Growing up in Australia in the 70s, we learned the story of the Anzacs, like Simpson and the Donkey. As a young boy, Anzac day was a public holiday much like any other – a day off school. The holiday didn’t always fall on the 25th April back then, Instead, the Anzacs were memorialised with a long weekend, and the holiday was on the nearest Monday to the 25th.
History was not a big deal in our schools or family, it was just the way I grew up. Fast forward some 40 years and | felt it was time to close the gap in my understanding of a pivotal moment in Australia’s history.
The lessons we learned in school about the soldiers who raced up that hill toward certain defeat were only part of the story. The magnitude of this campaign became a reality when we visited Gallipoli last year, at the beginning of our journey.
The Anzac Memorial site in Gallipoli is a beautiful stretch of land around Anzac cove that respectfully honours the fallen soldiers from that battle in 1915. That the whole area is a designated and protected burial site by the Turkish government with memorials erected and respect shown to all who fought and perished, regardless of which side they were on, speaks volumes for the ferocity of this battle, and the bravery it would have required to persevere.
Shalena read out the names of the many cemeteries and memorials sites along the path through the site as we continued our slow drive on the newly surfaced roads. There were so many. We passed cemetery after cemetery after cemetery, broken up only by battlefield locations here and there.
Lone Pine cemetery was the first we encountered. It was early morning, and we were the only car on site. We pulled slowly into the empty car park before exiting the car and locking the doors. Why lock the doors? Habit I suppose.
I’ve visited many cemeteries in my lifetime, both civilian and military. Last year, I attended the Anzac day dawn service at the notorious Hellfire pass in Thailand. The dawn service there was extremely moving, but nothing could prepare me for the raw emotions that came out as I stepped up to the small Lone Pine cemetery on a quiet morning.
The tranquility and beauty of the place overlooking the Dardanelles on this warm October morning only added to the gravity of the place. The sun was only an hour old in the bright blue sky. How could this be a place of so much horror? A lone tree stands just off centre in the graveyard, surrounded by tiny white headstones of those who had fallen here. Some had names, some didn’t.
Despite exhaustive efforts, not all of the bodies were able to identified. Many were inscribed with the words “believed to be buried here” or “only son of”. I read out ages of the soldiers to my son as we strolled alone 18….22…23…19….Hard to believe these were just boys – closer in age to him than to me.
The night before, I had shared the story of the Gallipoli landing 102 years ago with Austin. Below the bold Ataturk memorial standing above the trenches across the top of the hill, with views down the hill, across the flat coastal plain, and out to sea, I shared with him more of how that battle played out. How the Turkish soldiers lived, how they laid in wait, watching their enemy move first on to the coast, and closer and closer before striking just before dawn on that morning.
The little 6 year old boy then quietly, tentatively asked, ”were the Australians the enemies?”
Yes son, to the Turks, they were.
And their memorial, with the larger than life bronze statue of Ataturk ,Turkish flags waving proudly in the wind, shows just who the victors were, and just how proud they were of that win. It was the first time we’d see “our” history from the other side on our travels – but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I was anxious to get down to Anzac cove itself.
Along the coast we could see the remains of concrete bunkers spread out right along the shoreline. From their fortified trenches at the top of the hill they could see the entire coastline as it spread around the flat coastal plain below.
It hit home just how vulnerable the Anzacs were, and just how prepared the Turks were to hold that hill. The shipping route that it protects has been a vital link between East and West since long before the Ancient Greeks and the many peoples who have lived here throughout history. There was no way they were going to let it go easily.
The tiny cove opened up to a grassy hill on either side of the road. One side rose to an impossibly steep and ragged dirt cliff facing the sea, and the other sloped down to a thin strip of beach. All I could think about were those young boys, following orders, surely knowing they didn’t stand a chance, yet choosing to give everything trying.
The memorial, a simple low level limestone wall on the shoreline, embossed with A N Z A C commemorates the site.
Was this It? Had to be. It was so small and so quiet. Very different to the crowded, flag festooned photos of the April 25 dawn services I’d seen over the years. The silence enveloped around us, giving the site an even more somber air.
Three fishing boats were busy at work setting out their nets just offshore. It was surreal to see fishermen going about their livelihood in this sacred place, and so it should be. Horrible things happened here, lives were lost on both sides, but the place continues to give life and supply a livelihood to the people who call this peninsula home.
Shalena allowed me the space to wander on my own. She understands this is Australian history, and it was important to me not only to be able to absorb it on my own, but also to teach my son about his heritage, and the heroism of Australians who lived before him.
A year later, on Anzac Day 2018, we found ourselves on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, visiting Shalena’s cousin and her husband, an officer in the US Navy, currently stationed in Hawaii. We spent the morning at the Pearl Harbour memorial, learning about the ferocious attack on American battleships on December 7, 1941 – another devastating loss that rallied the spirit of a nation.
As we looked out at the battleship moorings lined up one after another – the sitting ducks of battleship row – I was reminded of the apparent futility of the Anzac landing on Gallipoli. Despite the impossibility of the task, those soldiers fought on for months, and the Americans fought back from Pearl Harbour, a testament to the spirits of those young nations.
The Anzac Day services on Oahu were held at the National War Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and were hosted by the US Marines. Distinguished Australian and New Zealand speakers delivered heart-warming messages of remembrance and respect, enhanced by a Hakka, and punctuated by a 21 gun salute.
The island’s military history both past and present created a much more ritualistic atmosphere than other services I’ve attended. Many of the people present were those who have committed their careers to serving their nations, and they were there that day in uniform, on foreign soil. It was a fitting memorial for our little multinational family to attend together for the first time.
It’s important to learn our histories, celebrate our heroes, mourn those we’ve lost, and remember the price that others have paid so that we can enjoy the freedoms of modern life.
War memorials are never a “fun” place to visit, but we learn so much when we do. From the killing fields of Cambodia and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, to Gallipoli and Pearl Harbour, each of these sobering memorials have seared a deeper respect and understanding into our hearts and minds, and will be a part of our journey that we’ll never forget.
I think it’s appropriate to close with a quote from Sir Winston Churchill:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
To those who have served and those who have sacrificed, I say “Thank you.”