As my tour bus of about 40 Aussies and Kiwis approaches Gallipoli Peninsula and we get our first glimpse of the rugged terrain, conversation starts to peter out. Our attention focuses instead on the hills and gullies where so many soldiers died over the eight-month campaign.
It’s the eve of Anzac Day 2008, and parking near Anzac Cove we clamber out of the bus and make our way along the dirt road towards the commemoration site. The roads are blocked with buses as thousands of Antipodeans steam into the site where the dawn service will be held.
There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among us, with Australian and Kiwi flags fluttering in the breeze and scores of green and gold jerseys mixed with All Blacks tops. I settle into a seat in the stand, ready for a long, cold night, glad I have a sleeping bag and ski gear.
The reasons so many of us travel to Turkey for the commemoration service are similar – to remember our war dead, to visit the grave sites of distant relatives and to show our appreciation for the service men and women who protect our countries.
“Because my grandfather was in the army, my family always go to the dawn service and support the RSL,” Megan Logan, 33, from Cairns, Australia, says.
“It was a loss of a generation really, all those guys thought they were doing the right thing.”
Throughout the night video clips of the soldiers who died, as well as the conditions those still alive had to face, are played on big screens to the crowds.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the images, and the autobiographical details accompanying them. Many of those killed hadn’t even reached their 20th birthday.
In a video address played to the crowd at midnight, then New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark recounts how her great-uncle died at Gallipoli, and that her goal was to find “resolution rather than send people to war”.
Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says national legends were forged on both sides in the conflict: “To remember the sacrifice, to remember the courage, and to never forget what these still and silent graves say to us.”
As the first rays of dawn break over the mountain and the bugle sounds, we all fall silent for two minutes.
The poignant half-hour service is over quickly, considering we’ve just spent 12 hours waiting and tiredness has begun to set in after a sleepless and freezing night, but it’s nothing really, when you put it into perspective with what the diggers faced.
At the end of the service we pack up our gear and trek about 2km up the hills to Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair for the Australian and New Zealand services.
Row after row of white headstones line both memorial sites – with inscriptions to the soldiers who had died. “Lest We Forget”, they read.
Dawn Service FAQs
The forecast is good for Anzac Day, do I really need to take warm clothes to Anzac Cove?
Chances are it will be freezing, as temperatures for the past few years have dropped to about zero degrees. The best advice I got was to take a sleeping bag, ski jacket, gloves and thermals. You’ll be sleeping on the ground or sitting in a chair, and as the sun dips behind the horizon the temperature drops. Don’t think because you’re wearing thongs and boardies during the day you’ll be all right.
There’s an alcohol ban at the cove. Can’t I take a few beers in?
No. Any alcohol you take will be confiscated when you pass the security checkpoint. And besides, if you can’t sacrifice a night without booze for this, it’s probably not for you.
Will there be any food at Anzac Cove?
You’ll be able to get kebabs and burgers, and there’s also tea and coffee and other snacks. It isn’t too overpriced, but it’s a good idea to get a few supermarket snacks before you head to Anzac Cove.
Is there room to lie down and have a nap?
You’ll be lucky if you get space to lie down. The place is packed, with every seat in the stands taken by about 9pm the night before. As more people arrive through the night people lying on the grass area have to sit up and make room for them. A few hours before the dawn service, it’ll be standing-room only on the grass. Be prepared and be courteous.
Why we go to Anzac Cove
Michelle Day, 22, Melbourne, Australia
“I’ve learnt all about the history and my dad’s grandfather fought here. I was brought up in a military household so I’ve always had it in my life. Back home I’ve been to the dawn service 10 years in a row.”
Paul Folkard, 27, Sydney, Australia
“It’s something my family has always done back home. It’s a day of national celebration and pride in the Australian Defence Force in their battles of the past decades.”
Penny Shearer, 26, Ashburton, New Zealand
“My great-grandfather fought at Gallipoli. He was 17 when he came over. He didn’t talk about it – my pop sent away for the medals because he didn’t want to. Anzac Day is such a big thing – going to Anzac Cove is just one of those things. You think how young they were, and how hard it would be leaving your girlfriend or mum.”
Adam Turner, 26, Gold Coast, Australia
“I go to the Australian dawn service back home and I wanted to see the real thing. It’s the history of Australia, the little bit of culture we do have and the pride and respect we have. It’s a defining moment in our history.”
The Turkish forces were led and inspired by military commander Mustafa Kemal, who later went on to become the first president of modern Turkey and is known as Atatürk (father of the Turks).
The tribute he wrote to the Anzac soldiers in 1934 reads: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours … you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
» Erin Miller travelled to Gallipoli with On The Go (020 7371 1113). Anzac tours range from four to 14 days, and prices start from £199, excluding flights