Friday, April 25, 2014

Lest we forget: remembering the ANZACs

Down here in New Zealand and Australia, and for others all around the world who have links to our two nations, the 25th of April is a very special, and sombre day; ANZAC Day. It is a day when we pause and remember the soldiers, sailors, and others who have served (and are still serving) our countries in wars and conflicts all over the world.

Ninety-nine years ago to this very day, 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. It was a military bungle by the British commanders - 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.

Despite being so far away from the conflict, and in no direct danger ourselves, more than 100,000 New Zealand troops and nurses served overseas during the First World War, from a population of just over one million. 42% of men of military age served. And over the past century, Australia and New Zealand have contributed greatly on the world stage in many ways and in many diverse areas, generally 'punching far above our weight' given our geographic isolation and small populations - and in some ways this can be traced back to the values associated with 'the ANZAC tradition'.

This time in 2011, I was huddled against the cold on the Gallipoli peninsula, awaiting the dawn, amongst thousands of New Zealanders and Australians who'd made the pilgrimage. It was a surreal and special experience, and it affected me far more, and differently, than I expected. Amongst many realisations on what was a very special trip to Turkey was this: ANZAC Day is really about three countries, not just two.

Every year the Turkish people open up their arms and hearts to the descendants and fellow countrymen of an invading force that landed on their shores with the express intent of over-running them, of beating them down and back (if, in our eyes, for a very good cause). How special a place is Turkey? How many countries would host, create, and maintain a memorial for people who came trying to kill their fellow countrymen? War is a horrible, horrible thing, for whatever reason it is fought. How many commanders would, years later, say this of the men who he 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
Turkey is a very special place, for many, many reasons. It is full of history, from Greek and Roman times, Biblical times, the Ottoman Empire, and much more. Of course, it is a place many New Zealanders and Australians feel some connection to, too, for more recent history.

Outside of my writing about crime fiction and crime writers, I also write other articles for a number of publications. In the past few years I've been fortunate enough to get to write a couple of features about the Anzac tradition and Anzac Day, including one about my trip there in 2011. You can read a feature I wrote about the importance of Anzac Day, which included several interviews with servicepeople, here: WildTomato large feature article, April 2009

Unfortunately the link to my feature reflecting on attending Gallipoli is no longer. Things change. So I've included the article below, for those that are interested.

Lest we forget
Earlier this year Craig Sisterson travelled halfway around the world to remember our country’s history and mark Anzac Day on the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli

It’s their ages that get you. 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 in Turkey. 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. I like to consider myself still a young (ish) man, at 32, and yet only two of the dozens 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.

Anzac. It’s a powerful word for anyone from our end of the world. But despite attending many a 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 on foreign soil earlier this year. Ninety-six years ago to the day our nations first fought side-by-side under the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps banner, our soldiers landing together at dawn on that desolate beach on the Gallipoli peninsula.

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. 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. But now 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.

That day a few weeks ago hordes of tour groups, thousands of Kiwis and Aussies mainly in their 20s and 30s, invaded the peninsula. Our predecessors came to fight for freedom, we came to remember. And as we then mingled in the warm spring sunshine, many of us bedecked in black or green and gold, jokes and banter flowing as we waited a few hours for the security gates to open and slowly process everyone for the overnight stay (alcohol is no longer allowed on site, and security checks rival most airports), it was easy to briefly forget that beneath the ground all around us lay many of our countrymen whose lives saw far less years than we’d already seen.

More than 2,700 New Zealanders and 8,700 Australians died at Gallipoli. Young men and boys from across our nations. But let’s not forget, around 20,000 Turks died on that peninsula too, defending their country against outside invaders. We were fighting for freedom, but so were they.

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. 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 Air 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 Julia Gillard and John Key, during the night we saw broadcasts from services 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 isn’t the end of the 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 the New Zealand service far up the road at Chunuk Bair (“typical bloody Kiwis, having to overachieve and take the highest point” - a regular grumble from those puffing their way up the hill). Turkish boy scouts handed out water bottles on the way up.

It’s 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 for not just two countries, but three. When you think about it, how many nations would warmly welcome the descendants of an invading force to come and celebrate the very men who killed so many of their own people? How many military commanders would later, as President of their country, say words such as those of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (see sidebar)? It’s amazing what the Turkish people have done at Anzac Cove, not only opening their doors, but creating a memorial area for thousands of Kiwis and Aussies to gather every year. And just another reason why Turkey is such an amazing place.

Originally published in issue 162 of NZLawyer magazine, June 2011

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