‘It’s like something between the Olympics and Christmas’

Young Australians' annual pilgrimage to Gallipoli has little to do with commemorating those who died in 1915.

Timandra Harkness
Writer

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I’m told there are three compulsory stops on every young antipodean’s tour of Europe: ‘You’ve got the running of the bulls, Oktoberfest and Anzac Day. And not necessarily in that order – Oktoberfest probably does top them all.’

Xavier, a 21-year-old from Melbourne, raises a laugh from the Australians and New Zealanders sitting round with cans of beer on Anzac Day 2002. Twelve thousand people, mainly in their twenties, have descended on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, and they’re gearing up for a night’s partying.

What’s the occasion? The anniversary of the First World War Gallipoli campaign in 1915, which ended, after nine months of bloody stalemate, with the evacuation of the surviving British, Empire and allied troops. In the attempt to take the Gallipoli peninsula (and with it control of the Dardanelles, the Russians’ only sea route to the Mediterranean from Odessa), 11,400 Anzacs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) died. Alongside them 20,000 British, 10,000 other allies, and 86,000 Turkish troops also fell. Not the sort of thing that British twentysomethings would travel across the world to commemorate.

I was expecting a surreal spectacle: a beach party held in the name of a First World War fiasco. But the reality is stranger still. The partying may go on all night in the Boomerang Bar at Eceabat, Australians and Kiwis may go skinny-dipping in the cold Dardanelles, and there was plenty of copping off – but all of this was incidental. The real focus of Anzac Day is the dawn parade.

In Australia itself, most young people don’t make the dawn parade, but here people head for Anzac Cove at 9pm the night before the parade, and the crowd keeps growing until three in the morning. We bed down in sleeping bags on the cold ground where the Anzacs landed 87 years earlier, the buzz of anticipation slowly giving way to sleep.

‘It’s like waiting for Christmas’, said an Australian woman, ‘that anticipation of “tomorrow’s going to be something really big”. It’s something that you wait for and you hope you can do, and you hear that other people have done it and you’re like “I’d really like to do that”. And when I got there, it was like something between the Olympics and Christmas.’

The dawn service is impressive, the Last Post echoing off the cliffs as light steals over the very ridge for which the Anzacs fought, illuminating the beach where they landed in 1915. The crowd joins in hesitantly, as if prayers and national anthems are unfamiliar things – as they probably are to most twentysomethings. The crowd are little more than spectators, far away from the stage and only able to see the wreath-laying and speeches on a giant TV screen.

To me, Gallipoli meant only Mel Gibson. But according to Tim from Canberra, for these pilgrims ‘it’s part of your history, part of the spirit of Australia’. In Australia, Gallipoli is taught in history lessons from the age of six.

What amazed me most was the genuine feeling among the twentysomethings, most of whose grandparents probably weren’t even alive in 1915. Hardly anybody broke the spell of the pre-dawn vigil with drunken unruliness. Australian Craig was looking forward to being part of a big crowd, ‘as long as there’s no pissed idiots, as long as people behave themselves and show a bit of respect’.

Respect was the watchword. I could be cynical and point out that there was much frenzied photo-taking of the wreaths and flags, and that some were clearly hoping that the folks back home might see them on TV. Rebecca from Auckland hadn’t considered becoming a Gallipoli pilgrim until she ‘saw the ads in travel magazines’ while travelling around Europe. But the real spirit of the event was a deep attachment to Gallipoli, to Anzac Day, and to what these things represent.

But what do they represent? Sandra Lee, the New Zealand minister for conservation, said: ‘It is up to each one of us in our generation, and in our own way, to find the meaning of Anzac Day.’ It is easier to see the importance of the Gallipoli campaign for the Turks – holding the Dardanelles against Britain and its allies certainly impacted upon the course of the First World War. It also launched the legendary career of Mustafa Kemal, the fearless officer whose forces retook Chunuk Bair with bayonets after running out of ammunition, and was miraculously saved from a bullet by his pocket watch. He went on to become Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey.

It is harder to understand why young Aussies and Kiwis should feel that, as Catherine said, it ‘created our nation as we now know it’. Fighting for the British Empire, in a country with whom the Anzacs had so little quarrel that they used to throw food to the enemy trenches, in a battle which they lost with so much pointless suffering: is this really the wellspring of Australians’ national pride?

There was little understanding of what the war meant. When the guide asks us why Turkey joined the war on the German side, not one of a crowd of 50 pilgrims has a clue.

‘Comradeship, never leaving your friend behind – that’s what the whole day is about’, says Xavier. Others emphasise the feeling for the first time of being Australian – not ‘New South Walesmen, Queenslanders, Tasmanians’ – and of being united with New Zealand.

They speak with real emotion of the veterans who attend. Though nobody from the Gallipoli campaign now survives, ex-servicemen are still greeted with standing ovations by a crowd who, hours before, were doing Mexican waves around the Australian memorial and singing along to ‘Tie me Kangaroo Down’, played by a military band.

‘The most poignant moment was when all the Diggers were coming up and being applauded. You couldn’t help but cry because they’ve shaped our future, and that’s what it’s all about’, says Xavier. ‘An old man was standing at the exit with his medals on and all, and he was saying “thank you” to each of the young travellers, like “thank you for coming”. And I heard people tell him, “no, thank you, like – you’ve obviously served your time. This day’s about you guys, it’s not about us coming and sleeping on the beach – it’s mainly because you guys did what you had to do”.’

There seems to be a curious range of things to be proud of. The Haka was the big hit of the New Zealand memorial service, and I heard one Australian commenting with envy that ‘you guys are so much better, the way you treat your ethnic minorities’. The warmth of reconciliation between Turks and Anzacs was seen as a fine example to the rest of the world. The willingness to die blindly in an unjust war is somehow felt to be heroic – and also futile and tragic. Yet the pride is real.

Most commemorations of the Great War are slowly fading as those who survived them die out, and the conflicts no longer mean anything. But this one grows every year. There are some practical reasons for this, including the fact that Turkey is cheap for backpackers and only three hours from London, where most antipodean travellers work to save money for the trip. But what these pilgrims came to find has little to do with the young men who died here for the British Empire.

A long way from home, the pilgrims empathise with the young soldiers who were lured by dreams of heroism and brochures promising ‘free trips to Great Britain and Europe’. Rachel from Auckland is moved by the youth of the fighters, and by seeing for herself the trenches where many of them died. ‘Sitting in New Zealand where nothing bad ever happens, you don’t realise’, she says. Some of the pilgrims feel that Gallipoli was their nations’ one time in the spotlight of world history. Most, like young people from the UK, seem hungry for an authentic moment that belongs to them.

So perhaps being where the TV cameras are, instead of watching the dawn parade in your own living room, is important after all. Xavier imagines his friends and family ‘saying “Xavier’s out there this year, and he’s a part of that” – it’s about actually being a part of the actual day, rather than watching the parade go by back home, like’.

For once in his life, Xavier can be right there, at the centre of it all – whatever ‘it’ really means.

Timandra Harkness went to Gallipoli on Anzac day as a guest of the Turkish Tourist Board and Oasis Overland. She will be talking about her trip on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, 1 June 2002.

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