I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Gallipoli and Anzac Cove twice. I’ve been especially fortunate to make those visits in times of (relative) peace, not as a soldier but rather as a tourist and as an Australian paying homage, and was able to return home with all my body parts, my life and my sanity. Such was not the fate for thousands of others. More than a hundred thousand of them.
This fabled site of war heroism and horror on the coast of north-west Turkey was where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) first landed at dawn on 25 April 1915. As a narrow, natural strait of water forming a border between Europe and Asia, the Dardanelles were of immense military importance in World War 1 and it was the site of a hard-fought battle. The area was also the site of abject misery and ridiculous loss of human life, on both sides of the fence.
The ill-fated campaign spawned the creation of Anzac Day itself and has become synonymous with national pride, even identity. It’s the day when we Australians, New Zealanders and various others, commemorate the sacrifice of those who fought and died – not just at Gallipoli but in all conflicts past and present.
The first time I visited Gallipoli I was a young 20-something backpacker traipsing around Europe trying to squeeze in as many countries as possible within a year while spending the least amount of money, and the second time was when I dropped in on my daughter’s honeymoon for a few weeks (yes, really) and spent the night at Anzac Cove before attending the Anzac Day dawn service. That was nearly 100 years after the shores and the sea water ran red with the blood of young men and boys.
Both times were very different but amazing experiences. The first time our young group of six hired a wizened, white-haired Turkish guide who drove us to Gallipoli in his little van and showed us the sights. He pointed out a bullet in the museum pierced by another because the cross fire was so thick. He honoured our Anzac perspective and gave insight into the Turkish perspective, who actually suffered far greater loss of life. We visited Lone Pine, and stood on the landing shores (now completely closed off to the public) and wandered the beach of Anzac Cove totally by ourselves and attempted to clamber up the sides of the cliff. Impossible. And we cried.
The second time I was with thousands of others, mostly Aussies and Kiwis, young and old, as we paid our respect on Anzac Day itself, part of the growing spectacle of Anzac remembrances, and we looked down onto the beaches I’d wandered nearly 30 years before. And we cried.
What stayed with me most from the first visit was the shocking narrowness of the thin strip of beach on which the soldiers landed, after wading ashore from ships that stopped too far from the coast, and the brutality and impossibility of the vertical cliff faces that confronted them just 20 metres from the water, from which Turkish soldiers shot them down as they attempted to climb, drenched and weighed down by guns and equipment. Futility even at the start.
The thing that stuck from the second visit was the bone-crushing, mind-numbing cold and wind of that black night and the dawn of 25 April, cold I’d never experienced before, cold that had people in tiered tourist seating groaning in pain. It was the coldest and most unpleasant night of my life, and I was wrapped in layers of wool and hats and gloves and sleeping bags, not drenched with sea water or covered with mud, and I was surrounded by friendly people who weren’t trying to kill me. It was unfathomable what it would have been like as a soldier in 1915, there to live in misery and probably die and achieve nothing.
I very rarely write poetry but that evening inspired me to write some. Today (Anzac Day) seems a good day to post it (below).
On both trips, I stood in front of a large, stone plaque and read the famed words attributed to Attaturk, beloved founder of the Republic of Turkey and the one who led the Turks to victory at Gallipoli. You can’t read them standing in that place and not be moved to tears.
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 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.
These words have been quoted in many ceremonies and by a number of our Prime Ministers since, and are in place in a number of memorials. But as it turns out, their historical accuracy is under a cloud of doubt, as explained in this article from The Guardian. Perhaps poeticised by others and with the addition of some extra bits and some strongly emotive language, they have regardless become an enmeshed part of the growing Anzac myth. The issue of historical authentication aside, they certainly pack a punch.
Today on Anzac Day, we Aussies and New Zealanders will take a day off and pay homage to all those people in Gallipoli long ago, including the Turks, and across the world through the centuries who have given their lives and fought battles on our behalf which we feel are worth fighting.
Yes, we certainly appreciate the incredible and unimaginable efforts of so many people who have fought and died in wars not of their own making, with the intent of making the world a better place.
But dear God, over a hundred years later, and we’re still bloody fighting here, there and everywhere, and young people are still losing their lives, mothers are losing their children, and babies are losing their parents. Let’s remember them, but let’s imagine if one day we just stopped the wars.
It’s actually unimaginable.
Lest we forget.
In the arms of your father
Cocooned in layers in the still of night,
Layer upon layer, row upon row, flank upon flank,
Breathing fog into air already thick with
breath, and gasps, and gurgles bubbling with death.
We sit, we wait,
In the still of night,
and wind whips through flesh
as it ate yours, before the bones were crushed,
and listen to the silence through its distant screams,
and wait for the light.
I hear the gentle lap of waves
Still coming, still coming,
And listen to the mothers’ tears
lost in the sea
which once ran scarlet
As you dropped,
Its beach cut as short as your youth.
Come now, stand proud where you lie, thick with the company of thousands
And watch the realisation grow
Of wanton waste and futility,
Of filth, disease, and hopeless despair.
Feel the freshly-salted tears seep through.
Rest in your bed.
Kemal’s embrace holds you close as you lie entwined with your foe, as if you were lovers,
Lost sons now joined, mothers’ grief as one,
No longer alone.
The morning light has come now,
not yet enough to see.