The ledgers of new nations are invariably written in the blood of young men. As it was with Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, revolutionary France, Canada and the United States, more often than not, cultural legend obscures the fact that battlefields are rarely littered with heroes and certainly not with the bodies of politically idealistic old men. Battlefields are littered with scared, sometimes heroic young men, the burial place of ideals and beliefs routed by stark reality. On April 25 each year, Australia pays homage on Anzac Day to its sons killed in war. It is a day when national pride obscures British military folly.
After weeks kicking around Greece and then Turkey, we found ourselves in a dusty, Turkish taxi heading down the Gallipoli Peninsula to Anzac Cove — two backpackers from Australia doing the Anzac “pilgrimage”.
We had travelled by train from Athens for 12 hours across northern Greece and had our passports critically inspected by heavy-browed, armed Turkish guards at the border crossing before arriving in Istanbul.
It was a time when the film Midnight Express was still fresh in the minds of young travellers — the story of a young American’s nightmare stay in a Turkish prison after being arrested for drug smuggling.
We carried no drugs, but the look on the guards’ faces had us wondering whether that small fact would carry much weight in whatever police station interrogation room they bundled stupidly adventurous Australian backpackers. But it didn’t come to that and the next day we were exploring the ancient nexus of East and West, the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim capital formerly known by the exotic name of Constantinople — a cityscape studded with dome-topped mosques and minarets bristling with speakers, used to call the faithful to prayer.
We visited the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque; we stood in awe of Alexander the Great’s tomb in the archaeological museum and visited Topkapi Palace, where the sultan’s treasures included a dazzling display of jewel-encrusted armoury, John the Baptist’s severed hand encased in gold, an impression of Mohammed’s footprint in an ornate gold case and a crystal container holding treasured hairs from Mohammed’s beard.
We had seen sacred Muslim icons, but we could not leave Turkey without visiting a place that most Australians hold sacred — Gallipoli. This was no package tour, and after arriving at the bustling, dusty bus centre of Topkapi about midday to catch a bus down the Gallipoli Peninsula, we discovered the bus we wanted wasn’t leaving until 5pm.
I’m not even sure what day it was, but in that characteristic way that backpackers have of killing time in some place while waiting to go somewhere else, we dropped our packs, sat and leaned against the ancient stone walls of the old city. We watched the milling crowds, looked at a map, talked, then didn’t talk, checked the time, talked, then didn’t talk, noticed some human faeces piled neatly next to the wall a few metres away, then just quietly sat amid the grit raised by hundreds of passing feet.
Mid-afternoon, the grizzly-bearded proprietor of the chai house across the way wandered across and gave us two small cups of sweet, steaming, hot black tea. When we tried to pay, he smiled, waved his hand and gestured that it was free. We sipped it, grateful for a break in the boredom, however brief.
He pointed to a group of young Turkish soldiers not much older than 18, sitting around a table in the chai house, and indicated they had paid for our tea.
We walked over to thank them and spent the next two hours communicating in “Turklish” — clutching at words as the young conscripts used us as crash dummies on which to practice their minced English. There was plenty of laughing and much back-slapping . . . and plenty of tea.
The young Turks helped us kill the rest of the afternoon, and after hours of travel in a crowded bus we finally arrived at the small town of Eceabat on the Gallipoli Peninsula at 11.30pm.
The next morning, we haggled with a clever Turkish taxi driver to take us the 20 or so kilometres to Lone Pine cemetery, from where we could walk to Anzac Cove. He had obviously done this kind of thing before.
Because of the distance from the town and limited transport, we had decided to camp the night on the beach, using our backpacks as pillows. As the Mediterranean day drew to a close, we settled down for the night to the quiet lapping of the Aegean Sea — some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Before dusk, a group of Turkish gardeners who tended the cemeteries came down to the beach and cast a net in the cove they once called Ari Burnu. Their voices were muffled in the dying light.
We watched them until night fell, when they bundled up their meagre catch and went home; the simple task of netting fish in what was once a sea of despair seemed somehow very right.
There was a bit of a joke about ghosts. We didn’t talk much apart from that. But we both admitted the feeling was there. Somehow it didn’t seem quite right for two young Australian men to spend a night sleeping in warm, balmy conditions in a place where so many thousands had died all those years ago.
But a bright, white half-moon rose in a clear sky — the night passed — and there were no ghosts . . . only the sigh of the breeze through the coastal scrub, the muffled sounds of night birds and the discomfort of a rough bed on a stony beach. There was no one there, just us. But we didn’t feel alone. That night, I felt more “Australian” than I have ever felt before, or since.
The morning came with a coppery sun looming over the infamous ridges, warming a breeze rich with the smell of resin from the ranks of red pines growing on the peninsula, mixed with sharp sea air.
Life renewed in a place where there had been so much death.
I suppose, initially, guilt was what we felt — not guilty that we had never been placed in a position to give our lives for our country, but guilty that nations, politics, people, had allowed a tragedy like this to occur.
The legend of Anzac is deeply entrenched in the Australian psyche. But all the words of glory and sacrifice cannot take away the fact it was a tragedy of huge proportions. Thousands of men met their death because they were landed on an impossible stretch of coastline, the tragic casualties of British imperialism.
While our feeling was melancholy, there was also a sense that the young Australians buried there would have been the first to praise our little adventure through Turkey. If they had lived, they would be very old men now, but when they died in 1915 they were young. Very young.
Lone Pine, Shell Green, Walker’s Ridge, The Nek, Anzac Cove, Johnston’s Jolly, Quinn’s Post, Steele’s Post — cemeteries and names etched in Australian history. We came across nine graves occupied by Australian army engineers — all had died at the same place on the same day. The oldest was 24. At the end of the first day alone, 2000 had been killed out of the 16,000 young men who were put ashore. The ill-fated, eight-month-long campaign claimed the lives of 8709 Australian soldiers, 2701 New Zealand troops, 21,255 British troops, 9798 French soldiers, 1358 from India and 49 from Newfoundland.
My mate Marcus and I were in our mid-20s — perhaps we also felt a little guilty that we had comfortably outlived many of those buried in this sombre spot.
It was 1985, more than 70 years on, but there was still rusty metal buried in the soil — old bully-beef tins, barbed wire — and much that had been made unrecognizable by decay.
I found an unfired 303 rifle cartridge, its corroded brass casing crumbling as I scratched it from the dirt. A round that would never kill.
The Turkish gardeners keep the war cemeteries impeccable. It must not be forgotten that thousands more young Turks lost their lives bravely defending their soil than were numbered in the Australian and New Zealand dead. Gallipoli claimed 86,692 Turkish lives, taking overall casualties to more than 130,500 men.
Speaking in broken English, an old Turk in a cafe in the small fishing village of Kilitbahir, across the strait from Canakkale, offered a sad pearl of wisdom on the tragedy that was Gallipoli: “If we had attacked Australia, you would have won.”
As we walked through the thick coastal scrub, it was not hard to imagine the kind of fighting that must have taken place in the craggy gullies that led up to the trench line where the Turks were dug in.
After much searching, we found the headstone of the “Man with the Donkey”, John Simpson Kirkpatrick, at the Beach Cemetery. I had learned about him in Australian History in primary school. To my young mind back then, it seemed that all soldiers were “old”.
Simpson was 22 when he died from a bullet through the heart. The Sikh gunners from India called him “Bahadur”, the Bravest of the Brave. A stretcher bearer in the Third Field Ambulance, Simpson worked into the night to make from 12 to 15 trips a day, often under fire, using a donkey to transport casualties down the treacherous gullies.
Two-man stretcher teams could manage only up to six trips a day. Simpson rescued more than 300 wounded soldiers over 24 days before he was killed. His body was buried at Hell Spit and marked with a simple wooden cross. A commemorative headstone was later placed at the Beach Cemetery.
In a cruel twist of history, Simpson was nominated for a Victoria Cross, but a clerical error in the preparation of the citation denied him the honour.
Many words have been written about the Anzacs and their legacy in the building of Australia’s post-colonial character, but perhaps the heartbreaking experiences of those young men can be best epitomized in a few words from one who was there.
An armistice on May 24, 1915, allowed the Australian and Turkish troops to collect their dead and equipment. Of that time, Australian private B. Jackson wrote: “I came to a spot where the dead were lying two and three deep, and I saw an Australian and a Turk who had run each other through with their bayonets. Both apparently had fallen dead at the same instant, as their bayonets had not been withdrawn. In their death struggle, their arms must have encircled each other, and they were lying exactly in this position when I saw them.
”They had been in that sad embrace for at least a week.”
“Anzac charge” © Imperial War Museum UK
“Australian dead at Lone Pine 1915” © Australian Department Veterans Affairs
“Vincent Ross” courtesy of Vincent Ross
“Anzac Beach” © Public Domain
“Landing at Anzac Cove” © Australian War Memorial Canberra
“John Simpson Kirkpatrick with donkey Duffy” © Australian War Memorial Canberra
“Gallipoli – Helping a mate” © Imperial War Museum UK