Gallipoli graves at ANZAC cove

How to have a Gallipoli experience for ANZAC Day

Paul RYKENFirst Published: Last Updated: Turkey

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After catching up with friends and family in Italy and Germany, we travelled from London to Istanbul on the 82nd day of our journey and it was the first time to meet up with my fellow countrymen. Our four-day tour with Samyeli Tours started with them picking us up from the airport at midnight and delivering us and others to our hotel about 6 tram stops away from the Grand Bazaar. We had to be up early for the half-day sightseeing tour of Istanbul and the five-hour bus trip to Gallipoli. The tour company put on (at least) eight buses full of Kiwis and Aussies.

Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

While we took a tour of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and had a traditional Turkish lunch, we were all pretty excited to be heading out to the sacred grounds some 400km away. On the way, our tour guide played a documentary on the history of Gallipoli and the period of 1915. It quickly gave us a reality check on the horrific and incredibly senseless waste of human life – especially given the stupid military decisions made repeatedly at the time.

Istanbul to Gallipoli

We had two short breaks on route to purchase some overnight supplies and arrived at Gallipoli at 1800h on Tuesday 24 April. Already the grassed area was full, so a group of us headed up for the central grandstand area. Once we settled in, the MC started to announce the rules and after a short time, the entertainment started. Spending a night under the stars with 8000 fellow Aussies and Kiwis at Gallipoli is surreal. Luckily the weather was kind on this cloudless night, although the temperature did drop down to 3 degrees overnight.

I’d heard about the ANZAC Day experience at Gallipoli before and with this being the 97th anniversary, there is much publicity about the 100th anniversary in 2015. The roads were recently tar sealed, the processes for entry, security, toilets and eating and sleeping seems to be pretty smooth and efficient.

Awake all night

Anyway, more on the experience itself…though out the night (from 1900hours until 0530hours), the joint Australian / New Zealand band played tunes from the 1910’s and 1940’s periods. In between their breaks, documentaries about Gallipoli played on two large screens at each end of the area we were in. Although all the surviving ex-soldiers have now passed away, interviews of them recorded in the 1980s played. Historians from Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and Great Britain told us of the various military campaigns over the eight months that ANZACs were fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was incredibly moving to be there on the very beach that they landed on, to feel the same chill in the air, to sit with fellow countrymen contemplating how these young men could possibly feel. Everything we learnt showed us that many military mistakes were made in the planning, execution and the use of the ANZAC (and other countries) forces. My contempt for military decision-makers was increasing rapidly during the night. At times, I had a lump in my throat thinking about the soldiers and the conditions they faced. While the brass expected the men to fight for king and country and that may have been the reason the men enrolled, it seemed that the men were doing it for their mates.

The morning

As the hours went by in the stillness of the night, we could hear the lapping of the water on the beach and as the sun was rising, see the silhouette of the cliffs behind us. A small fog seemed to drift in and the band started to play an eerie musical score called Albiani. It was easy to imagine the soldiers rowing silently to the beachhead, dropping in chest-high cold Mediterranean Sea and wading ashore – all the while with machine-gun fire entering the water, boats and at times men around them. This is an image I won’t ever forget.

Speeches and formalities

When the dawn service finally started at 0530hours, the VIPs were introduced (Julia Gillard was there as was the NZ Minister for Veteran Affairs) and the speeches and formalities started. It was over in less than an hour, but the sombre atmosphere continued as Aussies in the crowd then walked the rocky path to Lone Path (3km) for their commemoration while the Kiwis walked past Lone Pine to Chunuk Bair (6.5km from ANZAC Cove where the Dawn service was held) for the New Zealand one. Walking along the dirt track and the road, we passed several of the 21 official cemeteries. I stopped at each one, reading the names, ages, and epitaphs of each soldier whose plot was near where they had been killed. The youngest I found was a 15-year-old – an age younger than both my sons. It was very difficult to imagine either of them going away to war half a world away and not returning. The cemeteries were immaculately kept and the views of the Peninsula were amazing.

The Turks were led by a charismatic soldier who would become their first President of the new Turkey and is revered, quite rightly, as a national hero for defending his country from our imperialist troops.

Waiting to return

The services were all finished by 1230hours, and then it was a two-hour wait for our buses by the large stone monuments dedicated to the Turks who had fought. While waiting for the bus, we were able to still see some of the trenches dug nearly 100 years ago – both ours and the Turks. Some so close, that apparently they were able to throw food, presents, and messages to each other as they started to get to know each other. After all, both sides had to endure unimaginable conditions.

The meaning of ANZAC pride

After being at the Gallipoli Peninsula, ANZAC Day doesn’t mean a commemoration of those who died in battle, but a celebration of a country’s identity. It was a coming of age for a young country so closely aligned to England that they blindly accepted their fate (and the deadly decisions made). It made me incredibly proud to be a Kiwi. It changed my view as to how I saw ANZAC Day. An emotionally charged event. Going to Gallipoli for the service should be an early bucket list item for everyone. I’ll certainly be encouraging my children to go – and I’d love to return with them.

After travelling around the world for 87 days, it was now time to return home. Not without some flight dramas, but nothing could faze Sandra or me.

Strangely this was the last article we wrote before starting our minimalist journeys in 2017.

How to have a Gallipoli experience for ANZAC Day