans came each year to commemorate such a shocking military defeat. “Not at all,” he said. “This is my third time here and every time I am touched. Teachers force history on kids but nobody is forcing these people to come to Gallipoli.”

The rubbish problem was regrettable, but putting sole blame on the crowd is unfair. Following a night spent in cramped conditions and an emotional dawn service, people had an overwhelming desire for personal space. It didn’t help that many tour guides were telling their groups to hurry back to the buses, and there were no bins in the immediate vicinity. These factors all contributed to the crowd’s absentmindedness; a quiet word in the microphone at any time could probably have jolted people’s memories and made all the difference.

This will no doubt be rectified in future years, but a larger issue will be how organisers deal with the renewed interest in the Gallipoli campaign. At 3.10am, more than two hours before the start of the dawn service, people were last week asked to stand up so that those still arriving could fit into the service area. The audience was told they had just 0.5m2 of space per person – not a lot for a long, cold night. Despite claims by Australian Prime Minister John Howard last week that he would never allow the Gallipoli services to become a balloted event, Jan Henderson, the New Zealand Ambassador in Turkey, told TNT that organisers would have to find a way to limit the strain on the environment.

“The service has certainly grown exponentially,” Henderson said. “My own sense is that it was manageable up until about [the year] 2000. Since then, interest levels have really increased, particularly in Europe.

“I think we’re almost at capacity. It’s a very isolated peninsula and infrastructure is very limited. Organisers are thinking very carefully about crowd management. There are a number of schemes being looked at.”

The right spirit

The other challenge for organisers – Australia’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs New Zealand – is finding the right spirit for the event as it becomes more mainstream. While the services themselves are somewhat fixed entitities, the proceedings surrounding them are changing as the event’s profile grows. The mainstream media might be shocked to know this was not the first year music was played during the overnight vigil, and while the unfortunate choice of Stayin’ Alive dominated headlines, many of the young crowd were concerned for different reasons. Whereas crowds were last year entertained by a military band performing covers of Powderfinger and U2, this year’s selection – Eric Clapton, Santana, James Taylor and the Bee Gees, complete with guest appearance from Celine Dion – was obviously chosen with an older audience in mind, seemingly neglecting the majority of the audience’s tastes. The inclusion of a sound and light show, and a voiceover from Australian talkback radio DJ John Laws were other pointers that the event has come of age.

Whether or not such a prelude is suitable for a memorial service is a matter of personal taste. What’s worrying is the idea emanating from some quarters that any sign of cheer-fulness during the overnight vigil or between the dawn and Australian and New Zealand services is somehow showing a lack of respect. This issue cuts right to the question of why we celebrate Anzac Day in the first place. Yes, we pay tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives, but the Gallipoli campaign is not the only time in the past 100 years Anzac soldiers have done that. It’s not just their courage that made the Anzacs famous but their initiative, camaraderie and attitude under fire. This group of people supposedly defined what it means to be an Australian or New Zealander, so isn’t it understandable that homesick Londoners head to Gallipoli to celebrate their sense of national pride as well as commemorate the fallen troops?

It’s worth noting that 20 years ago hardly a soul turned out for Anzac Day at Gallipoli. It was young travellers based in London who, by visiting in growing numbers, turned it into an annual event. As organisers attempt to deal with ballooning crowds, maintaining the site and sombre tone of the services should be paramount. But stripping the event of all spirit and attitude would be doing the Anzacs a horrible disservice.

First-person accounts

Anna Dickinson
Age: 25
From: Te Awamutu
Living: En route from NZ to London
What made you come to Gallipoli for Anzac Day? My grandfather served four years in WWI. He was 17 and lied about his age. I never met him.
What did you think of the experience? I’m really glad I did it; the atmosphere was indescribable. I had a sense of pride of where I was from. I’m not sure why they did the prelude [to the dawn service] twice. Were they trying to fill in time?
Why is the Anzac legend still relevant 90 years later? It’s what the world know Kiwis and Aussies to be like, that personality: they’re hardworking and willing to give things a go.

Robert Jones
Age: 13
From: Melbourne
Lives: Melbourne
What made you come to Gallipoli for Anzac Day? I got the ticket as a Christmas present. I’m over here with my dad and brother.
What did you think of the experience? Just being on the site, I learned a lot. It puts into perspective how hard it would have been. Why would anyone even attempt to go through there?
Why is the Anzac legend still relevant 90 years later? Because that’s Australia’s identity. When people think of the British they might think of them as snobs or whatever. When they think of Australians they think of mateship and helping each other out, like the story of Simpson and his donkey.

Andrew McGoff
Age: 26
From: Wellington
Lives: London
What made you come to Gallipoli for Anzac Day? I’ve always wanted to go to Gallipoli whether it was Anzac Day or not, but the fact it’s Anzac Day is a bonus.
What did you think of the experience? I thought it was fantastic. I was expecting it to be more loud and boisterous but it was sombre and that fitted the occasion. It was great seeing the awe and respect from the younger generation towards the veterans present. On the negative side, I don’t think they quite catered for the numbers they had. I was expecting to be able to roll up and have a sleep and wake up for the dawn service. It might have helped if they’d told us when we’d walked in that we’d be standing up.
Why is the Anzac legend still relevant 90 years later? We had to put ourselves on the map. I think it created a real bond between Australia and New Zealand too; we give each other shit but we’re a lot closer than European countries are.

Margaret Black
Age: 53
From: Sydney
Living: Sydney
What made you come to Gallipoli for Anzac Day? I was going to come to Turkey four or five years ago but it wasn’t very safe at that stage. Then I was walking past a travel agent and saw a sign for the 90th anniversary – I think it was fate. I usually go to the dawn services at home.
What did you think of the experience? I thought it might have been a bit more sombre than it was. But because it was so crowded it takes the edge off the peaceful, sombre atmosphere.
Why is the Anzac legend still relevant 90 years later? It epitomises the whole Australian and New Zealand culture: camaraderie, mateship, getting in and having a go.

Andrew Stone
Age: 26
From: Gold Coast
Lives: London
What made you come to Gallipoli for Anzac Day? Both my grandfathers served in WWII and since they’ve passed away I’ve attended services. I marched in Brisbane last year and in Beaudesert the year before that.
What did you think of the experience? It was very moving, though the crowd initially took away from it. Trying to get some rest overnight was impossible. I think more organisation is needed. It would have been nice to see something live, rather than just on TV.
Why is the Anzac legend still relevant 90 years later? We have a great way of life because of the sacrifices they made.”