Once the Dawn service finished, we were ferried out of the Cove area to begin the walk up the ridge to the commemoration services. Australia would hold its commemoration first at Lone Pine, and New Zealand’s commemoration would be some 3 hours later on the top of the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Part of the reason for the delay was because the Turkish military youth also held a service at Chunuk Bair.
The walk to the sites was via a dirt track that began at the beach and made its way up to Lone Pine, a distance of some 3km. The track then gave way to a sealed road that wound its way another 7km to Chunuk Bair. Those who couldn’t walk due to age or health were encouraged to take a coach to their destination. Sadly we weren’t able to attend each other’s commemorations, and Australian pass holders were also not able to proceed past Lone Pine, which meant that they missed out on visiting several historical places of importance.
The walk to the ridge was an interesting one as it passed by cemeteries and many significant places from the battle such Shrapnel Valley and the infamous Nek. In his Dawn Service address, Tony Abbott commented that the Gallipoli peninsula is similar from the coastal cliffs that you’d find in Australia or New Zealand. For once he was right, as the area reminded me of the Victorian Coast, and some of the plants looked like the scrub I’d find in coastal areas around New Zealand. At first it was difficult for me to image that this place had once been stripped naked and cut up by trenches and artillery, but some remnants of the violent past, such as old trenches and sniper holes can still be seen.
What was always in the back of my mind, especially when we sat overnight on the beach, was that the whole Peninsula is essentially a giant graveyard. Although the Gallipoli campaign was relatively short-lived, it resulted in incredible carnage on both sides. Around 44,000 Allied men died there. Twice as many Turkish troops were killed, demonstrating their sheer determination to stop the invading forces. Of the number of dead were 8709 Australians and 2701 New Zealanders. The fighting was often so fierce that there was little time to collect and bury the dead, and many were buried in mass graves. Although the Allied forces returned to identify and repatriate their dead to official war cemeteries around 70% of the remains were not identified. The majority of graves in the area belong to Allied forces as the Ottomans followed their custom of not disturbing their war dead. In many places, such as the Nek, ANZACS, Allied and Ottoman troops are buried together.
Most of the relics of the war have since been removed, but we were told that sometimes artifacts and fragments of human remains emerge from the ground, a result of temperature and weather conditions. I spied some bone fragments on a trail near the summit and although they may have been from an animal such as a rabbit, I was reminded of my visit to another war-torn place, Choeng Ek, one of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Hundreds of men, women and children were taken to an abandoned farm and slaughtered. As you wonder around the area, it’s common to see bone fragments and pieces of clothing on the ground, a grim and very confronting reminder of a horrific past.
My first stop on my walk was the Beach Cemetery. It was one of the first cemeteries to be established, virtually from day one of the landings. Like many of the cemeteries here it’s now a very peaceful place, set just above the shoreline overlooking ANZAC Cove. Private John Simpson Kilpatrick is buried here. Kilpatrick was a stretcher bearer who became famous for using donkeys to collect wounded soldiers. Often under fire he would bring the wounded through Shrapnel Valley to the safety of the beach. The valley was the main link between the beach and the surrounding high ridges and earned its name because of the exploding shrapnel and snipers bullets that a soldier had to dodge while to travel through it. It was here that Kilpatrick, aged 22 years was eventually killed after only three weeks at Gallipoli. British-born he signed up to fight while travelling through Australia, and reports of his deeds in the Australian media made him posthumously famous and an Australian legend.
Approaching the track it was a sight to see 10,000 people jostling up the hill. In fact, it looked a bit like a heard of buffalos trying to squeeze up a goat track. Crowds had been a logistical nightmare throughout the event. And this was another time that I was reminded of how the sheer volume of centenary visitors pushed the area to its limits. It was apparent that the Turkish Government has done an excellent job of preserving the area. And although increasing visitor numbers for the centenary meant that I was able to secure a ballot ticket, with hindsight keeping numbers smaller and more manageable for all future events will ensure that the area is better protected.
The crowds made the going slow, which posed a personal problem for me as the next portable toilet stop was at Lone Pine. Thankfully it didn’t take too long to get there made faster by a group of New Zealander’s who used their ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ and formed their left hand lane on the side of the track. My pit stopped over and done with I wasn’t able to even glimpse Lone Pine, which was surrounded by high fencing. As I passed outside I could hear ‘Waltzing Matilda’ belting out through large audio speakers, which felt nostalgic but also a little surreal.
With Chunuk Bair another 7 km uphill I was starting to tire. As I huffed my way along the road I realized that it would have taken a great deal of fitness for men to walk these hills day in and day out, let alone fight in them. I was able to stop by more cemeteries, all calm and immaculately kept. It’s always hard to visit war graves and to realise how young many of the men were. I read many moving epitaphs some so heartbreaking you couldn’t help but feel emotional. At two cemeteries I came across the graves of Maori soldiers. One was listed as having served with the Maori Battalion and the other a member of the N.Z. mounted rifles. Maori soldiers really only gained recognition for their service during the second world war, due mostly to the formation of the 28th Maori Battalion. Like the Australian indigenous ANZAC’s, Maori Great War soldiers haven’t received a lot of recognition for their contribution. It was nice to come across these two men from my own culture and to be able to pay my respects. Maori place an importance of being able to return to one’s turangawaewae (spiritual home) after death. And this concept applies to all fallen men in places like Gallipoli. Early last century the cost of travel was too high for many to afford, so many families were left to wonder about the fate of their loved one. I could only imagine that this uncertainty exacerbated their grief and that healing from such a loss would have been extremely difficult.
Near the summit I reached the infamous battle site known as The Nek. ‘Nek’ is an Africaans word for a mountain pass. ANZAC and Turkish forces fought bitterly to control this strategic and narrow stretch of ridge. The Battle of the Nek was remembered as a major Allied failure and was famously depicted in the 1981 film Gallipoli. Under orders from their own command successive waves of Australian light horsemen were sent over the top of their trenches into Turkish machine gun fire. In all 234 men died, their bodies remaining piled on top of one another until after the war. The battle was an example of how strategies that were effective during the Boer War were useless against the modern firepower of the First World War. The Nek cemetery covers no man’s land, the area where these men charged to their deaths. The bodies of only five ANZAC’s killed here were identified, the rest lay beneath the grassed earth. From the Nek you are able to walk down further to the tip of the ridge known as Walker’s Ridge. There is a cemetery here where many of the New Zealand soldiers who fought to control the area are buried. The view is nothing short of stunning. A panorama taking in most of the west side of the Peninsula including the Sphinx landmark, and a clear view down onto ANZAC Cove. This is the place where the Ottomans watched the ANZAC troops as they landed ashore. I tried to imagine what it would have been like as a Turk to see a foreign enemy land on your shores. My mum later commented that after seeing my photo of the view she could see how exposed and vulnerable the ANZAC troops were to attack. Both perspectives give a bleak view of the situation for either side.
I continued on my way up the summit and by this time my feet, neck and back were aching. Just as I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I met a New Zealand woman in her sixties on a walking stick. She told me that she had trained for the journey for some time. Feeling somewhat embarrassed about my self-pity, I offered to carry her bag and we enjoyed a good chat. I discovered that she had researched her family history at Gallipoli and had planned the trip for some years. The early part of her life had been filled with raising her children and working, so she had waited until her fifties to begin travelling. Over the past few years she had become quite intrepid and had more than made up for lost time. After Turkey she planned a trip to Vietnam, one of my favourite destinations. We parted when we reached the summit and although I can’t recall her name, I felt very much inspired by our meeting.
The battle of Chunuk Bair was the only success of the Allied campaign. New Zealand and British forces took control of the area although it was later recaptured by the Ottomans. It is the highest point and looks out across both side of the peninsula. There are two memorials, one for New Zealand soldiers and another from the Turkish people commenorating their hero Mustafa Attaturk, the general responsible for the Gallipoli defensive and credited as the founder of modern Turkey. As I arrived the commemoration ceremony was just beginning. I was lucky enough to get a spot behind the New Zealand Youth Choir. However no sooner than I’d settled into my seat, the skies finally opened up with rain and the temperature dropped. Although we were starting to freeze, the emergence of Prince Harry along with his father Prince Charles distracted everyone. Those royals certainly are charmers, each taking turns to walk through the crowd and talk with everyone. It actually did a lot to buoy everyone’s tiring spirits. The ceremony was well orchestrated and I enjoyed singing the Maori hymns but the cold and the rain had got to me and by the end I had a pounding headache.
The wait for the bus to collect my group took six very long hours. I had also run out of Turkish lira which meant that I couldn’t buy a hot cup of tea or some warm food. Damn. By this time everyone was exhausted but the New Zealand armed forces personnel did an amazing job at keeping us organized, awake and in good spirits. Kiwi’s in general are a pretty relaxed bunch and used to the cold so most people waited patiently and were generally well behaved. Sitting with everyone under a make shift gazebo it reminded me of a get together, especially when the Youth Choir came out with their guitar and started singing for us. I also ran into my old friend John, the kaumatua (elder) I met on my flight to Istanbul. It was lovely to see him dressed in his suit and proudly wearing his medals and Maori Battalion badges. He told me how he refused to take the bus and had walked up the peak. Although he was in his own words “spent”, it was something that he had wanted to do and he was happy to have done it. I hope that when I reach the same age I will have that much energy and life in me. Our bus with our Australian crew finally arrived and as we boarded the New Zealand volunteers formed a line either side and gave us all high fives. We said our farewell to Gallipoli and reached Istanbul just after midnight, marking two days of almost non-stop travelling.
My trip to Gallipoli was certainly an experience. It most definitely helped me to gain insight into the hell that the first ANZAC’s experienced a hundred years ago. I was also able to develop a more balanced perspective of the ANZAC legend. Most stories that I have heard of ANZAC and of Gallipoli are of heroes and mateship. There were definitely heroic actions on both sides and difficult circumstances would certainly form stronger bonds, but for me it was the devastating loss of human life that struck the loudest chord.
My trip also showed me that the Turkish people, apart from being very resilient, are extremely welcoming and hospitable. They lost twice as many men defending their homeland. And despite this they appeared to bare no great grudge towards us (although the same cannot be said of their view of the British). I’m not sure if I would have felt the same if the tables were turned. Almost every Turkish person I met and told of where I was going was curious about why so many Australians and New Zealanders make the long pilgrimage to pay their respects to country men who fell so many years ago. Yet it’s the pilgrimage that has seemed to have healed the rifts of war and created a mutual respect.
Like many places that have seen war, Gallipoli is a sad place. A place where too many lives from either side were lost far too soon. Perhaps it’s the pain of grief and senseless loss, rather than heroics and mateship that has kept the ANZAC legend alive for so long.