Birth of a nation   18 Apr 2006

Visiting Gallipoli is a rite of passage for many Kiwis and Aussies, and each year seems to become more significant as the failed WWI campaign slides further into the pages of history. ANDREA ADAMS GIBSON reflects her Gallipoli experience and how the plight at Anzac Cove helped carve out an identity for a young nation.

The group had grown largely quiet, as this area often commands tour groups to be. Captain Ali asked me to read the inscription to the rest of the group. It was at this point the reality of the words hit me. This was the ultimate act of Turkish hospitality, to which all Turks adhere to, especially for Australians and New Zealanders.

I felt a sense of belonging, strangely, in a country thousands of kilometres away from my birthplace. This, I thought, is why we should come here, not for the advertised alcohol-Anzac-Tours promoted in London.

Walking further along the coastline it was easy to imagine the scene of a game of cricket being played by the Anzac soldiers on the beach along from Anzac Cove. Due to the high cliffs, Turkish forces were unable to fire upon this secluded beach. I then tried to compare this image with the scene of complete chaos as the first Australian Division attempted to set foot on the shore at dawn, on April 25, 1915.

This image of war during my tour was to be often juxtaposed with that of friendship. Captain Ali had already told us the tales of how the soldiers (in between the rounds of serious gunfire) would toss cigarettes and chocolate across the trenches in exchange for tomatoes and bread. This was possible due to the close proximity of the Turkish and Allied trenches – at some points barely 7m separates them. The Turkish soldiers empathised with the Antipodean soldiers, whose food supplies were not appropriate for the Turkish climate. I, too, only experienced warmth, friendship and welcoming from all Turkish people, "kia ora Kiwi" was to be often heard. And the tomatoes were fantastic.

Playing cricket is not the only Antipodean image that modern day Turks have. Throughout the small village of Eceabat (the closest village to the battlefields), Vegemite is readily available, the Australian and New Zealand flags fly next to the Turkish, and the local pub is called the Boomerang Bar. Here the Turks also recognise the Antipodean appreciation of a good drink by displaying signs such as: "Yes, we do serve alcohol to intoxicated persons."

My presumption was – I’m in Gallipoli. Only Antipodeans come here. But throughout Turkey places such as Kiwi Hostel, All Blacks Pension and ANZ pension (no connection with the bank) all exist.

And Gallipoli is not just about Kiwis and Aussies. Before the nine-month Gallipoli campaign beginning in what is now known as Anzac Cove, 20,800 British soldiers lost their lives in Cape Helles at the southern point of the Gallipoli peninsular.

So why is Gallipoli so important a pilgrimage for Australians and New Zealanders alike? For many people, and the reason I was drawn there is that this futile war brought about an identity for our then very young nations. Young New Zealand and Australian men entered into an army they knew little or nothing about, they were simply going to fight for their distant monarch. They were led into a war by English leaders like lambs to the slaughter. Nine months later, after much unnecessary bloodshed, they left – not as British subjects, but as Australians and Kiwis. Their unique identity had been born.

It is rare to find a person from either country who did not lose a family member to this war. Many people from my generation and before can recall stories their grandparents told about siblings, uncles or fathers who fought in this war, which we commemorate on April 25 every year.

I was glad to have had this experience of this special area without the hordes I’d seen on Anzac day. Don’t get me wrong – the memory is still very strong of sitting near Anzac Cove in the early hours of the morning on April 25, 2002, watching as the sun slowly rose over "The Sphinx" behind me. The sound of melancholic bagpipes eerily signaling the beginning of the Dawn Service while the sky slowly turned from a dark grey, gradually pink, then blue as the service reached its conclusion.

In fact Anzac Day was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had. Just – if you’re planning on going – simply be prepared to share it with those around you. I’d expected half the crowd to be drunk – but very few people were drinking – and now thankfully alcohol has been banned at the site. Only a handful had passed the bitterly cold night in the company of Jack Daniels and the local Efes – paying the ultimate price of sleeping through the Dawn Service.

Anzac Day aside, the battlefields are a must see without the crowds to fully appreciate the reality of what happened there nearly a century ago. Meeting locals is also possible when there are fewer people, and is also the highlight of my relationship with this country.

I recently had the fortune of meeting "Uncle" Sabri. Considered the original Anzac guide, he is an elderly citizen from the town of Eceabat. He opens his home to all travellers who come through, to hear his stories – and they can see his many shelves lined with many more books that tell the history of many countries, and many which tell the story of Anzac.

He handed me two books to read – not published books, but rather two dusty diary-type books. Each of the pages was filled by the words of people he had met. People ranging from ordinary travellers like myself, to high-ranking commanders, to well-known writers.

The general thoughts of these people echoed mine, both about this sacred part of the world, its inhabitants and Uncle Sabri himself. His home became known as "Anzac House" (a name to be later cleverly acquired by a hostel in the town of Çanakkale, on the other side of the Dardanelles).

Uncle Sabri is another story in his own right. I never learned his age, but the knowledge he held indicated he’d spent more than a few years there. He must have done so to have simply had time to read all his books.

His English was better than mine – self taught from his books. He established the Anzac Dawn Service ceremonies back in 1965, when less than 100 people were present. These days the numbers exceed 10,000.

A futile war brings the hordes to this peninsular every year, but now in 2006, the threat of terrorism, earthquakes and bird flu is – but shouldn’t be – keeping people away.

On this particular Anzac day, in 2002 - navigating my way back to Eceabat in a hire car, along a road the width of a car, was somewhat frightening. On the other side of me were tour buses, bumper to bumper – more than 700 of them, slowly snaking their way in the opposite direction passed the ceremonial site to pick up the travellers. We could have walked back a lot quicker.

I didn’t dare to accelerate over 20km/hour – though I’d never be an honorary Turk at these speeds, especially while wearing my seatbelt. It was a relief to see the sign "Ho? Geldiniz, Welcome to Eceabat" over my head. It was only 9am but felt much later as we’d been up all night waiting at the ceremonial site for the service to begin.

But there was no time for sleep as I got to see the locals in action. Many entrepreneurs start planning their Anzac Day projects months in advance, hoping for a windfall.

For many living in Eceabat, April 22 to 26 each year is the only time they can generate an adequate income. One that will sustain them until the next group of travellers arrive.

It would be shame to miss out on the hospitality thst is in full flow in Eceabat and Çanakkale after the ceremonies at Ariburnu, Çunuk Bair and Lone Pine. Beer is cheap, music is Antipodean and BBQs abound. A pub crawl is easy – it’s a 10 minute walk from one end of the village to the other, or alternatively about 50p to take the legendary donkey and cart ride. The driver is rumoured to be the biggest financial winner over this time, making more money in three days than the rest of the year put together. But it’s all relative, as he only makes about £1000.

When I left New Zealand, Anzac Day was a day off school or work and the shops closed for half a day. A holiday I wouldn’t get in England.

After a visit to Gallipoli on Anzac Day, I realised what it means to be Kiwi and how such an event actually shaped our nation.

The men who lost their lives in this futile campaign should be remembered if not for what they were blindly fighting for, but for what they achieved as a result. A nation with an identity set aside from Britain, and another nation that welcomes us in with open (no visa needed for Kiwis) arms.

Gelibolu (Gallipoli) is indeed a truly special place.

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Your Comments:

left by John Gibson 25 Apr 2006

A wonderful and most interesting story. Parades and day long television documentaries about these events Andrea has described.

left by Sara Gardner 26 Apr 2006

excellent story it certainly made me sit down and think about gallipoli. i feel our soldiers deserve more than 1/2 day closure of retail outlets for all the chances and bravery they gave to us.

left by Louise Gibson 26 Apr 2006

Gallipoli leaves its emotional mark on all those who visit and gives meaning to Anzac Day. From the other side of the world on Anzac Day I remember my 1991 visit to Anzac Cove in Gallipoli well. Etched in my memory too is the warm Turkish welcome I received all over Turkey. In particular the grandmother on a local rural bus who on finding out I was from NZ - put her hand on her heart and said (in English) "NZers are very close to our hearts". I felt humbled that I could not return the sentiment in Turkish.

left by Louise Gibson 26 Apr 2006

Gallipoli leaves its emotional mark on all those who visit and gives meaning to Anzac Day. From the other side of the world on Anzac Day I remember my 1991 visit to Anzac Cove in Gallipoli well. Etched in my memory too is the warm Turkish welcome I received all over Turkey. In particular the grandmother on a local rural bus who on finding out I was from NZ - put her hand on her heart and said (in English) "New Zealanders are very close to our hearts". I felt humbled that I could not return the sentiment in Turkish.

left by Sue McMillan 26 Apr 2006

Thanks Andrea. So glad to read your comments and impressions and to know of the impact of Gallipoli on you and others. What a gift to have been able to experience ANZAC Cove on ANZAC Day and then again when all was quiet, and also to have your deeper insight into the Turks. This is a place we must go one day.

left by David Gibson 30 Apr 2006

I have not had the privilege of travelling to Gallipoli, but I have read about the place of this campaign in New Zealand's development as a nation in Michael King's History of New Zealand, and I have watched television documentaries on the subject. Your comments on this place, this event and these people echo what have I read and heard - a special people with a genuine affection for the citizens of the nations whose children lie buried on their land. Perhaps, one day, I too shall have the chance to visit this special place.

left by Pat McIntosh 23 Apr 2015

I too stayed with Uncle Sabri in 1989. I have just heard that he is still alive! After him guiding me through batlle feilds of Gallipoli I can back to New Zealand and released Tall Poppies. Thank you Uncle Sabri for your kindess and generous spirit, I will never forget you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7y68dO_Qx8

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