In August 2008, Cathie and I drove to Turkey. Our first stop had to be Gallipoli, of course. Neither of us could claim distant relatives who fought there, but like all Australians, the place had an almost unimaginable pull. The first thing we noticed is that it's so isolated. The Gallipoli Peninsula has no towns of any size. Most Australians stay at either Canakkale (on the other side of the Dardanelles Strait) or Eceabat, from where they are bused to the battlefields.
As we had our own car and planned on staying a few days, we booked the only accommodation available near the historic sites, a superb B&B owned by a Turkish woman and her Belgian husband. The only other guests were Turks. Make no mistake, this is not only sacred ground for Australians and New Zealanders. We quickly learned that Gallipoli is the battle of WW1 for the Turks. In fact, it was one of the defining moments in their modern history, for Gallipoli saw the emergence of a soldier, Mustafa Kemal, who went on to lead the national independence movement and establish the Republic of Turkey. He became known as Ataturk (Father of the Turks) and the first President. His picture hangs in many houses and public buildings. He wrote this moving tribute to the Anzacs killed at Gallipoli.
'Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.' Ataturk 1934.
Cathie and I spent three days walking around the cemeteries and memorials of the fallen. Without exception, they are peaceful, well-maintained sombre places, planted with rosemary and lavender, in a landscape of dry brittle ground and harsh sunlight. In summer, I could have imagined myself back in Australia.
As we walked through the primary school lesson of our childhood - Lone Pine, Anzac Cove, Chunak Bair, The Nek - we were amazed at just how close each of these landmarks were to one another, within shouting distance, or gunshot. While the strategic capture of this peninsula was of great importance, the ground fought over appears to be little more than a few square kilometres.
The two most striking memories for me were just how achingly beautiful Gallipoli is, with the high ground affording boundless views across the Aegean Sea, a gentle blue in colour, with one lone fisherman in a dinghy paddling around the point near Beach Cemetery and onto Anzac Cove, the water clear and deep below him. In high summer, it’s also hellishly hot. Cathie and I swam in the sea, but not here, not at Anzac. We drove to Suvla Bay, where the British landed. We swam with Turkish holidaymakers. It seemed sacrilege to even consider enjoying ourselves at Anzac Cove. Illogical, I know. But so much of visiting Gallipoli is like that - it’s an instinctual, emotionally charged place.
The other aspect of Gallipoli that always remains with me is the inscriptions on the gravestones. Often chosen by mothers and fathers of the fallen, the ones that cut and ache begin with the words “Our only son…” Above this is the age of the soldier. 19, 20, maybe a little older. Sometimes.
There is a single pine tree in the cemetery at Lone Pine, but it is a different species than the tree that originally stood here, marking this battle position. That pine was obliterated in the fighting. Nearby are trenches... and more cemeteries.
In the long evening, Cathie and I would sit on the rooftop of our B&B and look across to the Ataturk Memorial on the hill. The call to prayer would start from our village. We didn’t understand the words, of course, but the plaintive tone of the Muezzin seemed to characterise the mood of the place. From another village, the voice of their Muezzin would echo and I was reminded of how the soldiers from opposing sides were so close they could hear each other’s voices. Once the call to prayer finished, the village would fall silent, the night would close in and we’d look up at the stars.