Dawn's early light

by Judy Bailey / 31 May, 2008
A personal pilgrimage to Gallipoli.
Poppy
Photo/Thinkstock


The Turkish scout leader looks concerned. He comes to stand beside me, as if to offer support. Tears are trickling down my cheeks. The gravestone reads: "He died for his -country." A young, very young, Kiwi soldier lies buried here, half a world away from home. At 17, he was one of thousands laid to rest on the battlefields of Gallipoli.

"Why are you so sad?" asks the weather-beaten Turk quizzically, squinting in the late-afternoon sun.

"He was so young," I say. "There are so many of them here, and they were so young ... what a terrible waste."

"I don't understand," he says. The scout is looking down at the gravestone. "It says, 'He died for his country' - I don't understand. His country is so far away."

"I know; we had no business being here, did we?" I say.

The Turk gazes back at me and smiles. He extends a hand. "Welcome," he says, before walking back to his young charges.

That exchange was so typical of the generosity of spirit of the Turkish people as they welcomed thousands of Kiwis and Aussies back to the battlefields that, according to all three countries, have defined their nations.

We'd been standing at Lone Pine Cemetery. One of the most beautiful of the many burial sites on the peninsula, it lies on a saddle overlooking the sparkling waters of the Aegean. The graves are grouped in rows around a single pine tree. The warm spring air is full of the scent of pine, cypress, rosemary and flowers, for in between each grave there are cornflowers, roses and irises, all bathed in the golden light and long shadows of late afternoon. It is one of the most stunning and peaceful graveyards I've ever seen.

The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks after more than a million graves from the two world wars. The commission is also responsible for hundreds of memorials to the 750,000 dead with no known grave.

I have come to Gallipoli with a Maori Television film crew - we are to shoot some stories for the channel's Anzac Day -coverage and I am to MC the services at Anzac Cove and Chunuk Bair.

Like so many Kiwis, I had long wanted to make the trip to Gallipoli. Why? Because I sensed that this was an important place for our nation: defining moments in our nationhood had occurred here. It was on the battlefields of Gallipoli that we first began to cut the ties that bound us to "Mother England". We came to realise that we were a nation apart, with something unique to offer the world. We were a young nation, but a nation of practical, resourceful, courageous people.

Thousands of young Kiwis now include the peninsula's battlefields on their "must-do on OE" list. Many are not sure why they want to come, some have distant relatives who fought here, others are drawn after hearing stories of Kiwi heroics. Certainly Maori TV's marathon Anzac broadcasts have helped to make people more aware of the valour of our servicemen and women. These youngsters come to the peninsula, most of them in a fleet of tour buses, fresh from the exotic sights and sounds of the mosques and bazaars of Istanbul.

They spill out of their tour buses - full of youthful anticipation, laughing and joking - but Gallipoli very quickly steals into the soul. The tourists become silent, contemplative as the enormity of what occurred here sinks in.

The Gallipoli campaign claimed the lives of 44,000 Allied troops. The Turkish death toll, though, was more than twice that. Their heroic general, Mustafa Kemal, later to become Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish republic's first president, urged his troops not just to fight for their country, but to die for it.

Anzac Day at Gallipoli is a surreal experience: a cross between a rock concert and a commemoration. There are big screens and banks of seats set up at all the service sites. Lighting rigs, staging, generators and rows of Portaloos complete the picture. If you want to attend the dawn service at Anzac Cove, you have to sleep out - there's no accommodation. You sleep rough, just the way the soldiers did all those years ago. The Turkish tea and kebab vendors provide the only warmth for the 12,000-strong crowd who lie in sleeping bags on the bare ground, huddled together to ward off the sub-zero chill whipping up off the Aegean.

It's spring in Turkey, but the peninsula is extremely exposed, and although the days can be warm, the temperature dives at night. There's an endless procession of tour buses until the road closes at 3.00am. Security is tight, with heavily armed Turkish soldiers everywhere. The crowd is subdued, either trying to grab some sleep before dawn or watching the overnight interviews and archive footage on the big screens.

Despite the bustle of the annual "event" that is Anzac Day, Gallipoli is a place of peace and serenity. As you cross the Dardanelles from the town of Cannakale, near the Narrows, emblazoned on the steep cliffs of the peninsula - actually cut into the cliff - is a huge sign.

A giant-sized figure of a soldier brandishes his rifle in one raised hand and next to him are the words in Turkish: "Stop traveller! Remember what you are seeing. A new era has begun here."

The Turks have turned a vast swathe of the peninsula into a 33,000ha peace park. And there is a real sense of peace, despite the stark reminders of the fierce and bloody battles that were fought here. Trenches crisscross the landscape. The old supply tunnels are still visible, and when it rains heavily the bones of the dead still, 93 years on, come to the surface.

I stood on the summit of Chunuk Bair, that strategic hilltop that cost so many Kiwi lives, and gazed down towards the Narrows. It was from here that New Zealand troops glimpsed for the first time in that bitter campaign the prize of the waterway that would deliver them a passage to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

The battle for Chunuk Bair became one of the defining moments in our history. It was the first and only Allied success of the Gallipoli campaign and it was ours, led by a band of sick and exhausted Wellington infantrymen. It remains a potent symbol of Kiwi determination, resourcefulness and sheer guts. The trenches are well defined - Turkish and Kiwi, metres apart.

Atatürk recaptured the summit just hours after the Kiwis were relieved by raw recruits from Britain. It's a measure of the esteem in which Kiwis are held by the Turks that the New Zealand memorial on the summit of Chunuk Bair stands next to Atatürk's memorial. It is an honour. That respect and admiration, earned by our troops so long ago, is still very much apparent in the way the Turks welcome travellers from New Zealand.

Atatürk remains a larger-than-life character in the Turkish psyche. The route he used to scale the heights of the hill from his village headquarters on the plains below is retraced by -thousands of Turkish scouts every Anzac Day. They come, proudly waving their red and white Turkish flags, more than 2500 boys and girls, Turkey's future, staking their claim once again to this rugged and beautiful headland.

The young Turkish soundman from the outside broadcast crew comes to stand with me. The rehearsal for tomorrow's service has just finished. We are alone, by the trenches on Chunuk Bair, watching the sun go down over the Dardanelles. He turns to me. "I have something for you," he says. He opens his hand and there in his palm is a spent shell-casing. "It's Turkish," he says. "I found it yesterday in the trench here, and I took it home and polished it for you."

I've kept it, beside another treasure, a piece of raw greenstone, in a special box - it seems to belong there.

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