A day at the front

So I collapse into a chair at the hostel, a cold beer in my hand, a self-satisfied look on my face at having made my way across Greece and down through Thrace (in Western Turkey) in time to hit the Anzac Day celebrations.I don’t sit for long. New ‘security’ requirements (perhaps ‘insecurity’ would be more truthful) require all buses to be far distant from the dawn service. So if we are going by bus, we have to leave at 11:30.

So we do, of course. In my self-satisfied (beer-fuddled?) state I forget my sleeping bag – a crucial mistake, to which we shall return below.

I fall asleep on the monotonous journey over the hill. It is not more than 10kms in a straight line, but the trip takes ages because the roads are all blocked. All I remember is our headlights on the bus in front, and people walking past, moving quicker than we were.

Out we jump. The chill wind assails us. I snuggle into my five layers of fleece and thank the Lord (and Columbia sportswear) for my windproof jacket.

Follow the leader. People trudging up the hill. Lights from buses and the odd entrepreneur trading in warmth – tea, coffee, grease. To the site. A sea of sleeping bags. Lying room only. The wind is a stiff breeze. The cold is numbing. Find a shelter from the breeze. Curse my stupidity at forgetting the sleeping bag. Sit down on a dismembered cardboard box, leaning back against a wall. Only five hours to go.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, people’s feet walk by, the cold seeps even through my fleece, my cotton pants the culprit. Walking does not make me warm. Tea diverts my attention momentarily.

Slightly surreal to be surrounded by antipodeans at the other end of the world. Friendly Australians introduce themselves. A man in shorts and a thin jacket (is he human?). Many people standing in sleeping bags.

It begins. First an Australian reading from memoirs and singing songs. Then the light begins. Dark blue in the west. The hills behind us start to take form.

Then come the soldiers and the politicians. The former with trumpets and guns, interesting and unusual from pacifist New Zealand. The latter with speeches, interesting if not so unusual. Dame Sylvia Cartright is brilliant, at least.

The whole service is quite religious in structure and tone. And not as evocative as I guess I had expected. The best moment? Turning around in the growing light and seeing above us the cliffs of Ariburnu that faced the soldiers who came off the boats with the dawn. From here they seem menacing, unscaleable. Dangerous enough to climb for leisure on a sunny day in spring. Suicidal to think of taking them by force with an enemy encamped on the ridges.

The New Zealand service, a little later in the day, was just excellent. At the end the soldiers performed two haka and the Turkish airforce had organised a fly-over. Perhaps we were a little behind time and the two were not supposed to coincide. But, even if unintended, the justaposition of the ancient war dance with the military might of the five fighter jets was telling. Especially for anyone who had watched the movie ‘Gallipoli’ and remembers the unarmed soldiers running at the Turkish machine guns.
Just wandering around the penninsula is sobering. Seeing the absurdity of the terrain, and the maddening closeness of combat, and reflecting on how many people gave away their lives without ever needing to even understand the reason why.

So why go to Gallipoli?

* Remember the people who helped define New Zealand. We started WWI as a part of Britain. We joined WWII by ourselves.

* Have a close up look at the pointlessness of warfare. 8 months. Nearly 10,000 New Zealand and Australian lives. 1km gain from the beach. And then retreat to never return. It was interesting to discover that the Turks lost more soliders at Gallipoli than the Allied forces combined.

* Enjoy a decent wake at the Boomerang Bar, all too uncommon in these rationalist days.

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