Gallipoli: The Dawn Service

Full set of Gallipoli photos are here

The dawn service at Gallipoli (known by the locals as Gelibolu) was never part of our plans.  In all our meticulous research for major events happening in the countries we were visiting we totally forgot about the Australian hajj so it came as a surprise to figure out a few weeks before we flew to Turkey that we would be there at the right time to make the booner pilgrimage.  We thought we might as well go, seeing that we would be in the area.  The stories of drunk Australian nationalists damaging headstones combined with staying up all night didn’t sound like an attractive combination but in true Aussie spirit we decided to give it a red hot go.

Rather than figure it all out ourselves we opted for a tour so that we could become travel jellyfish for a few days, swept along with the tide of the group.  Before we hopped on the tour bus some of our group were having 10am beers and had to be fetched from the pub for our departure.  This didn’t fill me with hope for the rest of the tour, but luckily the bus had a mixture of ages on board and the young boofheads didn’t dominate.  On the way down an Irishman, the only non-Anzac with us, sang the song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda‘ that inspired him to become interested in the Gallipoli campaign, a theatre of war that is neglected in Irish history.  It was a moving rendition and set the tone nicely as we came into Eceabat, the small town on the northern shore of the Dardanelles that we had passed through on our way to Gockeada island. The town was more lively now but our main concern was our sleeping arrangements.  The tour company we went through turned out to be brokers who farmed us off to another company.  Luckily this other company was ok, but we had opted for the ‘budget accommodation’ so were in trepidation. Our worst fears were realised when our names were all read out in the lobby with the people we were sharing rooms with!  The rooms were tiny with just enough room for six beds and our bags, but thankfully no bunks.  It was our luck (or good arrangement) to be put in the room with the other old fogeys on the tour, a seemingly gay middle-aged couple, he a pharmacist from Australia and him an airline worker based in Singapore.  They kept up a ‘just friends’ act and we didn’t have the heart to let them know it wasn’t entirely convincing.  Unfortunately for the Singaporean, he became locked in the bathroom in the first hour after check-in, when the lock malfunctioned just as we were all introducing one another.  In typical laconic male fashion his friend went to inform the owner and then just sat around waiting for him to be freed.  I don’t think he was in there for longer than 20 minutes but shouting out your name through the bathroom door is one of the worst introductions to a group that I can think of.  We were also joined by the Irishman, an extrovert performance art graduate turned organic farm certifier. They were all jolly nice and didn’t keep us up late, although the Aussie pharmacist had a wicked snore which I blocked with earplugs and sheer fatigue.

We had a group dinner which was over mercifully fast and were then peer-group pressured into going to the Boomerang Pub where we had a long-winded conversation with a couple from Sydney heavily involved with the scouts (but hadn’t met Bear Grylls, disappointingly for Sarah).  The pub owner was an eccentric Turk with an out-of-control beard who liked to play a practical joke on people by squirting water at them from a small pipe in the floor.  After Sarah finished her insipid non-alcoholic beer and as the same dance tunes that have been following us around the globe started to kick off, we snuck out and went to bed early.

The next day we did a tour of the Gallipoli battlefields, which, as is often the case with places that have hosted nightmarish horrors, is itself serenely peaceful and beautiful.  The hills look innocuous now but if you imagine trying to run up them in wet clothes with a full pack and dodging snipers, they take on a different dimension.  The war cemeteries are nicely preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but don’t give a full impression of the death count; and their peaceful environs are in stark contrast to the horrors of the war where the Allies and the Turks were locked in a pointless trench battle of attrition, including characteristic brainless charges against machine guns.  The grandstands were all set up at Anzac Cove for the dawn service the next day, and at Lone Pine where the Australian service would be held later the same morning.  We saw the remains of some trenches, worn and eroded with time, and a shadow of the extensive trench and tunnel system that would have been here during the first World War.  The New Zealand memorial is located on Chunuk Bair which is the highest point on the peninsular. It gives amazing views of the countryside, and would have inspired a feeling of hopelessness for the Allied soldiers who had to try and fight their way up this huge hill embedded with Turkish soldiers. As well as forging the modern identities of young Australia and New Zealand the Gallipoli campaign was also an essential element in the legend of Ataturk, the commander known at the time as Mustafa Kemal, who was one of the few war heroes to emerge for Turkey and went on to found the modern Turkish nation.  Gallipoli is as much a foundation myth for Turkey as the Anzacs.

The cemetaries on the penisular are also in heart breakingly beautiful spots next to the sea and seeing all those young boys buried there brings home the waste of potential. Young lives were thrown against the machine guns for little tactical gain.  It is impossible to convey the enormoity of the loss and the full horrors they went through.  Interestingly some gravestones do not include a cross which indicates that they were aetheist, and there are also gravestones for Indian soldiers killed in action.

We had a day off before spending the night out at Anzac Cove ahead of the dawn service.  Coincidentally this is the day Turkey celebrates its little kiddy-winks (‘Children’s Day’) so outside our hotel there was a parade and lots of children trying to dance the choreography assigned to them by a very enthusiastic teacher who didn’t look entirely satisfied with the results.  I was taking it easy in bed and enjoying the sunny room with a view of the Dardanelles, revelling in blissful alone time before the night group exercises where the Anzacs would once again invade the Gallipoli peninsular.

It was the warmest night before the dawn service in years which made the evening bearable.  We missed out on the grassy area which was dominated by one tour group in matching outfits.  We had to make do with the bleachers, sitting on hard plastic seats.  I set myself in the frame of mind for a long distance flight.  An extroverted German woman solo traveller proceeded to chat with Sarah for much of the night, even giving the Irish performance artist a run for his money (he decamped and found some other Irish people to talk to).  Luckily the German lady was doing some research on the director Peter Wier so she went off to interview people about their thoughts on his film, Gallipoli.  In a show of stubborn intransigence I refused to be interviewed, shunning her puppy-like eagerness in favour of a constant quietude, trying but failing to put myself in the mind of the soldiers as they waited to land on this night almost 100 years ago.

Gallipoli is not a peaceful place at 3am just before the dawn service.  There are documentaries playing on big screens, a military band belting out peppy hits of old wartime, and an MC to guide you through the night.  It felt more like a government-run sporting event than anything else, and when dawn finally broke the haunting traditional grieving songs by Maori singers gave it some class before some fairly dull speeches delivered in a dull fashion, some helicopters flying overhead and at last the Last Post, but by the time that haunting piece filled the air the sun was well up and the any chance of magic evaporated with it.  The most moving testimony in the evening was from a 70s documentary from New Zealand where an old safari suit-clad presenter wandered around Gallipoli recreating the battle, interspersed with first-hand testimony from Kiwi soldiers present at the battles and it was they who described the horrors of war in the grittiest detail.

The Australian service on Lone Pine mimicked the dawn service almost exactly, making it seem entirely redundant.  The main point seemed to be for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to press the flesh along with Ben Roberts-Smith the enormous Victoria Cross (VC) winner who was described as a hunk by one young lady.

Our tour operator illegally parked his buses at the exit, but sweet-talked the police chief giving him a (traditional, Turkish and quite hetero male) kiss on the cheek, and after the separate New Zealand service the roads were opened and we sped out first, ahead of 100 plus tour buses line up behind us.  After being awake and sitting up all night, it felt like the sweetest moment of the entire tour.  Although the night had not descended into drunken mayhem (as signs posted on gravestones instructing people not to use them as pillows indicated had happened in the past), the reality of the war and sorrow of the losses were not really conveyed. Much more powerful was the book I was reading at the time which gives first-hand accounts of the battle from letters home.  I thought it felt very sterile in that way that Australia can produce, cheerfully efficient and dull. Sarah felt moved, but mostly by seeing the graves of the young men the day before the dawn service: their youth, how quickly they died after landing, and  the tortured but stoic messages on the tombstones from their bereaved parents. The ideas of war as masculine and virtuous, necessary and heroic, just seemed utterly old-fashioned and pointless in the beautiful, windswept setting and on these foreign shores of Turkey where we were so warmly welcomed as visitors.  Ataturk summed up this feeling beautifully.

Full set of Gallipoli photos are here

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