I am currently lying on the slopes of ANZAC cove, the cool grass beneath me and nothing but inky skies and a few drops of light above. Behind me are thousands of my countrymen and New Zealanders. The great TV screen to my left plays documentaries every half hour or so and there is a general buzz as people continue to filter into the site. I have exchanged words with the New Zealand Prime Minister, aussie journo David ‘kochy’ Koch and one of my tour mates is currently chatting footy with Eddie Macguire, who Andrew and I have just finished saying G’day to as well. It is the tightly controlled media varnish of the ANZAC mythology.
The peninsula seems awash with a who’s who of Australian and New Zealand who’s who… Well… I’ll let you be the judge of that. Overall there is a carnival atmosphere that has descended upon the crowd, spirits are high, larrikanism seems to be the order of the day.
It has been an interesting journey here and a whirlwind of Turkey. Moving from Ottoman palaces to Ancient Greek and Roman cities. You can’t help but feel how Turkey has played host to every major power the world creating thousands of myths and legends that have endured time and empires. And now Turkey is playing host to thousands of Australians and New Zealanders remembering their own myths and legends that Turkey is now a very gracious and proud custodian of, as they are their myths and legends too. These myths are like the cats and dogs you will meet all over Turkey; looked after by everyone and yet owned by no one.
It’s now 3am and the whole of ANZAC cove is alive with 10,000 people, we’ve moved from laying down to sitting and now to standing as we fill to capacity. But I think we are all feeling grateful that it is a rather mild night in ANZAC, a very soft breeze is blowing and it is roughly 4 degrees. Everyone seems to be in good spirits as we stand awaiting the dawn. The spirit of ANZAC seems to be in the air this morning, keeping the crowd calm and cooperative and the word’s “a fair go” never too far from someone’s lips.
Perhaps it is mere sentimentality, but if it is then it is an atmosphere of sentimentality shared by thousands. And perhaps that’s what we as Australians could use right now. Gallipoli is a mythology, an Iliad of heroism on both sides that reads like a Homeric tale. A foolish venture ordered by an aristocracy and amidst blood and tragedy three national identities were formed. Names like Simpson, Sing, Birdwood and Throssel and their actions are the stuff of legend. It is easy to criticise the occasion as a glorification of war, but the place of mythology that Gallipoli occupies in our national consciousness makes it so much more complicated than that.
This ANZAC day we should remember those values we possessed as a nation that turned us from invaders to brothers, that taught us that war is nasty and horrific and wholly lacking in any kind of Glory. For what is ANZAC day but not a reminder that blind patriotism and nationalism is a dangerous business? That there is more to who we are than blindly following the words of others into conflict, whether they be King or Prime Minister. Most importantly of all it should be a reminder that the other people we fight are human just like us.
Perhaps if we could invest a little more in thoughts of sentimentality surrounding our national mythology our nation would be the better, more sympathetic and more tolerant for it. After all it is a day for reflection and introspection, a time to think about who we are as a nation and how we will always be defined by our actions.
“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.
As our tour makes its way through Turkey, we’ve seen some incredible sights – the urban sprawl of Istanbul, the olive groves of Sirince, and the surreal Moonscape of Cappadocia. We’ve seen the mausoleum of Atatürk, the ruins of Hierapolis, and the ancient chapels of Göreme. We’ve explored the tunnels and chambers of Kaymakli underground city. We’ve watched demonstrations of the Whirling Dervishes, the ancient art of pottery, and the weaving of carpets. We spent an afternoon wandering the ruined city of Ephesus, where Garreth performed a Shakespearean sonnet in the Great Theatre. And we’ve watched the sunrise from a hot air balloon above the calcium terraces of Pamukkale. Each day has brought a wealth of experiences.
Something we’re rapidly learning is what Gallipoli means to the Turkish people, and the significance it played in inspiring a revolution and developing the modern Turkish nation. This isn’t something we could pick up from a text book: it’s something we’ve gathered from conversations with locals, watching adverts and documentaries on Turkish television, and seeing how the nation is approaching the centenary of the battle.
As soon as we’re recognised as Australians, there’s an instant kinship with our new Turkish friends. More than one local has used the term brother to describe the relationship. Australians are welcomed here – we fought in the same battle, we were forged in that same crucible. It doesn’t matter that we fought against each other; all has been forgiven. There is a distinct sense that we are travelling to Gallipoli to remember not just the Australians and New Zealanders, but the many Turkish soldiers who also lost their lives.
The Turkish experience of Gallipoli was an entirely different narrative to what we hear in Australia. The soldiers were repelling an invasion of their homeland. In many cases, they were fighting for land that had belonged to their families for generations. Many of them sacrificed their lives to protect their nation. It requires a strange sort of cognitive shift to think of Australia as an invading force, but that’s what happened.
When the First World War began, the British Empire may have been at the height of its powers, but the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline. The Committee of Union and Progress were removing power from the Sultan and placing it in the hands of the people. An empire that had lasted for over 600 years was close to imminent collapse. And suddenly they found themselves embroiled in a war between the empires of Europe. The people knew that defeat could signal the end of the Ottoman Empire. So they were fighting not just for the defence of their homeland, but for the preservation of their way of life – their traditions, their culture, their very history.
As I’ve previously written, the Turkish commemoration of Gallipoli occurs on 18 March, the day when frantic Turkish forces defeated one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled, as the British tried to storm the Dardanelles. It was an incredible victory for Turkey. A declining empire had defeated the mighty British fleet.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Australia and Turkey in the development of nationalism after the events of the war. Gallipoli was the place that crystallised those traits that defined what it meant to be Australian – mateship, bravery, larrikinism, and a healthy disrespect of authority. It sparked the birth of our national consciousness. But in that same crucible, the modern Turkish nation was born. It was the final defence of the motherland, even as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. When Mustafa Kemal said to his soldiers “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die,” the willing sacrifice of those soldiers bespoke of great loyalty to Turkey.
Finally, part of the kinship between our two nations is due to one man. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the commander of Turkish forces at Gallipoli, who later became founder of the Republic of Turkey, singled out the Anzacs in his letter to the mothers of the fallen soldiers in 1934:
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 now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway 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.
By separating Australia and New Zealand from the British, Atatürk created a bond between the nations. Our sons became their sons. The blood that had fallen on the Gallipoli peninsula was mixed between all soldiers, regardless of nationality.
When we gather on the shores of Gallipoli in just a couple of days, I will be proud to be standing side by side with our Turkish brothers. The legacy of Anzac isn’t confined to Australia and New Zealand – it is still alive here in Turkey, where it all began.
The snow swirled unexpectedly in cold cotton drifts. The German gods were having some Wagnerian pillow fight in the skies above Munich as Andrew and I took our first steps beyond the hostel wall. In other words perfect beer hall weather!
Before that it was necessary to take the pilgrimage to Europe’s most over rated tourist attraction, the glockenspiel.
Marienplatz was crowded with tourists all waiting expectedly as this marvel was to unfold above us. The glockenspiel itself placed into the neo-gothic architecture of the nues rathouse (an appropriate name for a building filled with politicians) looked down upon us, it’s mediaeval romantic figures carved from wood standing ready to begin the spectacle. Then at 5pm (well, about 5:07, no auto mechanism here, it’s all reliant on someone climbing to the top and flicking the on switch) the spectacle began. The wooden figures roared into a sudden flurry of slow motion activity, before two Knights one from Baveria and the other from Austria came charging toward one another at what can only be described as a grind of hooves. The bells beating out a tune, completely out of tune, were the perfect accompaniment to this craptacular display of clockwork. The Bavarian knight triumphant in his victory over the Austrian, it seemed like all was done. But then out of a very predictable nowhere the cooper figures below the joust began their dance to celebrate the end of the plague that had once ravished Munich. When the tiny owl above the glockenspiel finally flapped his wings, as if to say “show’s over, move along”, an inexplicable cheering and clapping erupted from the crowd. My only thought on why this happened is, having suffered through the glockenspiel together the people of the Marienplatz would now not have to endure the performance again until 10am the following morning. That’s if the operator could be arsed climbing to the top of the Rathaus to torture the unfortunates below once more.
If there is one thing to be said about Australians and Germans it’s that we share a common love of beer. Munich is the beer capital of the world and Andrew and I both understood that some heavy drinking was about to ensue. We started with the Mecca of beer halls the Hoffbrauhaus.
It certainly lived up to its reputation for rowdiness and intoxication. The warm, sweet, cosy atmosphere as you wander in combined with the oom pah pah band playing leaves you in no doubt about where you have come to. The beer in its heavy 1L stein is sweet and gentle, like many of the Bavarians we have met along the way. We eventually found our way into the infamous festall, the beer hall in which Hitler announced the birth of the NSDAP and unveiled the swastika.
Munich for all its fun and frivolity makes no attempt to hide the scars of its 12 years of national socialism. It is a sobering thought that Munich with its romantic cathedrals, jovial beer halls and Bavarian kitsch was the birthplace of something so terrifying as the NAZI party.
In Munich we also found the quiet signs of German resistance. Munich is where a small group of university students known as The White Rose Society were beheaded for distributing Anti-NAZI pamphlets.
Also a little lane with a thin line of brass cobblestones remains as a monument to those, who seeking to avoid having to salute a Nazi shrine to the 1923 beer hall putsch, were beaten or killed for this small act of resistance. The Putsch shrine was guarded by two SS men 24hrs a day to ensure that passers by saluted as they were supposed to, an alley behind the shrine meant that people could quietly slip by without saluting, a small but important act of defiance. I was told that being aware of the alley way the Gestaupo placed a man there to catch those who used the alley more than once a day. If you got off lightly you were beaten to a pulp or sent to Dachau, if the officer was just in a bad mood you were executed on the spot. Despite all this the people of Munich continued to use the alley. A very quiet, but in my opinion, very proud and German act of defiance, lending a touch of irony to the name of the lane, which translates as “shirkers alley”.
Andrew and I did visit Dachau whilst in Munich. I won’t go into great detail aside from to say, it is a place everyone should visit. Having passed through the horror of the camp itself, when you stand inside the little low ceilinged concrete box with its fake shower heads and feel the chill that seeps into your bones, you will know that if hell had a centre you are truly standing in it.
Below are some photos I took in the camp. I offer no commentary on them, other than asking you to take a moment to look and reflect.
I felt changed in some unalterable way by my experience here. There was an almost “there but for the grace of God, go I” sense. Given my political viewpoints, my love of the arts and some (1/8th) Jewish ancestry it is likely that, if I were a German or invaded by Germans, somewhere between 1933 & 45, I would have found myself in such a place. I walked away feeling saddened, but so much more steadfast in my belief that all human beings must be afforded their dignity and rights.
As has been said before Germans make no effort to disguise their past, but having acknowledged it and continuing to do so, quietly and respectfully they are able to enjoy those things that make Germany great.
The people of Munich are extremely friendly. On our last night in Munich, we found ourselves drinking at the Augustiner Keller. If the Hoffbrauhaus is the Mecca of beer halls then a pint from the Augustiner Keller is the holy grail of beers! So popular that allegedly it doesn’t have a marketing department, Augustiner is seldom exported beyond German borders. Sitting beneath the budding chestnut trees, we got talking with four of the local university students. We struck up an instant friendship as we discussed Australia and Germany and our many similarities. At which point the lights in the beer garden went to black and we found ourselves locked in!
A quick limbo under the wooden gates though and we were out! It was then decided that no trip to Munich would be complete without a visit to the old town to ride the boar outside the gaming and fisheries ministry and to pay a visit to the statue of Juliet… As in Romeo and Juliet… There is nothing stranger in Munich than the statue of a shakesperian character gifted from Verona to a German city.
Though perhaps here a point. Food, language, geography may change, but people remain the same. All capable of horrors, friendship, love and getting locked inside the Augustiner Keller. It is possible for us all to find the common ground and see our past not as something particular to Australia, Germany or Turkey, but a shared past, a communal pool from which we must drink and together seek a brighter future.
It’s an odd feeling you get burning away in your belly; when you leave the world you know behind and when you return you won’t quite be the same person who left.
In just under a month Andrew and I will stand in the place where thousands of our countrymen lost their lives and the notion of Australian nationhood was born. But what is Australian nationhood and what is the ANZAC spirit?
It is a beautiful mythology, our very own Iliad. Young men and women called to serve an empire only to find who they truly were in the heat of battle. They held on against insurmountable odds against an enemy defending its homeland. And in the face of enmity they created a special bond with the men in the trenches opposite. They saw themselves through the hardships with laughter and mate ship. Then when it came to retreating our very own Odysseus, Lt. Col. Charles Brundell White hatched a plan truly worthy of Trojan horse fame and not one man was lost.
It’s the stuff of glorious paintings, plays, movies and legend. It’s quite a daunting thought to think that we will forever be a part of that mythology, in the smallest of ways as we remember those who fell in a foreign land.
But before all that… Berlin, Munich, Berchtesgaden, Salzburg. There will be drinking and carousing and many many museums.
Yesterday, we left Berlin behind us. It was a sad leaving as it seems to be a city that can crawl under your skin and beg you to stay. I read a quote from the Dali Llama that said
We can let the circumstances of our life harden us, so we become increasingly resentful and afraid. Or we can choose to let them soften us, so we become kinder …
It seems Berlin chose the latter of these two options. The people of the city are exceedingly polite and tolerant. Perhaps it’s because they purge themselves through art? Everywhere you look in Berlin, people’s voices are being heard, even if it is in the uninteresting scrawl of graffiti adorning a train carriage that you pass by, it’s still there and for some reason so permissible.
This is the way the city chooses to engage with the horrors of its own past, it turns them into art.
The East side gallery, a poignant expression of division and reconciliation.
You can’t help but be overawed by the way Berlin uses art to express and heal its wounds. They have the truth of art itself, as a medicine and a hammer with which one can affect change. This is of course one of the central lessons of my great theatrical idol and it seems only appropriate to me now that this is the city in which he would choose to create his theatre and leave behind his legacy.
Brecht and I out the front of his Berliner Ensemble
Dem Deutsches Volk, “The German People”, simplicity itself adorns the German parliament. A glorious reminder that in a true democracy the people are governed by the people and for the people. It seems to sit there as an almost ironic statement given the division the city has passed through over the last 100 years or perhaps it is a very timely reminder of those words from Primo Levi:
“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”
At the end of the day Berlin and Germany makes me think a lot about Australia. At the moment there is a very strong, very nationalistic ideal amongst many Australians. To be fair it has always been there, but perhaps a little obscured or glanced over. In the 30’s there were race riots in Kalgoorlie, the Italian population was sent packing into the desert, we had instances on the gold fields of white prospectors scalping Chinese immigrants and we as a nation still struggle to find reconciliation with the treatment of indigenous peoples. And now we also have a media blackout on the fate of people who come to Australia seeking asylum, what is worse is we are taking those people and subjecting them to the terror of detention centres; men, women and children.
It all catalysed for me as Andrew and I visited the very solemn grey concrete rectangles of the holocaust memorial. Soaring above you and always at a slightly different angle, they reminded me of the irrationality of persecution, but being laid out in a grid it spoke of the regularity with which it happens. Again here is an artwork that invites you to engage with it, to play an active part in remembrance.
I found myself questioning when we may have to erect such memorials of our own. To remind ourselves that our past as a nation is bloody and fraught with injustices, but that knowing our past we as a nation can come together and seek a brighter future.
So, where does this all fit in along the Road to Gallipoli? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that yet. It’d be nice to tie it off with a little bow, but there’s still a long way to go.
The main event of the Albany Anzac weekend took place on Saturday, 1 November, when naval ships from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan departed from King George Sound in a symbolic reenactment of the first convoy. It was something which I’d been excited about for months. And we were in a good position to watch it unfold. We were staying in a small cottage that abutted the sand dunes of King George Sound, near Emu Point. In a moment of foresight that is completely out of character, my father had realized this was going to be a popular event and booked accommodation 18 months in advance. Thanks, Dad.
After the celebrations of the previous night, it was nice to be able to relax on Saturday morning. It was a warm day in Albany – one of the first sunny days of the season. Garreth, Adam, and I walked down to the beach and, on a whim, went for a swim. The beach was deserted – nothing but golden sand and the cold waves of the Southern Ocean lapping at our feet. We plunged into the waves, letting out a string of swear words at the frigid Antarctic water. The fleet of warships were anchored in the middle of the harbour, only a few hundred metres away. It was an strangely jarring sight. Their steely grey hulls and angular shapes were a stark contrast to the rolling hills and cliffs of the harbour. They didn’t belong there. They seem ominous, predatory, watching over us while we played in the waves. I didn’t know whether to be comforted by their presence or intimidated by their sheer power. It was sobering to realize that each one of those ships had more firepower than the combined escorts of the first Anzac convoy. I wondered what my grandfather would’ve thought of these sullen grey behemoths.
We drove into town and joined a Commemorative Service in the late morning, where the Prime Ministers of both Australia and New Zealand gave a speech about the departure of the Anzac Convoy. It was, thankfully, an event that focused less on political point scoring and more on simply remembering the sacrifices of the soldiers. Sitting on the grass in the morning sunshine, as the gulls flapped overhead, we seemed so far removed from the horror of the war. It was too much of an abstract concept, something too dark for a day like this.
Finally, it was time for the ships to depart. We drove back to Emu Point and climbed to the top of the sand dunes. My parents were already waiting for us in a small gazebo that commanded a superb view over the Sound. The tranquility of our morning swim had been completely shattered. The warships were charging around the harbour, surrounded by a flotilla of boats and yachts. Every boat owner in Albany must have been out there. Helicopters hovered overhead, and the wind carried the cheers of the crowd from around the peninsula. We could see the four Royal Australian Navy warships: HMAS Anzac, HMAS Arunta, HMAS Stuart, HMAS Sirius, and the sleek black conning tower of the submarine, HMAS Rankin. They were joined by the New Zealand ship HMNZS Te Kaha, and JDS Kirisame from Japan.
As we watched, the ships circled around the harbour and headed towards the open sea. It was a poignant moment, seeing their blocky forms against the headland, sea churning in their wake. The sight united us across a century. The first Australians going to war. And their descendants, here today, honouring their memory.
For the Anzac convoy, the voyage to Egypt was a tedious routine punctuated with moments of excitement. Just 9 days after leaving Albany, the HMAS Sydney detached from the convoy and defeated the German cruiser Emden in the Battle of Cocos. A few days earlier, news had reached the convoy that the Ottoman Empire had joined the war. None of the soldiers had any clue that they would end up being deployed on the shores of Turkey.
On 1 November 1915, the soldiers of the first Anzac convoy departed from King George Sound in Albany, Western Australia. It was a spectacular sight – 38 convoy ships carving through the gentle swell, smoke and steam rising into the grey dawn. Their decks were lined with 20,758 Australians and 8,427 New Zealanders. In the cargo holds were 11,294 horses, as well as a few examples of native Australian fauna that soldiers had smuggled aboard. There was some anxiety amongst the soldiers; the German cruiser Emden had been attacking shipping in the Indian Ocean, and the slow ships of the convoy were prime targets. But they were well-protected. At the head of the convoy was the HMS Minotaur, once the flagship of the Royal Navy’s China Station. The cruisers Sydney and Melbourne, stalwarts of the Australian Navy, joined the formation as they left the harbor. They would soon be joined by IMS Ibuki, the Japanese battlecruiser that had been hunting for the Emden. Together, they began their journey into the west.
Aboard the HMAT Geelong, William Henry Cameron – my grandfather – was enthralled by the sheer display of naval power. He was fascinated by ships, and these magnificent behemoths which sliced through the waves captured his imagination. He wrote in his diary, “Left Albany. Most beautifull [sic] sight. 42 vessels in 3 rows. New Zeal at rear. HMAS Sydney is off our starboard side + looks lovely.” For many of the men aboard, as the coastline became lost below the hazy horizon, it would be the last time they would see their home country.
Given its significance in the Anzac legend, Garreth and I were thrilled to visit Albany in November last year to commemorate 100 years since the departure of the convoy. It was a good excuse for a weekend away. We loaded the car with a few cartons of beer and enough meat to feed the entire town. We were accompanied for the weekend by our mate Adam, who is great to keep around because he keeps Garreth and I out of trouble. Well, sometimes. We left Perth on Friday morning, 31 October, escaping the metro area before traffic congested the roads.
Albany has long been one of my favourite destinations in Western Australia. It is the small town nestled amongst the hills and harbours of the southern coast, surrounded by rugged cliffs and windswept scrubland. It has a fascinating history as the state’s oldest permanent settlement, and the old whaling station there is a glimpse into our past. But it’s the landscape that really captures my attention. Standing on those rocky cliffs, with the ponderous swell of the Southern Ocean thundering against the rocks, stinging my face with salt spray, it’s not hard to imagine that I’m standing at the edge of the world. No matter what time of the year I visit Albany, my memories are always the same: low scudding clouds, frigid nights, squally thunderstorms, grey seas, and that unforgiving Antarctic gale. And this trip wouldn’t be any different. It has some of the most dramatic scenery in Western Australia – an appropriate backdrop for an occasion of such importance.
On the drive down, we had heard varying estimates of the number of tourists expected to descend on Albany. Twenty thousand. Thirty thousand. Even eighty thousand. So I’d been prepared for a large crowd, but I hadn’t quite expected the town to resemble a festival. Roads had been turned into giant markets, with food and fresh produce available from across the south-west. There was a band playing on a large stage, while a mixture of artists and craftspeople from around Albany plugged their products. The streets were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists; it was a struggle for our group to stay together. It wasn’t the sleepy little town that I remembered, and I wondered for a moment how the locals had reacted when nearly 30,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers had flooded their town a century ago. Before long we retreated to the comfort of the pub, where we spent a lazy few hours playing pool and throwing occasional glances out at the Anzac commemorations.
In the evening, we went down to the shore of Princess Royal Harbour, where a light show was being projected onto the side of the Entertainment Centre. It was a freezing night, with the wind from the harbour cutting straight through my winter coat. But the crowd was in high spirits, almost giddy with excitement. The lights flickering across the side of the building slowly transformed from bright Aboriginal paintings to grainy sepia photos of Anzac soldiers marching along the streets of Albany. The town looked so different, so diminished, but now and again I could recognize a few buildings and, lifting my eyes back towards the darkened hillside, I could see them still standing there.
I’d been expecting the weekend to be a solemn occasion, like the somber memorial services I’d attended on Anzac Day. But it felt like a carnival. The audience clapped and cheered as the story unfolded on the building in front of us. I couldn’t stop smiling. There was a sense of shared purpose amongst the audience – we weren’t just there to commemorate the soldiers, but to celebrate their legacy. The Anzac legend is so inextricably linked to Australia’s history that it felt like we were celebrating the birth of the nation itself. Here’s where it had all started. Those soldiers – whose faces were flickering above us in the night – had helped forge our national identity. And they had been standing right here, on this very spot, 100 years earlier, about to embark on the most harrowing and dangerous and thrilling experience of their lives. It wasn’t a time for silence. It was a time to roar and cheer.
It was a surreal experience, knowing that my grandfather had been there 100 years ago. And, as I stood on that freezing shore, I wondered what he had been doing on his last night in Albany. Asleep on the Geelong, most likely, but I wondered if he got the chance to have a final beer at the pub, or a final walk along the beach. His diary entry for that day is typically undescriptive, with only a brief comment about the weather. Did he stand at the railings of the Geelong, studying the twinkling lights of the gathered fleet in the inky darkness of King George Sound? Could he hear the waves pounding against the nearby cliffs? And did he feel the same excitement and trepidation that I felt 100 years later, knowing that he was about to embark on a great adventure?