Peace reigns at last as Anzacs pay solemn tribute to soldiers slaughtered in Gallipoli

On sacred Turkish soil, all sides salute the fallen in spirit of startling generosity

President Michael D Higgins places carnations on the graves of  soldiers at the 57th Turkish Regiment cemetery and memorial site in Gallipoli. Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

President Michael D Higgins places carnations on the graves of soldiers at the 57th Turkish Regiment cemetery and memorial site in Gallipoli. Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

 

True worshipers are those who tread gently on the earth, said the Rev Lance Lukin, quoting the Koran. And then the principal chaplain of the New Zealand Defence Forces added his own take: “Tread gently on this gentle soil,” he urged.

The soil was at Chunuk Bair, the highest point reached in the hills of the southern Gallipoli Peninsula by the invading Allied forces in April 1915. From here, they caught a tantalising glimpse of the Dardanelles, the gateway to their ultimate prize – Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known.

His audience was the 3,000 or so mainly New Zealanders for whom the soil of Chunuk Bair truly is sacred – to the memory of the 2,779 Kiwis who died, and to the 5,212 others wounded, during a campaign whose lasting effect was not the stain of defeat but the creation of a deep sense of nationhood back home, a feeling that succeeding generations have nurtured.

Wellspring

AustraliaNew Zealand Army

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the sphinx was a kindly but ferocious guardian at the gateway. At Anzac Cove, it looked down on slaughter that, just as for New Zealanders, Australians came to see as the wellspring of their sense of identity. “What they showed here is what we are” was how one Australian woman explained to me her presence at the place where 8,709 of her compatriots died and 19,441 were wounded during the April to December 1915 campaign.

She was one of some 10,000 people, plus about 500 dignitaries, among them President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina; the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand; Prince Charles and his son, Prince Harry; the Turkish minister of EU affairs, Volken Boskir, and numerous senior military officers from many countries, who filled a huge amphitheatre that looked out on to the Aegean from whence came the invading forces 100 years ago to the morning.

There was an embracing stillness about the setting, the silence broken not so much by a dawn chorus but marked by the occasional chirrup of a single bird. Many of the 10,000, wrapped in sleeping bags and woollies, had been waiting since 5pm on Friday for this, the 5.30am dawn service on Saturday.

It began with a rendition on the didgeridoo by classical performer William Barton. He made musical sounds at times feathery, screaming and whispering, that seemed to speak to something deeply primal.

A giant screen displayed, in words and pictures, some of what happened here and the names of some who died. Each had an epithet, the last being: “He saved others. Himself he could not save.”

Ethereal notes, no words, came from a choir and all the while, the night was drawing to a close, light of the day winning, gradually, but no direct sun came to break through the clouds. Dignitaries lined up but the moment and the mood belonged really to the setting and to the 10,000. They were solemn, serious and attentive to all they were part of.

The speech of the day belonged to New Zealand prime minister John Key. He saluted, he said, the Anzacs who died here “as I salute those who fought against them”. Had situations been reversed, and Turks invaded his country, he had no doubt that brave young men in New Zealand would have acted the same.

It was a comment of startling generosity, one that matched the oft repeated words of Atatürk, the Turkish commander on Chunuk Bair and nationbuilder of post-Ottoman empire Turkey, who in 1934 wrote to Anzac mothers, telling them their dead sons and husbands were at peace in the soil and were now also the sons of his country.

Turkey’s sons are remembered at the 57th Regiment Martyr’s Memorial near Chunuk Bair, a honey-coloured stone campanile atop a tiered lawn of memorial stones to just a few of the 86,692 Turks who died at Gallipoli, along with 164,617 who were wounded.

Rows of bright red Turkish flags fluttered as the dignitaries decamped for another service of remembrance.

Wreaths were laid, including by President Higgins who participated at all ceremonies associated with the Gallipoli 100 commemorations.

As the dignitaries walked among the Turkish headstones, an enthusiasm seemed to grip Sabina Higgins as she placed red carnations on almost every stone, rushing from one to another. “I’m admiring your energy,” whispered Prince Harry as she rejoined the VIPs.

There was conspicuous warmth throughout the weekend between President Higgins’ and his wife and the British royal party, particularly between the president and Prince Harry who were seen chatting regularly like old friends.

There was something about the New Zealand ceremony, something intangible that hit the emotions. As at the dawn service, pride of place was accorded to Maori tradition, with three members of the NZ defence forces setting the tone by performing the Karanga – the Call to Gathering. It too was ethereal, a scream-like lamentation from our world into the spirit world.

“There is no way to sanitise what happened here 100 years ago and nor should we try,” said Mr Key. But, he added, events had given Kiwis a sense of identity and, ultimately, their sovereignty.

Lt-Col William Malone led the Wellington Infantry Battalion’s assault on Chunuk Bair at 3am on August 8th, 1915. “My sweetheart,” he wrote to his wife before it began, “everything promises well as victory should rest with us.” Of his 760 men, he and 710 others perished as they mounted the summit. Kiwi reinforcements held it for less than two days before being overwhelmed by Turkish forces.

“We are now all of us friends,” said Chaplain Lukin, ending his remarks in Maori – “Peace and happiness.”