Every year on April 25 about 15,000 people gather at a narrow peninsula in Turkey under an impossibly blue sky. The rugged landscape is hauntingly beautiful, with its dramatic ridges, isolated beaches and deep valleys, but that’s not what draws them. They are mostly young New Zealanders and Australians, backpacking, hitchhiking and staggering out of old Kombi vans, drawn to a location they know little about except its place in their nation’s histories.
The attempt to take Gallipoli and then push through the Dardanelle straits to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) was one of the most complicated operations of World War I. The campaign was marred by poor command,hasty planning and inadequate logistical support. After nine months of stalemate and some of the fiercest fighting of the war, more than 120,000 Allied and British soldiers had lost their lives. At the end of the war, the Allies returned to clear the battlefields and bury the remaining bodies.
Gallipoli soon became a place of pilgrimage, initially for veterans’ organisations commemorating their lost comrades. These days it is a major destination on the backpacker trail in Turkey. The region has remained essentially unchanged since the Anzac troops made their ill-fated landing at Ari Burnu 87 years ago. At least 2000 Anzacs died that night – and a legend was born. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said Gallipoli was a legend, “not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity”.
The word Anzac is sacred; it is protected by law against commercial or other profane use and the legend of the Anzacs is part of our communal consciousness. Critics argue that Anzac Day is militaristic and glorifies war. Others say that it is not a celebration of war,but a celebration of nationhood and a symbol of a coming of age. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Burke said: “These colonialists fought as they lived, bravely, openly, independently and without fear. They proved that their young countries could produce men equal to any in the world.” There are numerous memorials on the peninsula and 31 cemeteries containing 22,000 graves.
In 1973 the Republic of Turkey announced that “no war is cause for permanent hostilities but can serve as a basis for friendship as well”. In keeping with this spirit they created the huge Gallipoli Peninsula Peace Park, which is protected to preserve its archaeological, cultural and military heritage.
Visitors usually stay in Canakkale, where there is a wide range of accommodation and tours on offer. I stayed at Anzac House, which offers a package including a tour of Gallipoli, a night’s accommodation, and a screening of the documentary Dangerous Shores and the movie GalIipoli. They also have Vegemite toast on the menu.
My tour began with a ferry-ride across the Dardanelles, the narrow stretch of water that separates Asia and Europe. Tours take about six hours and visit a number of cemeteries, memorials and scenes of battle. The Kabatepe museum houses original diaries and letters, a rather nasty-looking collection of explosives and some grisly relics, including a shoe with the remains of a foot inside. Place names from my history books sprang to life: Lone Pine, now home to the Australian memorial; Chunuk Bair, the highest point captured by New Zealand troops and now site for the New Zealand memorial; The Nek, site of the famous charge of the Lighthouse Brigade, as depicted in the movie GalIipoli; Anzac Cove, a quiet, pretty, crescent shaped beach – it was then home to 30,000 troops. Poppies and sunflowers have sprung up amid the graves and wild thyme grows along the roadside. What struck me was the sense of peace and serenity.
In 1915 there were rivers of blood flowing down to the sea. Now there is stillness. It was a day for peaceful reflection and we were all very sombre on our return to Anzac House.I have never considered myself to be particularly patriotic but at times I was quite overwhelmed by the intensity of emotion – and I certainly wasn’t the only one to shed tears.