In 2015 I was one of 10,500 Australians and New Zealanders who were lucky enough to be successful in the ballot to attend the Gallipoli 2015 commemorations. I had always planned to write about it, but life quite literally got in the way. Here are a few reflections of what it was like to be there, to step on that land.
My best friend and her father have plans to go to Gallipoli in 2015 for the 100th anniversary commemorations. For me, it’s something I’ve never thought about. Her beautiful father passes away in 2013 and her trip to Gallipoli remains just as important, but for different reasons. She explains it better than I ever could in this poem here.
We hear about the ballot in 2013; a few thousand double passes for Aussies and Kiwis. We apply separately to increase our chances, and in early 2014 learn we’ve both missed out. We’re on a waitlist. Of the 40,000 who’ve applied we’re high up the list, but far enough from the top that it still seems impossible.
In early November she gets the news: she’s got the double pass and we’re going. A few weeks later I get the same news, but return my double pass into the pool: I’m going with my friend. The next few weeks are a frenzy of booking flights, accommodation and a tour (we can’t get in the site without it) and providing all the details to the Government so that we can get our passes and be confirmed.
We arrive in Turkey on April 22 without incident. Istanbul is teeming with Australians (and a few New Zealanders) – 10,500 is a lot of people. Our tour pre-briefs us in the evening of April 23 and advises we bring plenty of snacks and drinks; it’s not clear what will be available onsite. We get a hoodie – it’s going to be cold – and wake up near dawn to depart for Gelibolu.
It’s just before midday when we arrive at holding site of Kabatepe. We walk through numerous checkpoints – maybe three – and our bags go through machines like you see at airports. My pass states my full name and my passport number and the barcode gives me access to the Dawn Service and Lone Pine. It needs to be worn at all times. While standing in line we’re surprised to see Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Michael Ronaldson greeting us as we arrive for a good half hour.
The holding site is just that: a holding site. Security is paramount and everything is followed in a methodical way. We’re one of the first few buses to arrive and the expectation is that we wait until almost every bus has arrived. Some food is available as well as plenty of memorabilia. Friends of mine who I met on Young Endeavour back in 2004 arrive and become fast friends with my friend.
The area around us is flat and the shore isn’t steep; I find it hard to imagine how hard it might have been for the ANZACs in such calm and smooth surroundings, but later learn that this is essentially the site that they had planned to arrive at – not the site that became ANZAC Cove.
The wait is close to five hours – and even then we are released in stages, groups of bus numbers. We’re called comparative early and begin the trek down the long road to ANZAC Cove.
Walking to ANZAC Cove
The mood has been a warm one but sombre, and our walk is quiet. The landscape to our right gets steeper and more hilly. Every so often we spot a movement in the trees or behind a hill. They are Turkish soldiers with weapons. We remark that the few we’re seeing gives way to just how many we’re not seeing. Quite honestly, I’ve never felt more protected.
At the commemorative site there are more security checks and then we’re in. The site has been enormously expanded on previous years to fit the maximum safe number of persons. It’s late afternoon but we’re advised that people will be arriving at the site up until 3am. There is large stadium seating around the site and also a grassy hill where plenty of people are already lying down in their sleeping bags. We make a quick decision to sit in the front row of the front left stadium seating in the corner: restricting our view in some ways, but placing us next to the dignitaries’ entrance, the side of the stage and, movingly, the shore.
Settled in, it’s the first opportunity we have to look around and I feel foolish for my earlier thoughts about the landscape. The cliffs are steep and rocky and loom over us, lit by the setting sun.
The sun glows red as it slips into the ocean and the warmth is gone, together with music that kept spirits bright into the night. There’s little wind but it’s a cold night and we’re soon ensconced in our sleeping bags, with our Gallipoli beanies (issued in a pack at an earlier checkpoint, together with commemorative booklets, a biodegradable rubbish bag and ponchos) on and the garish hoodies issued by our tour companies on.
Documentaries play through the night and I learn things I’ve never really understood or appreciated. The waves lap against the shore and the tranquility, the lack of distracting chatter, actually makes it easier to imagine the sound of gunfire and scrabbling around the shore. People arrive steadily right through the night, and those who were sleeping on the grass are all now standing tightly.
Before dawn we’re treated to clips of the ceremonies around the world, including every Australian city except Canberra (I know!). And then the waves become louder, as if there were landing boats within them, and William Barton pierces the silence with a didgeridoo performance followed by a Maori call to gathering.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force tells us that it was here that the ANZAC legend was born at great cost and the reality of war was revealed, followed by an address by NZ Prime Minister John Key and a quotation shared from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – who commanded critical forces during the Gallipoli campaign and was later President of the Republic of Turkey – that those sons who lost their lives lie in a friendly country, and have become Turkey’s sons as well. Tony Abbott and Prince Charles read addresses before prayers are read and wreaths are laid.
In the lead up to ANZAC Day, a friend of mine has been sharing the Facebook posts of a mate of his, Mick Crowther. Mick is a tour guide at the War Memorial. Mick shares this before ANZAC Day:
“This is Trooper Norman Bethune. Norman and his brother Alex (known as Douglas) were orphans from Tasmania. Douglas joined up and fought in the Boer War, getting together enough money to retrieve his little brother and buy a small farm in Swan Hill Victoria. The brothers worked the farm together until 1915 when they locked the gate and joined the 8th Light Horse regiment together. Big brother Doug was killed in Gallipoli at Lone Pine in August 1915. Norman was killed in Palestine in 1917. Orphan brothers who never married. There is no one to remember these men today, other than their own countrymen.”
And so on this trip, in this land, I remember those who have no one to remember them except their own countrymen – people like Norman and Douglas. The Last Post, the minute silence, and Reveille are the most moving I’ve heard and seem to soak into earth.
We are stirred from our thoughts and memories as the dignitaries begin to depart. The sun has risen and the formalities stop for a few moment. In my vantage point I get a smile from Prince Charles.
As the ceremony ends, we make our way, slowly, to Lone Pine, including past the Beach Cemetery where we pause across the many graves, including John Simpson’s. It’s not lost on us that the many graves are just a fraction of the people who died here, and many did not get buried; their bodies lie among us.
The walk to Lone Pine is long, steep, and dusty. Soon we have views right out across the ocean, but the trees surround us and it’s difficult to see where the path will take us. Despite being given four hours to get from ANZAC Cove to Lone Pine, time becomes increasingly short because of the security check hold up at the gates to Lone Pine and we arrive with 10 minutes to spare. Our Kiwi mates head on past us to their own service at Chunuk Bair.
I duck to the bathroom before heading into the site and am surrounded by no seats left in my designated division as well as a crush of people trying to meet Prince Harry, who’s standing in the middle of the cemetery. Eventually I find a seat seconds before the service begins. It’s as equally moving as the Dawn Service. I’m not alone in shedding tears.
Doug Bethune remains present in my mind and at the conclusion of the ceremony, I try to find him. I’m not sure where to start and circle the graves to see if anything sticks out, before using precious mobile data to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to learn more.
It directs me away from the graves and towards the Lone Pine Memorial. And it’s there I find him.
Lest we forget.
The wait after is just as long as the wait to get in. New Zealand holds their ceremony after ours, and the buses do not begin to leave until an hour after it finishes. Clouds set in, it’s cold and blustery, and there is no food or drink. Some have been awake for more than 36 hours. Some complain. And yet we have just a few hours of these conditions, compared to months and years. And we get to leave, when so many did not.
I will take the experience with me forever.
Lest we forget.