“I could pour into your ears so much truth about the grandeur of our Australian army, and the wonderful affection of these young soldiers for each other and their homeland, that your Australianism would become a more powerful sentiment than before. It is stirring to see them, magnificent manhood, swinging their fine limbs as they walk about Anzac. They have the noble faces of men who have endured. Oh, if you could picture Anzac as I have seen it, you would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer.”
– Keith Murdoch, “The Gallipoli Letter”, 23 Sept 1915
We could see them across the gulf of a century. They huddled together in the boats in the bitter grey twilight as they approached the shore. We stood on the beach, cliffs at our back, eyes cast out to sea, waiting for them. When they came ashore, amidst a maelstrom of bullets and shrapnel, they were disoriented and scared. Imposing cliffs rose above the thin strip of sand and rock. This wasn’t where they were supposed to land! It was the wrong place! Across the span of time, we welcomed them in silence, here on this dismal shore in the biting cold, standing shoulder to shoulder with their former enemies. We stood here with them, here at Anzac Cove.
Nothing I’ve experienced in my life can compare to commemorating the centenary of Anzac Day at Gallipoli. We arrived on the Gallipoli peninsula in the early afternoon of Friday, 24 April. There was a great sense of migration, an inward press of people converging on the same place. We were fortunate to cross the Dardanelles so early in the day; we heard that over 300 buses were waiting in line at a crossing further up the channel. After passing through the bus registration point and various security checkpoints, we arrived at the holding area at Kabatepe.
It was our first view of the desolate Gallipoli coastline. Kabatepe was where the Anzac soldiers were supposed to land – a flat beach leading to the inland plains. To the north, we could see the beginnings of the Sari Bair range – rugged ridges rising up from the beach.
The walk to the commemorative site took forty minutes. The cluster of grandstands and stages were nestled under the cliffs, looking down onto the beach. The imposing rock edifice known as the Sphinx towered over us. It’s only now that I truly understand just how steep the cliffs are – photos don’t do justice to their sheer scale. This was the worst possible place along this entire peninsula to attempt a landing. How the Anzac troops managed to even establish a beachhead is entirely beyond my comprehension. We settled down on the grass (and my parents settled down in one of the grandstands) and watched night fall over the Aegean. A long night was ahead.
Because we’d arrived so early (bus number 87 out of an estimated 500), we were lucky to be able to lie down for the first few hours. But around midnight, the continued influx of people meant that we had to first sit up, then stand to make room. At 2am, there were still 1,500 people waiting to enter the site.
But it was a night full of simple moments too. Walks with Garreth and my parents along the promenade. Watching the spotlights play over the Sphinx. Chatting to the New Zealand Prime Minister, taking a selfie with Kochie. Having a joke around with Eddie McGuire and telling him that I’m a huge Eagles supporter. And an interview I did for ABC radio. The cove felt like a little slice of home, here on his distant shore.
“In no unreal sense it was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.”
– Charles Bean
The dawn was announced by a dusky red glow above the cliffs. As the service began, the sky changed to a grey twilight above us. Dignitaries made their speeches, and a procession of naval ships passed by the coast. There was a palpable swelling of emotion from the crowd. The Last Post has never sounded so haunting as it did in that morning twilight.
When the main commemorative service had finished, the Australians hiked up Artillery Road to Lone Pine, while the New Zealanders continued on to Chunuk Bair. The Australian ceremony at Lone Pine was so much more relaxed than the main service, for which we were all pretty grateful, because most of us had been awake for over 30 hours at this point. The view from Lone Pine was also quite stunning, with a sweeping vista up the second ridge to Chunuk Bair. During the minute of silence, the chirping and whistling of birds sounded across the hilltop – it was hard to believe this peaceful place had once been a site of ferocious battle.
Seeing the memorial at Lone Pine was a sobering way to end this day of remembrance. The Dardanelles campaign was a disaster for the Allies. 43,921 dead, 97,112 wounded. The Turkish losses were even more staggering: 86,692 dead, 164,617 wounded. We were constantly reminded that every step we took was on a grave of our ancestors.
A century after the landings, it’s worth asking what the Anzac legend means to my generation, and what role it plays in defining our nation. It’s something that is hard to articulate, because it is something that exists inside us, something that is part of our identity as Australians. Gallipoli is Australia’s foundation myth. It is the story we learn in school – the story of Simpson and his donkey, the story of brave Hugo Throssell, the story of a desperate clamour up the side of cliffs, and the story of a withdrawal that didn’t cost a single life. It is our French Revolution, it is our War of Independence. It is the single moment when we became aware of ourselves as a nation – a moment when we stood up and announced ourselves to the world. As long as Australia endures, the word Gallipoli will resonate in its people. And as I grow older and think about one day having children of my own, it seems more and more important to remember the sacrifices of our ancestors, to commemorate and celebrate their lives.
And what about those Australian values that crystallised in these trenches – mateship, bravery, larrikinism? It seems to me that those values are more important than ever. Having spent the last ten days on a tour with a group of Australian and New Zealanders, the sense of camaraderie we shared by the time we reached Gallipoli was only possible because of these shared values.
As our nation continues to grow into the next century, it becomes increasingly important for our leaders to reflect on the values and lessons learnt at Gallipoli. Australia is a different place to what it was in 1915, but many of the challenges are the same. After spending the last week experiencing gracious Turkish hospitality, and hearing about how this country has made room for millions of their neighbours fleeing from religious and political persecution, my feelings on some of Australia’s issues have been reinforced. The second verse of our national anthem says that “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”, and I would like to see the current leaders of Australia remember these words and be as welcoming as our Turkish hosts have been.
Sitting at the commemorative site, I thought about my grandfather as the dawn blossomed above me. I remembered visiting Albany, all those months ago, to commemorate the departure of the first convoy. (And how similar the coastlines of Albany and Gallipoli!) It had been the start of a long road, a journey that bridged across a century. And now I was standing in the place that had been the end of that road. My grandfather had been here, scrambling up the side of these cliffs, gasping and shouting into the dawn light. He was only here a few days before he was shot in the leg and evacuated. His story was short and furious, a mere drop in the tidal wave that washed up on this shore in 1915.
I am humbled and honoured to be here. I know that, no matter where I go or what I do, I will always carry today in my heart. On those quiet mornings, when I lie awake and listen to the birdsong through my window, or on those tranquil evenings at Cottesloe, when the breeze is cool and the waves lap contentedly at my feet, my thoughts will return to this desolate stretch of coast and the profound and desperate events that occurred here. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.