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Ground zero for the Australian spirit.

TURKEY | Friday, 13 February 2015 | Views [558]

So serene for a place that has such a terrible history.

So serene for a place that has such a terrible history.

A lot has changed in 100 years. That was my overwhelming thought as I traveled towards Gallipoli through the snowy Istanbul streets. I traveled in the comfort of a heated van, two other tourists sleeping peacefully around me and my belly full of enough omelete and white bread to put a permanent ass groove in the seat during the four hour road trip. My biggest concern for the day was being able to press buttons on my camera on my few brief ventures into the cold outside.

In 74 days time, it will 100 years since our brave ANZACS sat shivering in canoes rowing their way to what they thought was the flat expanse of Brighton Beach that lead to their goal of Chunuk Bair. The pants shitting terror I know I would have been experiencing would have soon been replaced with forehead slapping disbelief when the steep cliffs of ANZAC Cove appeared instead.

The lads would have been adorned with standard army issue attire which certainly wasn't bamboo thermals or a wearable duckling sarcophagus. They carried .303 Enfield rifles with bayonets that gunsmiths of today probably emulate in the first month of their apprenticeship. Todays soldiers are loaded up with more state of the art hardware than a robotics convention, and have selfie sticks where the bayonet once went. Probably. As much I was wanted to walk in the footsteps of our forebears, it felt like a eon away.

Beyond some basic facts I vaguely recall from High School history classes, I am ashamed to say I know very little of the place where ANZACS displayed the courage that would become the true spirit of the Australian psyche. I had four hours to let that sink in before I knew I would have the extent of my ignorance revealed to me. I was undertaking a pilgrimage to pay my respects, but also to learn. To know exactly what it is we should remember, 'lest we forget'.

I don't have nerves of steel, nor could the fortitude of my tear ducts be compared to balsa wood, let alone steel. I was fully aware that this education was not going to come easily so I'd loaded up on as many tissues as my pockets could hold. With the recent hardships of close friends playing on my mind a lot, I shouldn't have been surprised to feel a few errant tears running down my cheeks before we had even picked up my traveling companions. It was a bit dusty in the van so I reckon I must have just gotten something stuck in my eye.

Our first stop was Brighton Beach. Our guide merely showing us the spot as a point of contrast, being a pleasant flat expanse that would have made the disembarkment of 15,000 troops a hell of a lot easier. Hell though, was a kilometre down the road. The topography had changed slightly with the building of a road in 1934, but it was abundantly clear straight away that only the mad hatter would have chosen Ari Burnu, or ANZAC Cove as it is now known, as a landing place.

Here there were three interesting points that became immediately apparent. The first was the size of the cove. If I sat at one end, I'd be too scared to fart for fear the person at the far end heard me. I could hit a golf ball the length of it. With a putter. And the second was that it wasn't a military blunder that saw the ANZACs land there. The row boats had left the offshore battle ships in the right spot, but an unusually strong current blew them off course, and that lead me to the third point. That was auspicious for the Turks.

Then and now with a cameo by a garbage bin.

It is easy to forget that there are two sides to every conflict, and like the 'American' war in Vietnam, the Turks see their defence of the Allied landing as a success. Had the Allies taken the peninsula and the Dardenelles, they would have gone straight on to take Istanbul. That must have been an easier task that what it was for the first few thousand years of the cities existence, and this was their last stand before the whole of Turkey would have fallen.

Mustafa Kemal was in control of the 19th division of the Fifth army at the time, and it was his decisive action that would play a large role in repelling the attacking force. After founding the Republic of Turkey in 1923, he would utter the words that show the deep respect the Turks felt, and still feel for the ANZAC boys that fought and died on their soil.

It's hard to imagine more profound, or more respectful words than these.

I did a quick interview with a BBC documentary crew because it seems my fame has spread beyond Indonesia, and then headed on to North Beach where the Dawn ceremonies have been held since 1999. When the Sphinx, Plugges Plateau and the ridges they crown, are viewed from this angle, it makes you realise just how daunting a prospect summounting them must have seemed.

Believe me, it is even colder than it looks.

My belief was that this initial attack was the most fatal as diggers were easily picked off by strength of numbers in a superior position. 150 or so Turks covered the area as the rest of the opposition had been spread along the 50km peninsula not knowing where the attack would come from. My belief was erroneous, and some of the soldiers had almost reached their destination before Mustafas men got there in time to repel them. We were pushed back as far as the positions we could defend and not much changed until August.

Lone Pine and The Nek turned out to be some of the more fatal exchanges and they were largely diversionary tactics to help the British force that landed to break the four month deadlock. Some New Zealand soldiers took Chunuk Bair, but without the back up of the disorgansed British forces, lead by a General called out of retirement six years hence, the kiwis were very soon repelled as well. A large monument stands on the peak, commemorating the Kiwis almost snatched some small degree of success.

The Chunuk Bair memorial to kiwis and Mustafa Kemal

The Nek is featured at the end of the Mel Gibson movie 'Gallipoli' from 1982, and Lone Pine is adorned with a third generation of the original tree that stood on the plateau before it was blown to splinters during the offensive. I wandered around reading many of the grave markers, thankful rays of light pierced the clouds meaning there was only a howling gale to deal with, and not rain or snow. Reading the grief of loved ones and seeing the ages of those that died really drove home the true cost of war.

The view towards Sulva Bay from The Nek.

I'm going to say it was a sign of my deepest respect and gratitude that saw quite a few tears freeze on my cheeks as I stood in a spot that is actually remarkably beautiful and serene now. The blood soaked grounds are grown over with grass, and the barren expanses are covered in trees, meaning that one aspect of life has prospered where there was once so much death. Everything that grows on these hills is now sacred, nurtured by the souls that are forever at peace there.

At Johntsons Jolly, the single lane road is laid over what was once no mans land and shows just how close the opposing trenches were. In the stalemate, jokes and smokes were traded more frequently than gun fire. And having spent 5 days now in the company of Turkish people, I could see what personalities would have faced up to the Australian sense of humour and sledging. And yet as allies of countries that really had beef with each other, we were expected to kill strangers we could have had a laugh with over a beer and shisha instead.

The belligerents could have punched each other from this distance!

It is this craziness of war that those of us in time of peace find so hard to understand. The name of the monument shown below escapes my memory, but the sentiment certainly doesn't. Hearing the cries of a wounded ANZAC in no man's land, a compassionate Mehmet (The colloquial name for a Turkish soldier) carrying a white flag wandered out into no mans land, picked up the digger and carried him back to side he had come attacking from. There was good, brave men from both sides just killing like they were told, but with no malice towards the individual. It is such an unconceivable contradiction.

Mehmets are always depicted with moustaches!

The ease with which we traversed the road that leads to the peak made me wish it had been as easy for the ANZACs. Our Turkish guide reminded me that not everyone would wish that, in the most respectful way, by not feeling the need to point it out. History is untouchable and Gallipoli is regarded as a defining moment in Turkeys history: a final surge in the defence of the motherland as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, and where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk first rose to prominence as a commander. The campaign is often considered as marking the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand. The determination and resilience shown by our soldiers became a defining aspect of our character, even though from a military perspective, it was a resounding failure. I've had more strategic success playing chess than what the ANZACs had in their 9 months at Gallipoli.

I stood on the ground that so many of my countrymen (8,700), and our allies and enemies (130,000 in total), died trying to capture or defend, and looked around at the countryside. There is no beauty to see when you recall the unnecessary loss of life that happened here nearly 100 years ago. But  beauty is apparent in the spirit and sense of identity that was forged on these battle fields which ultimately proves good things can come from both failure and success. Many died for what we honour as inalienable rights, and I know now that the freedom I now enjoy came at a price that others have paid. And I hope I never forget that.

Tags: anzac, gallipoli, memorial, war

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