Strait to Hell

Anzac Day at Gallipoli, April 1998

Excerpt from “Rock & Hard Places”, 2009 reissue

I VISITED Gallipoli for The Sunday Times on the 83rd anniversary of the landings, and left more bemused than ever by Australia’s relationship with this bleak stretch of shoreline.

My feelings about the place have become no more resolved in the decade or so since. In the early years of the 21st century, the government of prime minister John Howard swaddled itself ostentatiously in khaki – partly to shore up support for Australia’s involvement in the War on Terror, mostly as a symptom of Howard’s instinctively belligerent and defensive notions of patriotism. This sometimes made observing Anzac Day, especially from abroad, feel an act of collaboration with aspects of Australia that the country should – and can – rise above: parochialism, insularity, a certain suburban suspicion of the rest of the planet. In that same period, however, Gallipoli inspired the historian Les Carlyon’s “Gallipoli” – not just magisterial military history, but a genuine literary masterpiece – and what I thought was an interesting national soul-searching prompted by the death, in May 2002, of the last surviving veteran of the campaign.

He was Alec Campbell, and he was 103 years old when he died, just a few weeks after leading 2002’s Anzac Day parade in his native Hobart. He joined the 15th battalion of what was then called the Australian Imperial Force in 1915 – he lied about his age, and added two years to the 16 he had on the clock at that point. He arrived on Gallipoli six months into the eight months that the campaign lasted. He served as a rifleman and water carrier, was wounded, then contracted a serious fever which partially paralysed his face, and was invalided out of the army still a year too young to have joined it in the first place.

Campbell’s remaining 86 years were eventful and industrious – he built railway carriages, sailed ocean-going racing boats, helped in the construction of Australia’s first parliament house, organised and ran trades unions, married twice, and fathered nine children, the last of them at the age of 69. He disdained attempts at co-option into the role of mythical elder. “Gallipoli,” he told one inquirer, “was Gallipoli.”

This chapter is for him, and for all the others.

 

* * *

 AS dawn asserts itself through unseasonal April clouds, the first Australians to make it off the beach have occupied the steep, flat-topped hill they call Plugge’s Plateau; one of them wears his national flag draped around his shoulders like a cape. On the next row of ridges, a few bold pathfinders pick their way through the clinging scrub and the deep, treacherous trenches dug by the hills’ defenders. Some of the Australians break left, scrambling up to positions at Quinn’s Post and Walker’s Ridge. Others head right towards Lone Pine.

Back down on the beaches of Ari Burnu and Anzac Cove, chaos reigns. Confused and exhausted invaders search in the dim light for the people they landed with, and the people they were supposed to meet prior to pressing on up the cliffs. Thousands of dry, blunt, Antipodean accents call names and swear the sweet, misty air blue.

A lone bugler by the cenotaph at Ari Burnu signals the end of 1998’s Anzac Day dawn service, and I wander off in my own hopeless hunt for the bus I arrived in, which is parked in the dark among dozens of others in a queue of headlights that winds along the beach road. Not for the first or last time, I wonder what it is with my countryfolk and this rugged, uninviting sliver of Turkey, trailing awkwardly into the Aegean. Eighty-three years, we’ve been coming ashore here, and we still can’t get it right.

 

THE Dardanelles campaign of 1915 had all the core ingredients necessary for the staging of a really top-notch military catastrophe: a) a bad idea; b) the inept execution of same; and c) the total boneheaded refusal by those responsible for a) and b) to stare the truth in the face when it became apparent that the wheels were falling off.

The bad idea, largely that of a First Lord of the Admiralty called Winston Churchill, was the forcing of the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between the Turkish mainland and a dog-leg-shaped peninsula called Gallipoli. The view from whichever region of Cloud-Cuckoo Land that British high command were inhabiting was that such an expedition would lead to the swift capture of Constantinople and the removal of Turkey from World War I. So confident were they that simple, fearful Johnny Foreigner would fold his tent and flee at the first meaningful brandishing of British steel, that the initial attempt to take the Dardanelles, on March 18th 1915, was an exclusively naval operation. A British fleet, consisting of 18 battleships and many more cruisers and destroyers, sauntered up the straits – “an unforgettable picture of aloof grandeur,” according to the historian Robert Rhodes James.

It didn’t impress the gunners in the Turkish fortifications. They sank three of the British battleships and crippled three others. By the time this aloof, grand Imperial armada limped back whence it came, no doubt with hoots of Turkish derision pursuing it across the water, it had 700 less sailors than it arrived with. Turkish losses totalled 40 men and four cannons. From a British point of view, the humiliation can barely be imagined: a nation which had defined itself so much for so long as the greatest of the world’s naval powers had been dealt a rare old caning by a people still popularly regarded as backward peasants with daft tassled hats and a mania for selling carpets. It was as if Manchester United had been given a Cup draw away to Ed’s Bar & Grill of the Runcorn & District Jumpers For Goalposts Sunday No-Hopers’ League and gotten stuffed 6-0 – except, of course, that the overwhelming majority of the British public didn’t think it was hilarious. On April 25th, 1915, allied troops went ashore on Gallipoli.

British troops of the 29th division landed at Cape Helles, on the tip of the peninsula. French troops took Kum Kale on the Asian side of the strait. The British encountered stiff resistance and incurred shocking casualties. The French captured their objective with minimal difficulty. Both groups of soldiers were instantly forgotten by posterity. To the north, on Gallipoli’s Aegean shore, the first assault was made by the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps – the Anzacs.

Gallipoli has since been so completely appropriated into the mythologies of Australia and New Zealand that it’s news to most of my British friends that anybody other than the Anzacs took part in the campaign. The truth is that French, Canadian and Indian troops also fought and died for the allied cause, and that of the 36,000 commonwealth servicemen whose names are listed in Gallipoli’s 31 allied cemeteries, two thirds are British. Regrettably, if they’re remembered at all, it is mostly in the context in which they were portrayed in Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli”: ambling ashore at Suvla Bay, “drinking tea on the beach” while the 8th and 10th regiments of the Australian Light Horse were fed into Turkish machine-guns at a slim, rocky platform called The Nek in a series of absurd bayonet charges. While it’s true enough that this criminally senseless slaughter occurred, on August 7th, 1915, the implicit suggestion that British, or French, or Turkish troops were having a relatively easy time of it is at best insensitive and at worst insulting.

What “Gallipoli” the film does depict accurately is Gallipoli the popular legend, a myth that is as much a part of growing up Australian as Vegemite toast for breakfast: our bravest and finest martyred by stupid, arrogant, brandy-swilling, upper-class pommy martinets with suspiciously camp lisps. True or not – and the officers who could have called off the carnage at The Nek, Colonel Jack Anthill and Brigadier Frederic Hughes, were both Australians – it’s what we’ve been taking out on the English on the cricket pitch ever since. I suppose it could be worse. The only other nation to base so much of its self-image on a military shellacking by Turkey is Serbia, and the world would certainly be a happier place if they’d been able to placate their rage by whizzing a few bouncers around Michael Atherton’s ears.

The Anzacs were put ashore a mile or so north of their intended landing site – the squabbling has continued ever since about whether this was due to drifting currents, inaccurate maps, misunderstandings on the ground, or thundering incompetence at command level. “All of the above” seems as good a bet as any, though the latter option, naturally, is the received folk wisdom (In July 1993, I came to Gallipoli while backpacking around Turkey, and went to the battlefields with a group of Australians. When our guide introduced himself as an Englishman, we raced to make the same joke – “Make sure you take us to the right beach.”) Instead of hitting the relatively gentle slopes just south of Hell Spit, the Anzacs found themselves staring up at serrated cliffs and ridges that rose almost vertically from the beach, hundreds of feet high, to a triangular pinnacle nicknamed The Sphinx.

Even discounting such obstacles as barbed wire, trenches, mines, mortars and raking machine-gun and sniper fire, the cliff face at Ari Burnu is daunting. I couldn’t climb it in a day, not even with regular breaks for water and hyperventilation. The first Anzacs ashore on the first Anzac Day began their ascent at around 4:30am. By 8:00am, one group of Australians, led by Captain E.H. Tulloch and Captain J.P. Lalor, had not only scaled these towering heights, but fought their way inland as far as The Nek, a mile or more from where they’d landed.

The Gallipoli campaign – grotesque, murderous and futile even by the standards of World War I – was allowed to fester for eight more months before the peninsula was evacuated. In that time, the Anzacs got no further than they had on the first day, but they dug themselves immovably into the cherished memories of three nations – Australia, New Zealand and, altogether bizarrely, Turkey.

 

ACROSS the Dardanelles from Gallipoli, tucked into a bay at the narrowest point of the straits, is the town of Cannakalle. Cannakalle is the centre of the Gallipoli industry, and one of the strangest places on earth. Cannakalle, uniquely, is a city-sized shrine to a defeated invader.

In Australia, commercial exploitation of the Anzac name is prevented by law. In Cannakalle, there is an Anzac Hotel, an Anzac Bar and at least two Anzac grocery stores, both of which stock Vegemite and Violet Crumble bars. One restaurant posts the latest Australian Rules football scores in its windows, and another hangs a sign offering free glasses of the Australian chocolate drink Milo with every meal. The map of the peninsula I buy in Cannakalle confirms that Turks still call Gallipoli’s desolate ridges and hills what the invading soldiers did: Quinn’s Post, Monash Valley, Shrapnel Gully. Anzac Cove is known officially as Anzak Koyu. So far as I know, there is not an area of the Ardennes renamed Wehrmacht Wood – nor, more pertinently, a suburb of Darwin called Tojo. On April 24th, the day before Anzac Day, the barely distinguishable flags of Australia and New Zealand are flying from poles along the seafront and in the windows of every shop.

Granted, Cannakalle’s status as a corner of a foreign field that is forever Australia is partly basic commercial sense, of which Turks are not generally short. Several companies based in Cannakalle run tours of the battlefields, and while Cannakalle is a pretty little town with a couple of nice places to eat, there’s no other reason why you’d go out of your way to visit it. But the respect of the locals for the invaders of 1915 and the fondness they harbour for the visitors of 1998 are both unmistakably genuine. I have a cold glass of Victoria Bitter in the Anzac Pub and reflect that if I was to open a bar where I live now, in the East End of London, and call it The Luftwaffe, my only passing trade would be from local arsonists.

The Anzac Day embarkation begins just after midnight. Ponderous white ferries crowd Cannakalle’s tiny dock area while tourist coaches, minibuses and bedraggled, bleary-eyed solo travellers with bedrolls and backpacks roll and shuffle aboard. Aboard the ferry, it’s quieter than I ever imagined several hundred Australians in a confined space could be, though I suspect this is due less to a sense of occasion than it is to exhaustion. Most are in their 20s, though there’s a smattering of older folk, some with service medals pinned to their cardigans and windcheaters, and a few here in uniform, taking breaks from peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and Bosnia.

In the interminable queue for the toilet on the car deck, I strike up a conversation with a Royal Australian Air Force officer in desert camouflage. He has been serving in Kuwait.

“Fucking hot, fucking dusty, fucking full of fucking Americans who fucking think they fucking know fucking everything, and a complete fucking waste of our fucking time,” he says, summing up his current posting. “Nothing to fucking drink, either.” I ask him if he and his men are excited, or awed, or honoured, or what, by the thought of being on the beach at Gallipoli for Anzac Day. “Fucked if I know,” he shrugs. “We’d have gone on holiday to fucking hell to get out of fucking Kuwait.”

We are not, as a people, prone to rigorous self-analysis. I don’t get much further elsewhere on the boat with my efforts to find an explanation for this pilgrimage (the term is appropriate: the Anzac Day crowd is not just backpackers who were passing through – my flight from London to Istanbul two days previously had been rammed full of Australians). Sample responses include “Dunno, mate,”, “Dunno, really,” and “Dunno, mate, really, just wanted to see what the place felt like.”

This is actually not a bad answer. It’s certainly why I came to Gallipoli the first time. I’ve never known what to make of the whole thing – no rationalisation of its place in the Australian consciousness really holds up. True, a lot of Australians died here, but more died at Villers-Bretonneux three years to the day later, and we won that one. True as well that Australians fought here with extraordinary courage, but it’s not like we remember their names – though most of us have heard of Private Simpson, killed while ferrying wounded soldiers to safety on his donkey, few Australians could name even one of the seven Anzacs who won Victoria Crosses during the battle for Lone Pine between August 7th and August 9th, 1915 (Keysor, Symons, Shout, Tubb, Burton, Dunstan and Hamilton, but I had to look them up).

When an Australian journalist called Jonathan King went in search of Gallipoli veterans in 1997, he found only seven still alive, aged between 99 and 104. These amazing old men all told life stories that made the Indiana Jones films look like “Five Go To The Seaside”. One, Len Hall, had not only served at Gallipoli, but charged in history’s last successful cavalry action with the Light Horse at Beersheeba, ridden into Damascus with Lawrence and then returned home and married the stranger to whom he’d given the emu feather plume from his hat when he’d embarked five years previously. However, these survivors are not half so individually revered in life as their less fortunate comrades are revered collectively in death.

There’s not even consensus on the symbolic value of Gallipoli. There are some who claim that the fiasco was “the birth of the nation”, that the blood spilt was a belated consecration of Australia’s federation in 1901; those who push this line are generally the sort of people who are perfectly happy that Australia’s head of state is decided by an accident of birth in a foreign castle owned by the most dysfunctional family on earth not called Jackson, and that a quarter of our flag is taken up by somebody else’s. Gallipoli has also been used as a cornerstone of the Australian republican position – as a signifier of the trouble blind loyalty to some other mug’s empire can get you into, it’s difficult to beat.

For whatever reason, Gallipoli is hallowed ground – anglo-saxon Australia’s only sacred site. It occurs to me, as the ferry draws up to the peninsula, and buses and people start puttering and stumbling ashore in the dark, that those back home who continue to strew obstacles in the path of land rights for Australia’s indigenous people could do worse than to ponder how they’d feel if a Turkish government told us we couldn’t come to Gallipoli anymore and, furthermore, that they were going to dig the place up to look for uranium.

 

NOT that Turkey is likely to do anything quite so crass.

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,” begins the dedication, “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.”

These generous words are embossed on a sort of stone billboard near the Anzac landing position at Ari Burnu. They were spoken in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of modern Turkey. As a 34-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel serving in the peninsula’s defences in 1915, Atatürk led from the front in halting the Anzac advance. His exploits won him a popularity which, after the war, he exploited and expanded to allow himself to reinvent Turkey in his own image. His zest for modernisation gave Turks a roman alphabet, a semblance of secular democracy, a largely western outlook, and surnames – Atatürk, the name he chose for himself, means “Father Turk”. His attention to detail was as admirable as his fashion sense: he passed laws abolishing baggy trousers and fezzes because he thought they looked silly.

Turks venerate Gallipoli with concrete reason: if Atatürk’s gold pocketwatch had not, in true Boys’ Own Adventure style, stopped the fragment of British shrapnel that struck him in the chest near Chunuk Bair, Turkey today would be an utterly different place, and Turks need only look over their borders to Syria, Iran and Iraq to see how different. Atatürk’s portrait hangs in every public building in Turkey. His statue stands in every empty space, and he smirks raffishly from the 100,000 lire note, looking undeniably like Peter Cushing after a few sherries.

There must be more Australians and Kiwis on the beach this morning than there were in 1915 – seven or eight thousand at least, I reckon. The Anzac Day dawn service is conducted from a temporary platform mounted just above the beach. It includes some stomping and shouting by a Maori warrior, a speech by the Governor-General of New Zealand, and another speech by an Australian minister for something. These are followed by the spoken lament that starts “They shall not grow old,” and ends with “Lest we forget”, a one-minute silence and a communal mumbling of our national anthems.

As the day progresses, more ceremonies take place at the other cemeteries on the peninsula. There’s a memorial for the Turkish 57th regiment, wiped out on the first day of the campaign. Those who have travelled from New Zealand mourn their dead at Chunuk Bair. A few – very few – attend ceremonies at the British and French graveyards. The Australian service takes place at Lone Pine.

The terrible thing about Lone Pine is how small it is. The entire battlefield is perhaps the size of three football pitches. In two days in August 1915, 2,200 Australians and 5,000 Turks died here. Here, there are more speeches, more silence and another hopelessly indecisive stab at “Advance Australia Fair”. It’s a common assumption, though a debatable one, that Australians aren’t much use at expressing emotion on a personal level. It is indisputable fact that when it comes to expressing emotion in a group, we’re completely bloody hopeless – though, this morning, some inventive souls do find an appropriate vent for their feelings.

On the carefully manicured lawn behind the Lone Pine cenotaph, in what is clearly a well-rehearsed rite, three young men remove their windcheaters to reveal Australian Rules football jumpers – the navy blue of Carlton, the black and white of Collingwood, the gold and brown of Hawthorn. As a lifelong Geelong man, I initially find the spectacle rather distressing, but what follows is, in its way, lovely. The bloke in the Carlton jumper produces a weatherbeaten red Australian Rules ball from his backpack. To general approval from onlookers, a solemn kickabout ensues.

The last official ceremony takes place at the Turkish memorial at Morto Bay, towards the tip of the peninsula. The road to this giant grey brick henge is lined by Turkish soldiers, all nervously polishing and buffing hidden nooks of their kits while they await the limousine carrying their President. Eight flagpoles stand at the front of the Turkish memorial, on which the banners of Gallipoli’s Australian, New Zealander, French, Canadian, Indian and British invaders are flown just as high as those of its Turkish and German defenders.

A comically inept Turkish army bugler honks mercilessly through all eight anthems, making “Advance Australia Fair” sound indistinguishable from “La Marsellaise”, and “God Save The Queen” indistinguishable from “Cum On Feel The Noize”. Another thing Australians aren’t good at is stifling giggles. If the bloke with the trumpet wanted a ten-year posting to an isolated sentry post out in the militarised Kurdish badlands of the south-east, surely he only had to ask.

The service is conducted in Turkish and English, and concluded with a massed rifle volley that scatters the hundreds of starlings nesting in the top of the memorial, an instant constellation of tiny black stars.

 

THE rest of Anzac Day is given over to aimless wandering around the battlefields. There’s a desultory museum of the campaign at Gaba Tepe, but there’s little in it that can’t be found with minimal effort in the trenches that still scar Gallipoli’s hills. The smallest amount of scratching in the dirt will disinter rusted splinters of tin can, congealed knots of melted shrapnel or a few of the countless millions of bullets that were expended. For decades, Turkish authorities tried to cultivate an atmosphere of serenity on the peninsula by planting pine forests, but they all burnt down a few years ago in a fire widely blamed on Kurdish terrorists. It’s better this way, though. It looks like a battlefield, bleak and barren and lonely.

I never really understood what Australians were doing here in 1915 – how many of them had even heard of Turkey? – and I still don’t know what any of us are doing here now. Sometimes, as I wander through the overgrown trenches and across the immaculate graveyards, I think, on the whole, that our veneration of Gallipoli and the men who died here is a good thing, that the demonstrated sense of history and the concurrent lack of any kind of nationalistic bitterness is admirable. Then I notice that the Australia represented here today isn’t an Australia I recognise: there is barely a trace, among the pilgrims, of Asian, or Mediterranean, or Baltic, or Middle Eastern ancestry. And I wonder if there isn’t, somewhere at the depths of the Gallipoli myth – which inspires more and more people to come here every year – something unhealthy, reactionary and frightened.

Then I think that I’m trying too hard. Still, it’s my job. I guess more than anything it’s a nagging, subliminal sense of loss. Even if we don’t realise it or won’t admit to it, we come here in a quest for clues of what might have been, had a country only 14 years old, with a population of less than five million, not buried 8,702 remarkable young men here – to say nothing of the 52,000 more who perished on other World War I battlefields – along with everything they might have gone on to achieve, build, discover, create or solve.

On Baby 700, the forlorn hillock with a name like a bad mid-80s pop group, I stop by the grave of Captain Joseph Patrick Lalor, the officer who’d led his men as far as The Nek in those three unimaginable hours on April 25th, 1915. Lalor didn’t survive the first Anzac Day. He was killed here during the frenetic fighting for this dismal little lump of land, which changed hands five times on that afternoon.

Lalor’s name was already famous when he arrived on Gallipoli. His grandfather, Peter Lalor, lost an arm leading the 1854 Eureka Stockade miners’ rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields, before going on to become a distinguished parliamentarian. Captain Lalor’s own CV was scarcely less picturesque. Before wading onto the beach at Anzac Cove that morning, clutching his cutlass and whiskey flask, Joseph Lalor had joined and deserted the British Navy, served with the French Foreign Legion and fought in a South American revolution. He was 30 years old.

Joseph Lalor might have become any combination of brilliant, inspirational, eccentric or dangerous. A man like that, you can imagine, might have ended up figuring, on the scale of great Australians, anywhere between Errol Flynn and Ned Kelly, and I’d like to have found out. So would we all.