Monday, May 3, 2021

At the going down of the sun and in the morning ...

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

So since my last post a fortnight ago a rather momentous day for Aussies and Kiwis passed on by. 

For more than a century the 25th of April has brought both antipodean nations to a pause, a special and sombre day where we remember the soldiers, sailors, and others who have served (and are still serving) our countries in wars and conflicts all over the world. Anzac Day, as that date is known in our part of the world, has been commemorated every year since 1916, the first anniversary of an ill-fated battle. 

Dawn over Anzac Cove on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula

Ten years ago, I took the photo above. Like many young Aussies and Kiwis, I'd made the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, a rocky peninsula in Turkey, a place whose name alone resonates strongly with us from a young age, regardless of our family ties or otherwise to the military. Perhaps it's the equivalent of 'Pearl Harbour' for Americans, in that the name has so much more weight than just its geography.

106 years ago, on 25 April 1915, our two nations first fought side by side under the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) banner – our soldiers landing together at dawn on a desolate beach on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. The campaign and landing were a military bungle by the British commanders (including the First Lord of the Admiralty, a certain Winston Churchill) - but the attitudes, actions, and courage of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers both at Gallipoli and over the many battles and years since, stoked a burgeoning sense of independent identity and nationhood.

Anzac. It’s a powerful word for anyone from our end of the world. 

But despite attending many an Anzac Day parade in New Zealand as a youngster – feeling proud as we marched, paper poppies pinned to our Scout uniforms, alongside aging veterans weighed down with medals, and feeling my skin tingle as the notes of the Last Post rang out – I don’t think I truly grasped its significance until that freezing morning I experienced on the Gallipoli peninsula ten years ago. 

Thousands of young Kiwis and Aussies, buried 10,000 miles from home

Gallipoli. Another word drenched in meaning for antipodeans. The afternoon before we’d walked down a dusty road towards the site of the ceremony, past open fields and sheer cliff faces that few would want to scale in the best of conditions let alone when you were under heavy gunfire, past cemeteries where white stones marked where men from all parts of Australasia, every state, city, and town, lay side by side, forever. Looking back, I have to admit that before taking that walk Gallipoli was a name from a book, a place on a map, a word that carried weight because of what we’d read or watched on TV. 

Then,  it was real. It may sound kind of silly, I know, and for many people dirt is dirt is dirt, but I couldn’t help myself from placing a hand on the grass beside those graves (I wasn’t alone), and thinking that there was something special, something meaningful, about this particular strip of earth. I have family buried near European battlefields, but as far as I’m aware, none here. 

But I still felt something in the air at Gallipoli.

It was a surreal, special experience visiting that tiny part of Turkey, a nation overflowing with rich history (Greek, Roman, Biblical, Ottoman Empire, and more) far beyond its (relatively) modern meaning for Aussies and Kiwis. 

And I had a few realisations over the course of the 24 hours or so we spent exploring and camping out under the stars at Gallipoli. For the first three decades of my life I'd thought of Anzac Day as a sadly special day for two countries, my own and our closest neighbour.

The crowds huddling up for a long, cold night before the dawn service

It was their ages that particularly got me. We were huddled together, thousands of Kiwis and Aussies wrapped in blankets, beanies, jackets, thermals and sleeping bags to ward off the bone-chilling overnight temperatures of a spring morning at Anzac Cove. The sky hadn’t yet lightened, it was still the ‘wee small hours’ of 25 April, and the big screens had been showing the haunting images of a small selection of our forebears who’d lost their lives on this blustery peninsula almost a century ago. They were all so young, most in their teens or very early twenties. At the time I liked to consider myself still a young (ish) man, at 32, and yet only two of the many dozens of soldiers shown were my age or older. 

We often say we sent our men to war, all those years ago, but in truth we really sent our boys. 

And lost so very many of them.

More than 2,700 New Zealanders and 8,700 Australians died at Gallipoli. Many thousands of others were terribly injured. Young men and boys from across our nations. While the numbers are horrifying enough, time and distance perhaps underplays them. Despite being about as far away from the battlefronts of the First World War that you could get, and in no direct danger ourselves, New Zealand sent more than 42% of its men of military age overseas to fight alongside the UK and other allies. 

Anzac soldiers landing at Gallipoli were faced with steep terrain and deadly artillery
To put it in perspective, the losses at Gallipoli, given New Zealand's population at the time, are the equivalent of the United States losing just under 900,000 people in a single military campaign today.

It's hard to fathom. 

You can see why it was such a big deal for Australia and New Zealand, and why Anzac Day was commemorated since 1916 (the one year anniversary of the landing) even as the war raged on. 

But let’s not forget, around 20,000 Turks died on that peninsula too, defending their country against forces who were outside invaders. We may have been fighting for freedom, but so were they.

Ten years ago, as we were let in to find a patch on the grassy slope or a seat in the stands, and night began to fall, the reminders were all around of what we were really there for; to remember. 

Wreaths of remembrance at Gallipoli

The New Zealand, Australian, and Turkish flags flew high above us. Military personnel, New Zealand, Australian and Turkish, wandered the grounds. Informative films about the Anzacs and the Turks played on the big screens. Military bands entertained the crowds throughout the night (not everyone appreciated the New Zealand Air Force band launching into a stirring rendition of some old classics at 3am, but I enjoyed it). At midnight, messages were played from then Prime Ministers Julia Gillard (Australia) and John Key (New Zealand), and during the night we saw broadcasts from services already happening back home Downunder (it was strange being ‘behind’ timewise), and as the sky began to lighten everyone stirred themselves from drowsiness or sleep for the dawn service. 

It was a strange mix of emotions, being there at Gallipoli. You could see it on everyone’s faces.

There were few dry eyes as the words of the Anzac Dedication rang out:

“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.”

But the dawn service at North Beach wasn't the end of our Anzac Day experience in Turkey. Afterwards we wandered the beach, chatted to Turkish soldiers, and then began the hike up the steep trails and roads to the Australian service at Lone Pine and then further on up the road to the New Zealand service at Chunuk Bair. Turkish boy scouts handed out water bottles on the way up.

Compulsory 'flag at Anzac Cove' photo

It really was a surreal and special experience, celebrating Anzac Day in Turkey. 

And it opened up my eyes to the fact it is a very special day and remembrance not just for two countries. When you think about it, how many nations would warmly welcome the descendants of an invading force to come and commemorate the very men who killed so many of their own people? 

War is a horrible, horrible thing, for whatever reason it is fought. 

How many military commanders would years later, as President of their country, say words such as these about the men they fought against: 

"Heroes who 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 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."
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

I was amazed by what the Turkish people had done at Anzac Cove, not only opening their doors, but creating a memorial area for thousands of Kiwis and Aussies to gather every year (well, pre-pandemic). 

And I was left with the realisation that despite years of thinking of Anzac Day as something about Australia and New Zealand, that'd I'd been wrong. For me now, it isn't about two countries, but three. 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Ko te manu e kai ana i te miro, nōna te ngahere. Ko te manu e kai ana i te mātauranga, nōnā te ao

(The bird who feeds on the miro berry has the forest. The bird who feeds on knowledge has the world.)

The native New Zealand kererū (wood pigeon) is particularly fond of miro berries


  1. A very moving post, Craig. I've never been to Gallipoli, but I remember seeing the film when I lived in Australia and being totally furious at the generals who calmly wasted all those lives on a hopeless battle.

    1. Thanks Michael, yes it's a strange thing growing up down that way and realising that this thing that's seen as somewhat of a founding of our countries' independent spirit and breaking away from the UK, so to speak, was such a horrifying military bungle that cost so many lives.

  2. Wonderful, moving post, Craig. My WIP for my Africa series takes place in 1915, during WWI in East Africa, so I have been absorbed with the history of those days. I watched the film “Gallipoli” again. It broke my heart again.

  3. It is strange - I can remember my parents in South Africa talking about Gallipoli. I can't remember the context though.

  4. Craig, forty years ago I saw the film Gallipoli, and the images burned into my mind by that experience are the first to surface whenever I think of the senseless slaughter--past and present--of the young fighting old men's wars.