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Published: April 25th 2012
Twenty years ago today, there occurred one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Whenever I recount my tale, people often comment on the serendipity of that day, but such heartening words are tempered by knowing that the person who made those moments so memorable has long since departed this world.
In Turkey there lies a slender peninsula that separates the Aegean Sea from the straits of the Dardenelles. To the Turks, this is known as Gelibolu, but it is more renowned by its Anglicised name of Gallipoli. In 1915, the largest invasion force in history until that time assaulted the peninsula in order to capture the Dardenelles. Included in this invasion force were soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – the ANZACs. The date of their invasion on 25 April – now termed ANZAC Day – is solemnly marked in both countries as the chosen day to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice across all wars.
Lines of trenches once scarred the peninsula, and the constant order to dig more trenches and tunnels gave the Australian soldiers their revered nickname, “Diggers”. The campaign was one of the fiercest of World War One, opposing
trenches were so close that many times hand grenades thrown by the Turks were caught in mid-flight and returned to explode on their sender. Battles were sometimes fought with bayonets, rocks and even bare hands, and this fighting was so intense that of the 44,000 Allied dead at Gallipoli, 27,000 have no known grave.
Eight months later, the ANZACs departed – defeated but not disgraced. They were outmanoeuvred by the military brilliance of Kemal Mustafa (known later as Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish nation) and the tenacious troops he commanded. The Allied forces were so respected that Atatürk paid the following tribute in 1934, "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 the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away 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."
so in 1992 I found myself amongst 600 people to commemorate ANZAC Day at the Dawn Service near the site of the original landing, the Ari Burnu Cemetery at the now renamed ANZAC Cove. With a half-moon faintly illuminating the scene with its ashen glow, I could barely discern the trees that stood nearby, their shadowy branches melting into the pre-dawn darkness. The majority of other attendees stood amongst the many tombstones of the cemetery as there was no seating. The blustery wind’s icy fingers forced me to don gloves and scarf, and I positioned myself at the end of the cenotaph, directly beside the Turkish bugler. At this close proximity to the speaking area I could clearly hear the handful of officials talking as they prepared the microphone and small portable speaker for the service to follow.
Just prior to the ceremony’s commencement, there was a commotion, and I espied the crowd parting for an unseen figure. Suddenly a Digger’s slouch hat came into view, followed by the weathered face of a venerable gentleman wearing thick glasses. Smartly attired in a pale grey suit was an elderly veteran called Tom, and he was to be the last Gallipoli
Crowd gathered for the Dawn Service - Ari Burnu Cemetery, Gallipoli, Turkey
Bruce the Kiwi is towards the right of the photo wearing a red top and large hat. Would love to know where he is now!
Digger to ever attend a Dawn Service on the peninsula. With the 94 year old Tom now settled, the murmur of the crowd subsided as the Australian Ambassador spoke into the microphone with a heavy drawl, “Well, I suppose we better get this underway then....” The service was completed in fifteen minutes, and it included segments from the Ambassadors for both Australia and New Zealand, a reading from the Anglican Archdeacon for the Aegean and the Danube, and the laying of wreaths by officials from the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand and Australia.
The minute’s silence in tribute to the lives lost were preceded by the extract from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen
and as these words were quietly spoken, the masses were silenced in their solemnity, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
” The Archdeacon then uttered “Lest we forget”, and the crowd mumbled the same in response as the distinctive opening note of the Last Post floated across the wind and into the darkness. I have heard
many Last Posts before and since, but none had the poignancy of this one. I glanced at Tom, and he stood there pensively and expressionless.
Apart from the crashing waves, there was no movement and no sound.
The bugler’s Reveille pierced the air, its more ebullient tune seeming incongruent at that moment, and at its conclusion, the Archdeacon murmured a prayer and blessing, and the majority of onlookers immediately departed for the warmer domain of their buses and vehicles.
But for those mere hundred who remained, they were to witness something extraordinary. Tom, with wreath in one hand and supporting himself with a walking cane in the other, had now taken his position a few metres in front of the cenotaph as he prepared to honour his mates who to the rest of us, were merely names engraved on the surrounding tombstones. Though Tom falls victim to the passage of time, those they lay around him are as a young and brave as the day they sacrificed their lives heading the call of a nation, they will not grow old.
The words on the cenotaph, “Their name liveth for evermore”, stared boldly at the
aging warrior as his hunched frame stumbled forward, as if carrying the burden of a thousand fallen souls; time does not heal all wounds. With laboured and difficult steps, Tom arrived at the cenotaph, and as he lowered himself by leaning heavily on his cane, anxious eyes watched as he struggled to fulfil his duty without falling. Struggling against frailty borne of memories and age, Tom gently placed the wreath, and at that moment, the tombstones seemed to stir. Pausing only briefly, Tom awkwardly shuffled backwards, again steadying himself on the cane, and after straining to raise himself to attention, he lifted a trembling arm to salute and with his anguished face barely conquering the tears, quietly uttered the words, "Lest...we...forget."
Everyone, regardless of gender or age, openly cried from reddened eyes, and we collectively watched Tom slowly and silently hobble away, still lost in memories of terrifying battles and dying friends. It was as if we were observing the passing of history as the last Digger faded into the darkness. I surveyed the scene, and all others displayed that same numbness from the enveloping pall.
Shortly afterwards, Tom agreed to be introduced to other attendees, so I
eagerly took my position in the queue. However, when I eventually shook his rough hand, my immense reverence had stilled my words. Instead of an awkward muteness, I quickly determined to question Tom on any previous attendance at a Gallipoli service. However, my awed thoughts could only deliver a poorly worded sentence: “So have you been here before?” to which Tom’s tall aide from his local Returned and Services League (RSL) Club quipped, “Oh yes, back in 1915!” This elicited much mirth at my expense, but I never received any words from Tom, he remained silent when meeting me and others – perhaps the emotions of the Dawn Service still too overwhelming.
Eventually, those remaining too dispersed, and I concluded my time at a deserted Ari Burnu Cemetery in a very Australian manner, by watching the ever brightening skies and subsequent sunrise whilst devouring Vegemite rolls. I reflected on what I had just witnessed and was particularly glad that it was not attended by politicians predictably warbling about hardships, duty and sacrifice. Politicians start wars and soldiers die for them, and it should only be current and former military personnel who take the prominent roles at the Dawn Service.
Upon conclusion of breakfast, I silently wandered through the tombstones, that multitude of hushed witnesses to the desolation of war, and read the inscriptions and the young age of the fallen. Many were teenagers, and as was the case with Tom, scores had falsified their age in order to be recruited.
ANZAC Day at Gallipoli involves a series of services. My plan was to attend two further ceremonies, the next at one of Australia’s most famous war sites, Lone Pine. In this small area of a few hectares and over a period of just three days of fighting, an astonishing seven Diggers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour bestowed for conspicuous bravery and valour. The final intended ceremony was that of Chunuk Bair, the famed New Zealand battle ground, where their soldiers (along with British counterparts in the same battle) were the only troops in the campaign to gain sight of the Dardenelles.
I decided to trek through the hills toward the area known as The Nek in order to follow the same route of the ANZACs on the morning of the initial landing. The journey commenced through now overgrown and collapsed trenches, with trees now
standing where none once stood. However, I had underestimated the steepness of the terrain near the conclusion of the hike, and often needed to clutch at tree branches to haul myself higher. I recall looking down at one juncture to notice I was climbing a vertical cliff of dense foliage, and for someone like me not enamoured of heights, it was a concerning revelation. After a period of prolonged struggle, I finally reached the summit, and could triumphantly gaze at the valley far below. It is astonishing that the ANZACs completed similar routes in the darkness, whilst burdened with full packs and avoiding withering incoming fire.
I proceeded towards the Lone Pine Cemetery, and the gathered crowd appeared noticeably larger than for the Dawn Service. Due to the lateness of my arrival, the only vantage was some distance from the proceedings. Whilst waiting, my attention was drawn to a noise behind me, and the Australian accented words, “Excuse me, excuse me” were distinctly heard. I turned to espy a lanky RSL aide leading a far sprightlier Tom, whose lines of medals now glistened brightly in the sun, through the crowd directly towards me. The aide was only a few
metres from my position when he proudly asserted, “Excuse me, make way for an old Digger!” which caused Tom to quizzically gaze upwards and reply “Who are you calling old?”
The proceedings were moderately longer than the Dawn Service, and it followed the same format, but without the same visceral impact. Time came to place the wreaths, and on this occasion, Tom commenced the procession instead of waiting until after the Service. He appeared much steadier then the morning, and with more confidence he moved to the cenotaph, lay the wreath, and as he stood back, a youthful vigour returned to his voice as he bellowed. “Lest we forget!” that was clearly heard across the whole Cemetery. No sooner had he proclaimed these words, spontaneous applause erupted from all assembled, and for not the first time today, people wiped tears from their eyes.
Tom watched all who placed wreaths with great interest. His now alert eyes intently following every movement, but his mouth fell slightly open when seeing the number of young people who were paying respects. I later spoke to an RSL representative about Tom’s reaction to returning to Gallipoli, and he replied that Tom was overwhelmed
The site of the Dawn Service - Ari Burnu Cemetery, Gallipoli, Turkey
The final Dawn Service occurred here in 1999. It moved to a specifically constructed location in 2000.
by all the young people in attendance, and the fact that they cared about events 77 years earlier. I particularly recall a young pair in their early twenties, who after placing their wreath, walked directly towards a particular tombstone, looked down as if reading its inscription and began crying inconsolably.
With the service now concluded, I spoke to a New Zealander called Bruce who had shared a taxi with me towards Ari Burnu earlier in the morning. I questioned, “Are you going to the Chunuk Bair service?” thinking he would answer in the affirmative since it was the day’s main New Zealand ceremony, but a heavy sigh accompanied his reply, “No mate, I’ve done enough crying for one day.” These few words encapsulated my feelings perfectly, for I too was emotionally drained and so returned to my hotel.
Twenty years on, the memories of this day are still extremely vivid and profoundly moving. For whenever I hear the mournful notes of the Last Post, I am instantly transported to the pre-dawn darkness of ANZAC Cove where I can again feel the gusting wind, see Tom’s shaking salute and once more hear his quivering words – and I always
The Beach Cemetery - Gallipoli, Turkey
The burial site of the famed medic who transported the wounded with a donkey, Private John Simpson.
shed another tear.
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