Lest We Forget, 1915-2015

“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. 

Looking south towards Kabatepe, April 1915. Photo taken by William Henry Cameron
 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. 

Walking north from Kabatepe, 25 April 2015
 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. 

Dad, Mum, myself, and Garreth at the Anzac Commemorative Site
 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. 

The Sphinx spotlighted above the crowd in the night

“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. 

Lone Pine, 25 April 2015
 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. 

Atatürk’s famous address to the mothers of Anzac soldiers is a prominent part of the Anzac memorial
 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. 

Dad and I at the Anzac Commemorative Site
 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. 

My grandfather, William Henry Cameron
 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.

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Casting Shadows

Several years ago, my parents and I discussed the idea of travelling to Gallipoli. I had just returned from Europe with a broadened perspective of the world, and I couldn’t wait to go travelling again. Gallipoli felt like a logical choice for a family trip. My grandfather had landed there on 25 April 1915, as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. We decided to postpone the trip until 2015, when we could commemorate the centenary of Anzac Day. It seemed fitting that exactly one hundred years after my grandfather landed on that beach, amidst bullets and blood, we would be gathered there in respectful silence. Gallipoli would unite us across the generations. So we agreed. But 2015 was still a long way in the future, and Gallipoli was a place that felt more legendary than real. It was a hallowed word, something I associated with heroes and bravery, certainly something that didn’t seem part of this mundane world.

When my grandfather left Australia in 1914, sailing out of Albany aboard the Geelong, I am uncertain if he even knew where Gallipoli was. The Anzac soldiers thought they were bound for the Western Front, where they would join the fight against Germany. Gallipoli was just a small town on a small peninsula in a far away land. It meant nothing to the soldiers aboard those ships. Its importance in Australian history would be determined by the actions that he and his fellow soldiers would take in the months ahead.

In April 2014, my family found out that we were successful in getting tickets to the Anzac Day Dawn Service at Gallipoli on the centenary of the landings. Finally, we would be able to walk in my grandfather’s footsteps. Gallipoli was suddenly real to me – an actual place that I would visit. I would be standing on those same hills that had once been a battlefield for Anzac and Turkish soldiers. Now, with less than three weeks before our departure, it feels incredibly important for me to document the experience. I don’t just want to write about the Anzac Centenary; I want to explore how the Anzac legend has grown in the last century and how it still influences my sense of identity. I want to discover how the world has changed over the last one hundred years. I want to know what it means to be Australian abroad, then and now.

My companion on this trip is Garreth Bradshaw. We have been friends since high school, sharing an avid interest in history and an unhealthy obsession with pop culture. Out of all the adventures we’ve been on over the years (and the numerous misadventures), our trip to Europe is easily the most ambitious, an inevitable result of our friendship. And we’re planning to have a bit of fun. Why not? I tried to convince Garreth to be my amanuensis for this blog, but he insisted on being a co-author. And although it pains me to sully the literary quality of this project, I was forced to agree. But, jokes aside, I am thrilled to have Garreth along for the ride. Keep an eye out for his posts – he has an astute way of seeing to the very heart of matters.

Garreth and I recently visited the War Memorial in Sydney, a suitably imposing edifice to house the Anzac legend.
Garreth and I recently visited the War Memorial in Sydney, a suitably imposing edifice to remember the Anzac legend.

Our trip will take us first to Germany. Garreth is excited to explore the Berlin of Bertolt Brecht and the decadence and sorrow of the 1930s cabaret . I am looking forward to the placid lakes and snow-capped peaks of Berchtesgaden. We are both looking forward to wiling away the hours in a beer hall in Munich. After a brief stopover in Salzburg, we will fly to Istanbul and meet up with my parents. They are thrilled to be part of the journey. None of us have been to Turkey before; the thought of wandering the streets of Istanbul, that immortal city, has excited me for months. We then embark on a tour of the country, visiting places such as Cappadocia, Ephesus, and Troy. Our journey culminates at Gallipoli on April 25th, where we will join thousands of Australians and New Zealanders in commemorating the centenary.

For an Australian, there can be no greater pilgrimage than visiting the rugged hills above that narrow beach.

Gallipoli. That single word – spoken with reverence and pride – has cast a long shadow over the subsequent century. It’s not just a place on the map; it’s not just a moment in history. It forms the background to what it means to be Australian. It is part of our shared cultural identity. We are taught its significance at a young age. I can remember endless Anzac services in school, that solitary bugle calling out in the sweltering assembly halls, the gathered students with downcast eyes, struggling to understand something that was simply beyond our comprehension. How do you explain sacrifice and bravery to a child except in only the most abstract terms? And then there’s the sad realization that many of the soldiers at Gallipoli were only a year or two older than us. It was Australia’s baptism of fire – the first time our fledgling country challenged the rest of the world. And even though it was a terrible military defeat, one that was fought for British Imperialism, we still feel a fierce pride for those fallen diggers. We read tales of their bravery. We tell their stories. We marvel at their exploits. We remember why they fought. Perhaps more than any other event, Gallipoli has shaped, and continues to shape, our national consciousness.

I feel a sense of trepidation in writing about the subject of Gallipoli. It feels like something sacred, a monolithic presence, something beyond the scope of mere words. It is certainly different from my usual writing in the genre of science fiction. But it also feels right. I have a strong personal connection to Gallipoli forged through my grandfather. His diary, photographs, and medals are among my family’s most treasured possessions. I grew up reading his hurried, scrawled words. I have looked at his drawings and studied his photos. And so writing about Gallipoli has a certain sense of inevitability. It has been brooding on the edge of my creative consciousness for years, just out of sight. Perhaps more than anything I’ve written, I feel a sense of a self in these words. I’m looking forward to travelling to those distant places. And I’m looking forward to sharing the experiences ahead.