On the 25th of April, in the year 1915, a large contingent of Australian and New Zealand soldiers put ashore a mile south of their intended landing site on modern Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula. This full-frontal assault was a key tactic in Winston Churchill’s strategy to open a passage to the Black Sea for the naval craft of the Allied forces, which were locked in a protracted and bloody conflict we now call World War I.
The error of the troop’s landing place was not the only error to be committed on that day. The tides were badly miscalculated. The level and positions of Ottoman Empire resistance were more numerous than had been assumed. The Australian and New Zealand soldiers, fighting under the British flag, were poorly equipped and provisioned for the expedition.
Where Churchill had expected a swift capturing of the peninsula ended up being a bloodbath on both the Allied and Ottoman sides; a horror that stretched on for eight months, which must have seemed like a hellish eternity for those young men who were not mowed down within hours of their first landing.
Over that eight month campaign, which was an ultimate military failure for the Allied forces, more than 45,000 young, idealistic men of Australia and New Zealand, the UK, France, and British India perished. 2,000 of those young men died on the very first day of the assault. 87,000 equally young, equally idealistic soldiers of the Ottoman Empire died. The scale of human tragedy was on a scale never before seen by the Australian and New Zealand army corps, and, thankfully, has never been repeated.
With the benefit of hindsight, historians and social anthropologists trace the concept of Australian (and New Zealand) statehood to that fateful pre-dawn morning of April 25th, 1915. Australia, it is said (for I was not yet born) heretofore had considered herself an appendage of Britain. After the massive, and senseless loss of life at Gallipoli, this was to change forever.
Lest we forget.
My own family is not a military one. I’m aware of my maternal grandfather’s service, and that of several uncles, but I’m one of those fortunate people whose childhood was unmarred by war, and the ultimate sacrifices so willingly made during war. I grew up in the ’70s, in a sleepy suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and still recall being roused out of my bed at 4am on one day of every year, to dress in my Cub Scout or Boy Scout uniform. I was then driven to a small monument of rememberance that our local town had erected. It was unprepossessing in scale, and featured the wording “Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it” (or a similar wording — my memory is vague). What I mostly recall of those frozen, foggy annual mornings is the sense of cold (we were compelled to wear short pants) and the feeling that we were expected to perform in some other people’s ceremony. I felt like a trained circus performer, more than a grateful Australian citizen and beneficiary of the sacrifices of generations of servicepeople of my and other nations.
In short, I was an ungrateful little brat. I played my part, but I didn’t grasp the horror of the event we were marking, and I certainly didn’t grasp the precious gift of my life or the bravery of those who gave up theirs so that I may live in peace.
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 living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, commander of the Ottoman forces at the time of the Gallipoli landing, and later, first president of modern Turkey. Speech given in 1934 at the ANZAC Memorial at Gallipoli, Turkey.
Today, and for many years now, my adult self treats ANZAC Day — the 25th of April of this and every year henceforth — as a sacred day. For me, it is a day which must be marked at dawn with a solemn remembrance of those who fell so that I, and my family and friends may have peace. Most years, I’ve been blessed to be amongst a throng of fellow Australians, New Zealanders, and our great and eternal Turkish friends. On other years, when situations have dictated it, amongst only my family members.
But for me, on April 25th of every year, I simply cannot make it through the long day without finding my eyes welled with tears on many occasions, such as the one I’m feeling right now.
Without the senseless deaths of unimaginable numbers of brave and idealistic young men and women, the world we all live in would not have been possible, and in fact my two wonderful kids, my beautiful wife and I may not even exist.
So, thanks, you old diggers. I’ll shout you all a round in heaven.