In the pre-dawn light, the Aegean Sea glowed artificially turquoise. As reflective silence settled over the crowd, the hum of generators and the lively banter of local bus-drivers and stallholders filled the quiet.
I pictured bewildered young soldiers scrambling up Ari Barnu, silhouetted in front of me…. before the yelling of a bus driver snapped me back to the present. ANZAC dawn service in Gallipoli was not entirely as I had imagined.
I was in Gallipoli as a member of a diverse group of volunteers recruited to assist the Australian Government in the delivery of its commemorative program. We all had different reasons for putting our hands up to volunteer. For me, it was the chance to realise a long held dream to travel to Turkey and visit the location of Australia’s iconic world war one campaign. I thought volunteering would be a unique way to experience this significant place and event. I didn’t expect to have my perceptions of both transformed in the process, as I quickly discovered that Gallipoli is much more than one day and a single commemorative service.
The volunteer team arrived in Turkey several days prior to ANZAC day. We were based in the coastal village of Eceabat on the western side of the Dardenelles. From here, we spent many days exploring the Gallipoli Peninsula.
I learnt that while Australians tend to primarily limit their view of Gallipoli to a disastrous beach landing, the complex history of the battle stretches well beyond that sacred cove. Memorials and cemeteries are found across the Gallipoli Peninsula and honour both invader and defender. These taught me that, like many Australians, Turkish people also believe their national identity was formed at Gallipoli.
The Turkish people are rightly proud of their war history. In the days leading up to ANZAC day there are many public holidays to commemorate important events, and thousands of Turkish tourists flood the peninsula to visit memorial sites. At these places we stood side-by-side, locals and foreigners from different sides of the battle, united by a bond that I knew of but never truly understood.
As a child I had been imbued with a sense of respect for Turkey, a sentiment likely passed down from a great uncle who had fought in the Gallipoli trenches. It wasn’t until I was in Gallipoli that the special quality of this bond became apparent. At Lone Pine, I placed poppies next to the names of two men from my local area. I had photos of them with me, and the heart wrenching, final letter written by one on the 24 April 1915. A group of Turkish tourists approached and asked what I was doing. I told my story and showed the photos, and was showered with warm embraces. Turkey, it seems, has not forgotten the commitment of Mustafa Kamel Ataturk to the mothers of those men left lying in the Turkish soil. I’m not sure if Australia would be so generous, and this thought weighed heavily in me when it came time to welcome thousands of Australians to the ANZAC site.
Most dawn service tourists arrived in tour buses direct from Istanbul. As a result, they experienced only one fraction of what Gallipoli has to offer. They didn’t have the chance to sit in silence under the vivid pink bloom of a Judas tree that guards a hidden cemetery. Nor did they walk the scrubby ridges and see the proximity of opposing trench lines that enabled Turkish and Allied forces to form respectful relationships. Instead they wanted to know why there weren’t proper toilets or warm tents to wait out the night in, and they complained about the uphill trek to Lone Pine for Australia’s more intimate service. Dishearteningly, they also wanted to know why Turkish people were there. ‘This is our event,’ some said to me.
Since my volunteering experience, the meaning that I place on ANZAC day has altered greatly. As we honour 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, I implore other Australian’s to lift their vision from the actual day of ANZAC and discover the broader landscape, both physical and cultural, that is Gallipoli.