Looking Back in the Dark: ANZAC Day on the Beach at Gallipoli
Dawn service at the beach, a cuppa with the olds and a few schooners and rounds of two up at the RSL. That’s my usual ANZAC Day tradition, and one many people around our country share. A revered holiday that not only commemorates the sacrifice and utter bravery of our military, but one that solidifies our sense of identity as a nation and a people.
One hundred and four years ago on a tiny beach on the other side of the globe, a legacy began; one of heroes and larrikins, mates and endurance, successes and tragic losses, that stretched around the world and shaped a national identity that still today plays an enormous role in what it means to be from Australia and New Zealand.
This week on April 25th, I looked upon the ridges at Gallipoli, heard the lap of sea upon shore, and felt the sand and rocks beneath my boots – just as those boys and men did many years ago. I am lucky to be in this place in a time of peace; something a lot of us as young travellers take for granted. Because of the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers, I can enter Turkey, I can enter any number of countries that have seen war, I can see the remains of battle, the trenches, the shelters, the buildings still crumpled like paper bags. I can see these countries for their beauty and I can reflect on their tragedies.
Attending the dawn service at Gallipoli was one of the most touching and significant experiences in my life. I am truly blessed to have been able to go, and would say to anyone – whether or not they have a connection to the military or no – to take the time to travel to Gallipoli if not attend the service itself on the 25th. I learned so much about the history of our role within the war, the tales of Australia and New Zealand’s battles within the Gallipoli campaign, and individual soldiers and their stories of survival and loss.
We learn about war in school, but for most of us it’s a foreign concept. Standing in ANZAC Cove puts into perspective the momentous importance of the events of our history, and how they’ve shaped us as a nation and a brought us together as family.
The service at ANZAC Cove begins at midnight – around one thousand New Zealanders and Australians gather under the stars and lay out sleeping bags. A screen shows documentaries and small films throughout the night until the service begins at 5am. We’re joined by guests from our government and military as well as the Turkish, and other dignitaries. We hear diary entries of soldiers who fought at this very beach, while looking on the ridges that jut dramatically up. You can picture those lads clambouring out of the water and up the cliffs to fight. As dawn breaks and the sky lightens, an immense feeling of awe creeps up your spine, a special bond forming between you and those people who walked there a century ago.
At the close of the dawn service, we as a group begin the walk to Lone Pine Cemetery, passing a few other small grave sites along the way. Lone Pine is an immensely important landmark in Australia’s war history. It’s the final resting place of many Australian soldiers, and so a service for Australians is held there, after a three kilometre walk through bush land up from Gallipoli beach.
For the New Zealanders, the walk continues to Chunuk Bair. Another three and a half kilometres along and past many more cemeteries, this was one of the most pivotal places within the Gallipoli campaign, and an objective that was fought for, won and lost many times by the New Zealand army. Here, another ceremony is held. Maori songs can be heard across the peninsula, remembering those brave souls who gave up their lives for king and country, and all of us, leaving a legacy that will last forever.
Walking across the peninsula, through trenches still lasting from a hundred years ago, baking in the heat enlightened us to the harsh reality of the conditions our soldiers suffered, but more importantly persevered through. We talked about their will to survive and jovial nature in the face of such a monstrous war, and reflected on the privileged life we lead now because of these men. I read the headstones of each man, some as young as sixteen and inscribed with messages from loved ones makes our connection with the place all the more personal, some have the same names of our mothers or friends or even us.
I struggle to imagine myself in their situation, and marvel at their ability to keep fighting for what they believed in.
The Turkish government has shown the utmost kindness and respect to our soldiers, adopting those that lay in cemeteries around the Gallipoli peninsula as their own sons. The gravesites are simple and elegant, and sit in beautiful copses of trees, or atop hills that look out over the blue sea, green trees and rocky cliffs. Our beloved men who died for our country are dignified in their final resting places, even though many of them remain unnamed or undiscovered.
It’s a beautiful day once we finally reach Chunuk Bair; we can hear the New Zealand ceremony as we wait, enjoying the sun.
After the ceremony, over thousand guests wait to be loaded onto buses, everyone is buzzing. It’s been a sleepless night, an emotional morning, but morale is high, the sun is out and we’re happy. A young officer from the NZ contingency loads us on to buses with an unmistakably Maori charm and humour, their band treats us with songs and jokes. He calls on everyone to perform a Haka, and finally the crowd joins in to sing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi, voices carrying along the wind. And we don’t don’t to leave.
The drive back to Istanbul is long; we all snooze on the bus before groggily saying our goodbyes and heading our separate ways. It’s been one of the most amazing days, spent in silence and mourning, song and joy and our souls feel full.
It is a beautiful thing to spend the day with your kin, gathered from all corners of the globe for this one dawn, on this one day, on this one small stretch of beach, so far away from home, and I couldn’t be more grateful for those young lads over a century ago – and all of those who’ve come after them – for what they sacrificed.
Top photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. Travltalk is not associated with Travel Talk Tours.