It’s been two weeks since my last visit to a war time historical site. Auschwitz in Poland was a depressing but nevertheless enlightening sojourn into the depths of European history.
My next destination is Anzac Cove in Turkey. It is the sacred place of pilgrimage for Australians and New Zealanders.
In 1915 World War I had raged through Europe for months and already millions lay dead in the trenches as Germany marched towards Paris in France in the West, and Moscow in Russia to the East. The British and French knew they were going to have a hard time of it getting to Germany directly, so a second plan of taking Germany’s ‘weak underbelly’ was instigated.
Germany was allied to the once great Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey. If the British and French could break through the very narrow straight known as ‘The Dardanelles’ than they could get supplies to the Russians who could attack with great force in the East.
Sounds simple enough….
The Naval advance made by the combined British and French Navies ended in disaster. With battleships on the bottom of the ocean or at least damaged, it was decided that the army would have to do the job.
In go the combined forces of India, Britain and of course the Anzacs.
The campaign lasted about eight months, ultimately in defeat. But it shaped not only the baby faced men who fought there, but also the baby faced nations of Australia and New Zealand and was a definitive turning point in both nation’s history.
I have since travelled throughout the Balkans, traversing previously explored areas such as Budapest, Serbia and Macedonia. I had an overnight stay in Greece before an overnight bus shot me across the Greek-Turkish border. The change of scenery is shockingly beautiful and makes me crave a return trip via car instantly.
This thought is shared by most visitors to this vast flat country of rolling green hills and expansive shimmering lakes. The freedom to explore at your own pace is an enthralling idea.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, the first view a traveller receives is something inherently surreal. Since arriving on Turkish soil there has been little variation in the view beyond what was afore mentioned.
Rolling green hills and beautiful lakes, only occasionally detracted from view by some unsubstantial outcropping of civilisation.
Over one hill, then over another and suddenly after a few hours of watching the sunrise and glimmering morning light rebound off the too perfect plastic green, the entire horizon is swallowed by a drastically inorganic monstrosity of modern civilisation and chaos.
That’s right, the bus has arrived at Istanbul.
Istanbul’s population is so large that it’s not widely known. It is estimated at being over 20 million people in size, and upon seeing it, you can definitely believe so.
The idea of a city looking ‘inorganic’ is perhaps strange, but for anyone who has visited any significantly large cities, you are probably like most in your observation in saying that the city, when approached by ground from the outskirts, tends to creep towards you, growing in density.
As you get closer to the city centre, you would see a gradual increase of human life and an equal but opposite effect on nature. In that way, the city crawls almost organically to life as you approach it.
Istanbul however is like some city from a movie you’ve most likely seen. The main characters approach some futuristic city and there it is in all its blue screen/modelled glory. A large patch of grass/sand/rock or what have you, and there is the mass of a city, perched just so.
Istanbul is indeed, ‘perched just so’. It doesn’t seem real. Like a cheesy effect it stands in all its monstrous glory, overshadowing the glorious plains of impossibly green grass that had been the only filler of the landscape thus far.
Navigating your way through the city proper is a daunting experience. The tiny streets weave off the major squares and centres into oblivion. Any one street can lead you for an hour long journey which, with improper directions you may find yourself in a part of town where you not only did not intend to be, but you perhaps sense you shouldn’t be.
After handling the behemoth of Istanbul, the 7 hour bus ride out to ANZAC cove was almost a relief. An early departure of 7am enabled us to reach Anzac Cove by mid afternoon.
Unfortunately the Turkish Government had chosen this year to hold some grand ceremonies to the exclusion of any non-Turkish visitors until after 6pm.
We are all left to wait in the sun for a few hours before getting inefficiently moved through a security scanner.
So how long does it take a couple thousand Aussies and Kiwis to get through a single security scanner…… hours.
The poor organisation is dealt with and we are finally in the cove itself. We take our seats in time to watch the sun set.
The view over the cove is amazing. The three grandstands and grass areas are set up like a concert. The stage has a pedestal which is occupied occasionally throughout the evening by the MC who talks a little about the history and also introduces the guests and the military band.
All proceeds as planned, we all freeze half to death to the sounds of brass band music and documentaries over the big screen.
Finally in the shivering pitch black of Anzac Cove’s dark black night, the dawn creeps forward over the horizon and is nearly upon us. Finally the real business can get underway. The official dawn service begins and is gone in a flash. The ode, the minutes silence, some solemn words. Before we know it, after all that waiting, it’s done.
At this point I would say the journey has been interesting, but is it the defining spiritual moment I was hoping for?
It may have fallen short, but to be fair I had a high standard to compare to when I had previously been to the Isurava war memorial near Kokoda in Papua New Guinea (That’s a whole other story!)
Was it worth the trip?
Well after the dawn service we move along the beach and up over the hill for a ten minute hike which takes us past the Turkish Ceremony. We respectfully keep our antics to a minimum as the rows and rows of ornately dressed red outfits with red streamers flash in the morning light.
Drum beats and dance moves keep our attention as we steal a look on our way past.
Another ten minute walk and we have arrived at the Australian War service for a 10am start. The area is again another football field style grandstand on an area known as ‘Lone Pine’.
The Australian 1st Brigade attacked on the 6th August as part of a major offensive. What followed was 5 days of pitch black underground ferocious battles out of your nightmares. Grenades, rifles, bayonets, fingernails, digging tools, whatever was at hand were used to literally tear the enemy apart until the Australians finally captured their objective.
The area was so heavily bombed and desolate that only one single Pine tree remained.
The symbolic descendent of said tree now stands gloriously in the middle of our ‘sports field’ as the MC and band keep us entertained.
The MC regales us of stories of our forefathers and what they went through in this gory battle. He finishes his telling with a most poignant piece of information.
There was approximately 8000 confirmed casualties on both sides and under our feet is an unknown number of bodies, easily in the thousands, after only 5 days of battle.
As the mid morning sun beats off the grand pine tree, those figures and descriptions of what went on nearly 100 years ago rock me to my core.
Like my experiences in Papua New Guinea, I have gained a new respect for not only my relations, but everyone else, Australian, New Zealand and even the Turks who fought for those long months in 1915.
So my worries at the dawn service, ‘was it worth my effort to come here?’ Are shoved away violently to the back of my mind.
The fact that the whole Gallipoli campaign ended up as a failure for the ANZACs makes the waste seem even more futile. The horror they went through, the constant shelling, the freezing to death in the winter, the feeling of exhausted defeat. The closer I get to understanding what they went through, the less I actually understand. I guess in a way, I hope that I never have to understand.
Maybe that’s what they were fighting for?
Lest We Forget…