Travelling to Gallipoli is seen by many Antipodeans as a rite of passage. WORDS: Conal Hanna
I’d never really considered myself a patriotic Australian. Sure, I loved the place and missed it dearly after three years in London, but in all the criteria that mattered, I failed pretty miserably. I’d never owned a Drizabone or Akubra, or even a navy blue singlet or pair of Ugg boots. I had never painted my face with green and gold zinc for a day at the cricket. Never backed the winner of a Melbourne Cup and couldn’t give a toss about Holden v Ford. And when a fellow sports fan enquired Aussie, Aussie, Aussie?”, it took a rare level of inebriation for me to reply “Oi, oi, oi!”
But when I felt the goosebumps run up my spine as The Last Post was played at Gallipoli on Anzac Day, I knew, deep down, I still called Australia home.
Anzac Day is buried deep in the psyche of Australians and New Zealanders. As Digger numbers have fallen to zero while age finally wearied them, the story of the Anzacs has continued to grow in stature. The thousands of young Antipodeans who travel to Gallipoli for Anzac Day each year all have different reasons for doing so. Some come to commemorate grandparents they never met, others to see the terrain they’ve heard so much about in school. I’d expected to feel grief and expected to feel awe, but one thing I’d not expected was to feel proud.
Heading to the thin Gallipoli peninsula on April 24 takes a while. Buses queue for hours for the ferry from Canakkale that crosses the Dardenelles, the narrow strait separating Europe from Asia. It was this strait that Winston Churchill, then First Admiralty of the British Navy, first advocated taking by sea. The idea was to sail up the Dardenelles and conquer Istanbul, knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war and guaranteeing supply routes to fellow ally, Russia. However, Churchill didn’t count on the Turks’ resolve, and the naval campaign failed, leading to the formation of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, made up of Anzacs, but also Brits, Indians, Canadians, French and north Africans, for a land-based assault to secure the strait.
Arriving at Anzac Cove in mid-afternoon, it was the beauty that shook me most. To imagine these gorgeous blue Aegean waters turned red with the tide of human blood was almost unthinkable. The surrounding terrain, though, was the inhospitable one of lore, the rocky slopes covered in dense, near impenetrable scrub. As we toured the peninsula, what were once meaningless names from school lessons – Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair, The Nek – suddenly became real places, and the battles took shape around them.
After visiting the museum at Kabatepe, the afternoon was spent relaxing before the long night ahead. Looking around, I realised it was the first time in three years I’d been surrounded by a predominantly Antipodean crowd. In nearby bars, people were blowing off steam from the tiring afternoon, comparing traffic jam stories and invariably running into people they knew from back home. A group of lads in All Blacks shirts and AFL jumpers kicking a Sherrin back and forth harked back to the days when the Diggers themselves played cricket on these shores.
As dusk approached, spirits mellowed and people filed back onto buses to be taken towards North Beach, where, without tents, everyone spent the cool night. It was cramped and uncomfortable, but the majority of people managed not to whinge. Conditions 90 years ago were much worse.
Perhaps the best thing I did before heading to Gallipoli was go to the library and borrow a book about the campaign. Made up of letters written home by Anzac troops, it was full of the grim realities of eight months spent clinging to a 100m-wide stretch of coastline, gruesome images that had been seemingly edited out of school lessons. And while dignitaries did their thing reading well-rehearsed speeches to a sombre crowd during the dawn service, it was these images that kept springing to mind: of the soldiers who weren’t lucky enough to die outright when shot, but who lay for hours, days, in agony, plagued by heat and flies, while their comrades waited for an opportunity to haul them back that never came; of amputations with kitchen knives, and limbs being blown away, and months on end of diarrhoea, and maggots getting to your food before you could; and of all the men – boys, really – who’d chosen to come here out of a sense of adventure, in a bid to see the world. What a world they’d seen.
But what set the Anzac troops apart was their indomitable spirit, and so it seemed right when the solemnity of the dawn service lifted during separate Australian and New Zealand memorials later that morning. A patient crowd waiting in the hot sun for proceedings to begin set in motion a Mexican wave that raised a smile. But it was later in the service, when Diggers from the audience were called up on stage to the sounds of impromptu rounds of applause, that the goosebumps returned. Anzac Day, and being Australian, had never meant so much.
Tips for Anzac Day at Gallipoli
• It is no longer possible to visit Anzac Cove independently over Anzac Day – visitors must be part of a registered tour group.
• Be prepared for the uncomfortable night before the dawn service. Take suitably warm clothes and a sleeping bag – many visitors are surprised by the severity of the cold – as well as water and any other snacks that might help you through the night. Be aware that there will possibly not even be enough room for you to lie down overnight.
• Alcohol is now banned in the service area.
What Anzac Day means to Turks
As important as the battles of Gallipoli are in Antipodean history, it’s nothing compared to their significance to Turkey.
Turkey didn’t exist during World War I, and was instead part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks lost nearly twice as many troops as the Allies at Gallipoli, and they died defending their own land. As my guide, Deniz, put it, if they died, they lost everything – their freedom”.
Gallipoli also marked the first appearance of Turkey’s biggest national hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose inspirational leadership is often credited with preventing the Anzacs from taking the Gallipoli Peninsula. But these achievements are overshadowed in Turkish history by the fact that after the war he led the country to independence, using his Gallipoli-won reputation to begin a resistance movement that eventually ended the reign of the Ottomans.
In recent years, Turks have come to realise the significance of the Gallipoli campaign, and have their own national monument on the peninsula, with their presence at Anzac Day commemorations growing.”