…in the morning we will remember them

At some point I lost the ability to see things only in black and white. One of the casualties was ANZAC Day, the annual day to honour those soldiers who died on the coast of Turkey 100 years ago. It was the day that the Australian nation was born. Wasn’t it? Or did it mark the start of the stretching of bonds between The British Empire and her little colony? Or was it just a failed campaign that cost thousands of lives?

ANZAC Cove

Back in primary school we were taught about bravery, sacrifice and the necessity of waging war against evil, and the nobility of those young men who died for us. The crucified man on the wall was a template for self-sacrifice and the young, tanned and wiry men in slouch hats his successors. For years, whenever I saw a sports game with fit young men I’d flash back to descriptions of the soldiers and transpose them into the old uniforms, running across no man’s land in style of Mark Lee.
As I read more I discovered a contradiction in the idea of war being against an ultimate evil. There were stories of food thrown over the trenches, camaraderie across the lines and the speech of Ataturk,

…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.

Under orders young men killed other young men, but in moments of humanity they saw each other as people. This narrative echoed over and over, the soldiers victims of a stupid war that pitted them against people who could have been friends.

Graves at the ANZAC cove gravesite

Around high school I began to go to the Dawn Ceremony, wrenching myself and my dad out of bed before dawn to make our sleepy way to King’s Park. There we gathered with others in the cold, rain and occasional sprinkler malfunction to watch as wreaths were laid, speeches were given and we muttered that next year we would definitely bring fold-out chairs. Finally a trumpet was blown and 10s of thousands of people stood in silence in the dawn, as rosy hues spread across the sky and magpies called from the top of the monument, the silence broken by the Ode of Remembrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.

With each year the crowd would grow, and we ended up further and further back from the memorial. Sometimes we brought my brother, friends or visitors, but always it was my dad and I, talking about the old boys and the memories of the men who had left us a pauper’s grave and the medals that dad wore on his chest.

On ANZAC Day my mum always stayed at home to look after my sister and because she didn’t feel the same need to go as we did. I’d ask why she didn’t want to come and she’d say that it seemed to her a celebration of war that she didn’t want any part of. I’d try to explain my feelings about the day and what it meant to me, about remembrance of sacrifice and honouring the dead, but beneath this was an acknowledgement of what she said. Were we celebrating the nobility of war, and an ideal of humanity that didn’t exist outside of fiction? What was the difference between honouring the deaths of young men in the service of their country and honouring the necessity of the war that took them away? She has since said that she understands it better, remembering family and the personal remains of the war, and seems not so opposed to the day as she was in the past.
However, all the talk about the birth of the nation on the beaches of Gallipoli seemed to deny all that had come before. Even now the day of Federation or when universal suffrage was passed are vague to most Australians, but ask them about the date of a battle in a far off land and they can tell you in seconds.

ANZAC memorial at North Beach

Then this year, the day before Australia day, I found out about an event that had taken place exactly 100 years previously. On the 24th of April 1915 the Ottoman government rounded up and executed Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul and ordered the deportation of other Armenians across the country. The reason given is they were perceived as being a threat to the war effort, and over the coming years able-bodied men were massacred and the rest were force marched into the Syrian desert to die of starvation. In total, between 800,000 and 1.5 million people died. With the threat being removed, the focus could then shift to the shores of Gallipoli.
Though the genocide wasn’t caused by the Allied soldiers, there is a connection between these two events and for this year at least I couldn’t think of one without the other.

So it was with mixed feelings that I loked forward to the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, and then realised that I had agreed to go on an overnight cruise of the Baltic on ANZAC Day (more on that trip later). So I kept the day in mind and regretted my poor planning, wishing I could have gone to the ceremony held by Australian and New Zealander expats. The day came and went, and I started writing the draft of this post on the train to Stockholm and finishing it on the way back.
Posts from friends and family flooded Facebook, reflecting on war, the past, Australian identity and family. On Sunday morning I saw a post from my mum, a series of photos from their ANZAC Day across the world. Rather than attend the Dawn Ceremony, dad stayed home and mum made pikelets. Then they went to the Blackboy Hill memorial, where my paternal grandfather had enlisted and trained before being sent off to France at the tender and secret age of 16. Then they visited his grave and left a temporary plaque in lieu of the official stone to replace the bare, iron numbers of the pauper’s grave. Then King’s Park and the pub, to while away the last hours of the day. Right now I can’t think of a more appropriate way to spend the day, in the company of family past and present, keeping the memory of those who were lost to the war alive.
The Monday after ANZAC Day, when I was preparing an activity for a student using coverage from the Australian memorials, I unexpectedly burst into tears when they showed the Perth ceremony, the familiar monument and sunlit distant hills bringing all of the homesickness I had thought long gone to the surface. I’ve now missed two ANZAC Day’s, and I didn’t really realize until then how much.

My great-grandfather

My great-grandfather

So after explaining what the day means to non-Australians and writing this post, I think that ANZAC Day is never just one thing, clear in black and white and disconnected from context and doubt and nor should it be. It’s a day for acknowledging the shades in-between black and white, and it’s a day for remembering.

Lest we forget.

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Pilgrimage to Gallipoli

To any Australian reading this, I don’t feel as though I need to say why a trip to Turkey requires a visit to the Gallipoli peninsula. Assuming you are not an Australian, however, I’ll try and explain.

99 years ago, during WWI, the Allied forces under the command of Britain (in particular a certain Winston Churchill) decided they need to take the Dardanelles in order to reach Istanbul and so get through to the Black Sea. The plan was to land forces at Gallipoli and have them over the peninsula and having breakfast in Ecebat on the other side by morning. What could go wrong, right? A lot, as it turned out. The campaign was a failure for the Allies and after 9 months they retreated (oops, spoilers!). Incidents such as this are probably liberally scattered throughout the histories of war, but this one became a defining moment for Turkish Independence and formed part of the foundations of the Australian identity.

I can speak with far less knowledge about the Turkish perspective of the campaign, but since the tour I understand a lot more. They refer to it as the battle of Çanakkale and consider it a victory for the Turkish nation, or the Ottoman Empire as it was, against invading forces. It was also when a chap named Mustafa Kamal started to make a name for himself.

ANZAC memorial at North Beach

Most Australians of my generation would have been fed on the heroism of the ANZACs since early school, partly due to a previous PM who was rather into nationalism, with words like mateship, bravery and independence of mind being presented as part of an Australian culture that was born on a beach in Turkey. What it really means to Australians, if you were to ask one of the thousands who are standing at a Memorial on the morning of 25th April, could be any number of things. They may have had family who served at Gallipoli, or who served elsewhere during the War or one of the other wars since. It sometimes seem close to a semi-religious response, a reverence for the young men who sacrificed themselves all those years ago on far off craggy shores that we might have a better life. Even though they ultimately failed they never gave up and they fought like devils for the men next to them, and recognised the humanity of the men facing them.

Whatever the reason, ANZAC Day is probably the closest to a secular holy day that Australia has, with more genuine emotion than Australia Day, from my experience in any case.

For me it’s memories of acting out a battle in Primary school (being a girl I was a nurse, obviously) and playing dead on the hot grass during the minute of silence, that final image of Mark Lee in Gallipoli, the quiet verandah of an old house in Greenmount and most of all getting up early with my dad year after year to stand with the silent crowds for an endless minute.

So, now that I’ve attempted to lay bare part of my nation’s psyche, let’s get on with the trip.

We got up at an uncomfortably early hour to meet the bus, which duly arrived and then whisked us around Istanbul to pick up the rest of the travellers. A majority were Australians of our parent’s age, whose kids had flown the nest and who had decided to use their retirement to see all those things on their bucket list. Plus a father and son probably on a bonding trip and a young Italian couple who were actually going to Troy and probably knew nothing about this Gallipoli place. The drive was long, and we entertained ourselves with occasional chats, reading, staring out of the window and dozing. Outside it was almost as though we were travelling through time, as we passed shepherds tending their scraggly herds, crooks in hand, tumbledown villages and rolling fields of nothing that I could recognise. This old land, that had formed part of the cradle of many civilizations, seemed exhausted by thousands of years of supporting people, and now managed a few small truck stops which served not especially awesome food but kept us on our journey.

Around midday we arrived at Ecebat, where we wandered around the fairly new memorial park and then had lunch. After Istanbul Ecebat seemed a tiny place, sitting quietly on the European side of the Dardanelles. I imagine that Australian and New Zealand tourists are a common attraction in the area.

View from the Turkish trench at the memorial

The drive from Ecebat was much shorter, and after picking up our guide and a couple more tourists we headed for the coast. The first stop was Brighton Beach where our guide put us straight n regards to why the landing happened where it did, why is was a disaster and where we can find a 6 volume book series that will tell us as much as we want to know. He was very knowledgeable, and passionate, which you would have to be if you were telling the same story day in and day out. In short communications were confused, beaches were mixed up and unlike I’d always been told, it wasn’t just the fault of the British. Really.

Brighton Beach

Further along the coast was a gravesite, which included the grave of Simpson (but not his donkey) and more importantly in the opinion of the guide, the man who had mapped the area prior to the landing and whose name I shamefully can neither remember nor find. There were also the usual stones for young men, with messages from family or friends, sometimes trite but always desolate. Next was a memorial for Ataturk, a large bronze monument inscribed with his famous quote which ends with

‘…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.’

This is one of the many examples of the connection between the invading forces and the Turkish army that has become part of the legend, and which we saw more examples of later.

Graves at the ANZAC cove gravesite

From there we went to ANZAC Cove itself, a surprisingly small beach, with a steep bank meeting a steep hill. Looking down at the peaceful beach, the guide removed another misconception I’d long had about the landing: that it had been made under a barrage of machine gun fire, leaving the cove littered with bodies. On that first morning it was a bloody sight, but Eric Bogle was wrong when he sang that, ‘Johnny Turk he was ready, he’d primed himself well…’

Apparently, the original plan to land around Brighton Beach was what the Turks expected, and so they had concentrated their forces over there. Around what’s now ANZAC cove was a skeleton force, who would have been rather surprised when a rush of men landed on the small beach and began to swarm up the hills towards them. They did have guns, but not machine guns. The machine gun fire was from the British forces themselves, and in the confusion I doubt I would have been able to tell. The blood and bodies that later arrivals saw and remembered was mostly from men who’d pushed on in that first rush, climbing the hills and valleys in groups, taking up positions and losing them and settling in for the short, brutal campaign.

My overall feeling looking down at the beach was, ‘gosh, that’s a small beach’. I couldn’t transpose on it images I’d seen or how I’d imagined it. It was a calm beach, and as with so much else in this place, the slowly eroding sand was less important that the ideas that people fill it with.

ANZAC Cove

Just around a corner was North Beach, the site of the ANZAC memorial that is televised every year and where most of the landings and photos took place. It is larger but nowhere near Cottesloe, or even Bondi. As you turn inland, however, the Sphinx stares down at you, the point of the tallest of a few tall, steep hills that encircle the beach. I wonder whether the beach of the old photos has washed away, because even imagining 200 visitors packed in the flat part with sleeping bags seemed uncomfortably cosy. The memorial itself is a wall with a history of the campaign facing the beach, and down a short path between the lawns is a low wall with ANZAC written in bronze, the sea lying behind it. It is again a calm beach, though the Sphinx adds an impressive and slightly menacing backdrop.

The Sphinx

Leaving the beaches behind we then went up into the hills, stopping at the Lone Pine memorial. The pine itself is long gone, but a new one stands there now in the middle of the graves, in an area about the size of a tennis court. The guide described the actions taken to reach this point, and I tried to imagine it as a battlefield rather than a peaceful cemetery with a wonderful view of the sea and surrounding hills. We were then lead in a minute’s silence at the memorial, a tall stone edifice, which had the names of those who died but whose bodies were never found.

Lone Pine, though not the original

We got back into the bus again and drove on, stopping along the road at a lightly forested spot that turned out to be full of trenches. It was Johnson’s Jolly, where the short distance between the Turkish and Allied trenches was very clear. Here the guide told us more about how bonds grew between the two armies, from respect during truces, food thrown over no man’s land and how it somehow survived despite the constant stream of new recruits. He also told us about an Australian officer who had been confronted by Turkish soldiers who assumed that the Turkish medals on his chest were stolen from one of the bodies. He then told them, in Turkish, that he was a veteran of a famous battle that the Turks had won years before, and had been given the medals in thanks for his services to Turkey. They were amazed and kissed his hands, delighted to meet someone from their own history, despite him now being on the other side of a new war.

The trenches themselves are shallower now, and walking through them brought a strange feeling of walking through history and over places were people had died. The pines that have grown on the old battlefields now hold the ground together and everywhere we went up on the hills I could hear the needles whistling in the wind. It made me wonder whether there was ever enough silence, or enough trees left, for the sound to be heard all those years ago.

Old trenches

The next stop was the Turkish 57 Infantry Regiment Cemetery, a memorial similar to the others we’d seen, only with different writing on the graves and a number of merch tents set up in the car park. It was good to be reminded that this is a shared site, after all, and not just a memorial to the Allied forces who died here. There were memorials to Turkish forces and sites all over the area, and from maps I’ve seen it seems about 50/50.

Our second to last stop was The Nek, even smaller than Lone Pine, where I could imagine the site as it would have been more clearly. Much of it is overgrown, and views of the sea and countryside, including other war sites to the north surround it, but it seems rough and signs of the trenches still remain. I remembered reading that Hugo Throssell, the VC winner who was married to the woman whose writing centre I’ve spent more than half of my life involved with, fought here in hellish conditions, which the guide confirmed. He pointed out a site to the north called Hill 60 where Throssell won his VC, shortly before be was invalided out. Having spent so much time at the house he and Katharine had built, and where he had been happy, despairing and ultimately died, I felt more of a connection at this place than any other, and would have happily stayed there longer pondering history if we hadn’t been piled back onto the bus to go to the final stop.

Trenches at The Nek, looking to the north

The final stop was Chunuk Bair and the New Zealand Memorial, which was the goal of the campaign. On that first night, and briefly afterwards, Allied forced reaches the hill but never managed to hold it, fended off by the defending army and forces lead by a certain Mustafa Kemal whose huge statue now stands there. From the hill we can see over most of the sites of the campaign, including Ecebat to the east and beyond that the Dardanelles. It seemed an appropriate place to end our tour, the goal of the campaign that was never attained.

View from Chunuk Bair

We went back to Ecebat then, with a short stop to see the old batteries that stand on either side of the Dardanelles, and then back on the road to Istanbul. It seemed a shorter ride going back, most likely because I slept for quite a lot of it, and in the darkness I missed where the countryside ended and the city began. On the way out I’d counted down the time it took to get from the centre of Istanbul to the outskirts and lost count somewhere around 20 minutes, after being surprised by yet another towering block of flats and obligatory mosque. We eventually made it back to our hotel, tired and thoughtful, and preparing for one more day in Istanbul.

A poignant memorial

PS: Wow, 2327 words, congrats to those who made it to the end! Also I just watched the end of Gallipoli and I know realise why I’ve long believed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings op. 11 is the saddest music ever.

PPS: I highly recommend RSL Tours, and in particular our guide Hasan Gundogar who was extremely knowledgeable and approachable. Ask him about The Stories of ANZAC by Charles Bean, he’d like that.