As a 22-year-old backpacker, I visited Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula for Anzac Day commemorations in 1992.
Three of us slept it rough overnight on a pebbly beach at Anzac Cove, the same place where Australian soldiers landed in the early hours of April 25, 1915.
I guess you could describe it as a pilgrimage. We visited old battlefields and paid our respects to those young men who now lay in the cemeteries that dot the area.
For many young Australians and New Zealanders, visiting Gallipoli has become a rite of passage. Around 200 of us attended the dawn service back in 1992, a small number when compared to the 10,000 expected to be there for the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings this Saturday.
Now if you’re not an Australian or a New Zealander, Anzac Day will mean little to you, but if you’re American, you can equate it to Memorial Day.
A hundred years ago, soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were part of an ill-advised allied expedition that set out to capture the peninsula in a bid to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
Poor planning, rugged terrain and stiff defense from the Turkish troops resulted in the allied forces fighting a fierce stalemate for eight months until they finally withdrew.
Over 8,000 Australians died in what was their young nation’s first major military action in World War I. For a population of less than 5 million, 416,809 men enlisted to serve during the war of which more than 60,000 were killed, and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
The fighting for Gallipoli was intense and when we were there, we wandered around its old battlefields, coming across war relics in the sandy soil: bullet heads, a part of a bayonet, tunic buttons, and a lot of rusty trench wire.
Because we had seen Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, we climbed to an area called the Nek, where 372 men from the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade died in a courageous but futile attack in an area the size of a tennis court.
This charge by four infantry waves into machine guns was immortalized in Weir’s 1981 film, which stared a fresh-faced Mel Gibson. The last couple of powerful minutes of the film are below.
I was 11-years-old when I saw it in the local cinema, and I can still remember the sad atmosphere after the curtains were drawn. For quite a while, nobody moved from their seats, and it was as quite as a church.
The film and the reaction to it is an example of why Anzac Day means so much to many Australians.
Anzac Day is not about glorifying war.
It’s about the unconditional support of mateship, bravery, and sacrifice for a national effort. It also recognizes the horrible nature of war and its terrible costs.
The Gallipoli campaign was also one that was not marked by overt animosity between the opponents despite nearly 60,000 Turks dying in the campaign. During our 1992 visit, the Turks were very respectful of why the Australians would go visit the battle site.
There’s a prominent Turkish memorial there that features a message from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, President of Turkey in 1934. Atatürk was also a front-line commander during the Gallipoli campaign.
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.
In finishing below, are some portraits of Australian troops at Gallipoli. I think this is how they would like to be remembered. Lest we forget.