24 April 2011

My Anzac Day at Gallipoli

Sitting on the damp grass above the sands of the beach at Suvla Bay, I experienced the coldest night of my life! But that discomfort was nothing compared to the suffering of the Kiwi and Australian soldiers who stormed that beach on 25 April 1915.
Anzac Cove, in 1915 and in 2008


Ataturk's famous words on a memorial at Gallipoli and the beautifully maintained graves of the fallen soldiers
My journey to Gallipoli had begun two days earlier, on 23 April 2008, sitting on a bus full of Kiwis and Australians en route from Istanbul to Çanakkale, the main town across the Dardanelles from the Gallipoli peninsula. We reached the entrance to the Gallipoli Peninsula Historical National Park around 2pm and began our five-hour tour of the battlefields. It was both humbling and enlightening, thanks in large part to our tour guide, Murat. We started at Kabatepe, where we ate a packed lunch while listening to his introductory talk, then we moved round the various sites: Kemalyeri Memorial, Chunuk Bair (the New Zealand memorial), The Nek, Quinn’s Post, Johnston’s Jolly, Lone Pine, Shrapnel Valley, Anzac Cove, Ari Burnu.

Lone Pine Memorial
My travelling companion Geoff and I both had great-granduncles who died at Gallipoli and both are commemorated on the memorial at Lone Pine. Geoff’s relation Horace Polglase died on 25 April 1915, while mine, Trooper D.A. Rae of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, died in August 1915. I was surprised at how emotional I became when I read the inscription and as I walked round the graves at that and the other cemeteries. So many young lives wasted!

As we strolled along the sea shore at Anzac Cove, Geoff started talking to a television crew from the TVNZ Breakfast programme and within minutes their reporter, Mark Crysell, had invited us to participate in a live interview for their Anzac morning show. He wanted to involve those who had personal family connections with fallen Anzac soldiers. We arranged to meet the next evening, then our tour group reassembled and drove on to Eceabat, where we caught the ferry across to our hotels in Çanakkale.

Next day, after donning our thermals and layers of warm clothing, Geoff and I caught the 6 o’clock ferry across to Eceabat, enjoyed a delicious dinner at a local restaurant, then travelled up to Chunuk Bair in the TVNZ van. We sat chatting to TV presenter Judy Bailey, the Maori television reporter and the TVNZ crew while we waited for a group of five young Kiwis to arrive; they were also to be interviewed about their reasons for being at Gallipoli.

We had to wait until 10pm to go live to New Zealand and, by then, it was freezing on the ridge beneath the Chunuk Bair Memorial. I wore my beanie and scarf, and had the collar of my jacket turned up against the wind, so was barely recognisable to family and friends watching back in New Zealand. It was certainly a novel experience and an entirely unexpected one!

The TVNZ crew dropped us back down the hill at Anzac Cove, where we waited an hour for the rest of our tour group to join us. Once they arrived, we walked along to the commemorative site, to join the 9,500 other people who would overnight there. Most were better prepared than us, with thick sleeping bags and ski jackets, and slept through the night. I found it too cold to sleep, so watched the various films and documentaries on the big screen and waited for the dawn.

As the first blush of light coloured the waters of the bay at around 4.30am, the official commemoration began: prayers and hymns, addresses by various foreign and Turkish dignitaries, and military ceremonies. It was a sobering and moving experience, and I wasn’t the only person to shed a few tears when the bugler played the Last Post.
The dawn service and, later that day, me with two fellow Kiwis

Geoff and I and a couple of other Kiwis in our party decided we would also attend the New Zealand memorial service later that morning, so we trudged wearily up the steep hill track to Chunuk Bair. A chill wind still blew through the pine trees surrounding the memorial, adding to the bleak atmosphere. I found the New Zealand service even more emotional than the dawn service, not so much because I was thinking of the unfortunate soldiers and their hardships in 1915, but more from thoughts of my mother, who had passed away just nineteen days earlier.

Anzac Day 2008 was a sombre, physically and emotionally exhausting experience, a day that I will never forget.