The sense of overwhelming loneliness is what I remember most. Just row upon row of flat marble headstones, flanked by cypress trees and watched over by a solitary pine.
Lone Pine, Anzac Cove, The Nek…the names are etched in our history and even for those of us too young to have known the men who fought at Gallipoli,the spirit lives on in the names of the battlegrounds.
Tomorrow, Australians and New Zealanders will commemorate the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli, the disastrous eight month campaign of World War I that seemed more than anything else to define the idea of mateship, of a modern national identity. About 8000 Australians and 2000 New Zealanders will gather on the Turkish peninsula for official commemorations, many more will mark the milestone at services around both ANZAC countries.
The landing of Allied troops at Gallipoli on April 25 is commemorated – I don’t like to say celebrated – every year in both countries as ANZAC Day (for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). It was first marked unofficially in 1916, before becoming a national public holiday in both countries in the 1920s, with dawn services and public marches now intended as remembrance for all fallen and serving troops from all wars. Growing up in New Zealand, with a World War II veteran father, it was an annual rite that was never missed, and one I maintain still. Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a beachside service on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.
My tangible memory of my own visit to Gallipoli exists only in a few rather inexpert snapshots dragged out from a box in my cupboard. They’re not much to look at, but still they evoke strong memories.
Despite a basic knowledge of the Gallipoli story, and an awareness of its significance in the national psyche of both Australia and New Zealand, nothing had prepared me for the harsh reality of it all. For the silence of the place.
A pilgrimage to Gallipoli has become an integral part of a European holiday for increasing numbers of Australians in recent years. For many, it’s a rite of passage now but I don’t expect there’ll be such an eerie silence on that rugged peninsula tomorrow as I found on my visit there many years ago.
Walking alone among the graves of Lone Pine, on a late afternoon in July, was an unforgettable experience.
The sorrow of families left behind is uttered in poignant epitaphs that speak volumes:
He sleeps where Anzac heroes came to do and die
There are many heroes in the world but there is one hero in my heart
Their glory shall not be blotted out
Far away from home and loved ones in a hero’s grave he lies
Few of the young men who died here were over 25. Some were as young as 16.
Many had served under assumed names in order, no doubt, to be a part of the war, despite their youth.
The cemetery is dominated by the Lone Pine Memorial, which bears the names of almost 5000 Australians and New Zealanders whose shattered bodies were never found. Estimates of casualty figures for the Gallipoli campaign put the final number at more than 100,000 dead, including 53,000 British and French soldiers and more than 60,000 Turkish soldiers.
Under the cross on the face of the tall marble cenotaph, the inscription reads:
To the glory of God and in lasting memory of 3268 Australian soldiers who fought on Gallipolli in 1915 and have no known graves and 456 New Zealand soldiers whose names are not recorded in other areas of the peninsula but who fell in the Anzac area and have no known graves, and also of 960 Australians and 252 New Zealanders who fighting on Gallipoli in 1915 incurred mortal wounds or sickness and found burial at sea. Their name liveth for evermore.
I had no names to look for. My grandfathers’ military service histories – if there was any – has long been lost, both men dying when my parents were young. But the ANZAC legend was enough to bring me here as a young traveller heading north from Greece to England.
Overnighting in the fishing port of Gelibolu, as it is known in Turkish, I found it a quiet town of tree-lined streets and harbourside cafes, and the ferry port serving Canakkale on the Turkish mainland.
About 35km from the town (in those days, anyway), signposts pointed to the more than 20 Commonwealth war cemeteries and memorials maintained by the Turkish government and the British War Graves Commission.
We stopped at the Turkish War Museum on the road between Gelibolu and the memorial park. Most of the exhibits were relics of the campaign, picked up from the battleground – battered knives, buttons, water bottles and false teeth.
The small chapel at the base of the Lone Pine memorial was firmly closed and there was no-one around to ask to open it.
At Shell Green, a Turkish historian guiding an English couple through the mute testimony of the fallen, stopped to ask where we were from.
Australia! New Zealand! He took a few minutes aside from this tour to point out the grave of that most famous Australian Gallipoli hero, John Simpson Fitzpatrick.
The 22-year-old who served in the Australian Army Medical Corps as Private John Simpson and with his donkey became a legend, is remembered with the simple epitaph: He gave his life that others may live.
Driving away from Gallipoli, through riotous fields of sunflowers, it was somehow comforting to reflect on the words of Turkey’s first president, Kemal Ataturk, on Turkey’s own memorial to the dead.
“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 far away 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.”
On the empty road just outside Gelibolu, a tour bus flashed by. Young faces at the windows…another band of pilgrims heading for the sacred site where Anzac heroes came to do and die.
Lest we forget.
This is an adaptation of a story written and published for ANZAC Day in 1990.