As the Prime Minister exhorts Australians to attend centenary Anzac Day services in order to support 'our country's values', I find myself reminiscing about my first experience at an Anzac Day service in Gallipoli a decade ago.
In 2005 I was privileged to attend the first of three Anzac Day services at Gallipoli in my role as the deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Turkey. Our Embassy team, in cooperation with a small team from the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Canberra, was responsible for organising the ceremonies with our Turkish hosts and ensuring the safety of Australians attending the services. My principal job on the day was coordinating the visit of Prime Minister John Howard and his delegation.
The 2005 services were controversial because of problems with the Anzac Cove road, overcrowding, a decision to play disco music to entertain the crowds sleeping at the site, inappropriate behaviour by some younger 'pilgrims', and rubbish left at the site. Vast improvements were made the following year, including upgraded and educational screen entertainment provided to the visitors in the hours before the ceremony (keep in mind that the only way to reach the Gallipoli National Park on 25 April is via coach from Istanbul, so thousands of people arrive at the site in the dark and are there for many hours before dawn in near freezing temperatures and without shelter). The improvements were necessary but created a new (and expensive) tradition of the Australian Government controlling the telling of the Anzac story through high quality modern entertainment at a place many believe to be sacred.
The commemorative services at Gallipoli run over two days. The Turkish, British and French services are all held on 24 April. 25 April is reserved for the Anzacs, with the famous dawn service followed later by an Australian service at Lone Pine and the New Zealand service at Chunuk Bair.
The services on 25 April all work to a similar formula: 45 minutes of speeches from the most senior VIPs, then prayers, hymns, national anthems, catafalq parties, wreath-laying and the Last Post. I felt sorry for the speechwriters for visiting politicians and for my ambassador, who had to think of something new to say on a subject on which everything has been said while remembering to be conspicuously polite about our Turkish hosts. The overtly Christian nature of the dawn service and the other two 25 April services always seemed to me a little incongruous in a country where the practice of Christianity was heavily regulated and when Australia was apprehensive about emerging Turkish efforts to portray the Battle of Çanakkale (as the Gallipoli battle is known in Turkey) as a holy war.
I lost count of the number of times Ataturk's famous words about Johnnies and Mehmets lying side by side in peace were uttered during each service, although I suspect our Turkish hosts kept very careful count. There is now doubt about the origin of those words but this is unlikely to have any impact on how often they are quoted in Anzac Day services at Gallipoli.
The dawn service at Anzac Cove is meant to be awe-inspiring but the inspiration is rarely found in the speeches or the hymns. I found the sun rising on the Dardanelles and lighting up the steep cliff-face behind us midway through the ceremony — a stark reminder of the impossible task facing our soldiers in 1915 — to be the most moving element of the service. This natural wonder alone made being at Anzac Cove more meaningful than dawn services in Australia. The catafalq party, carried out by Australian and New Zealand army officers, also had a way of making me hold my breath.
The Australian service at Lone Pine has a different flavour to the dawn service. As we arrived at Lone Pine for my first ceremony there in 2005, it was already full to overflowing with people and there were thousands more walking up the hill, expecting to find seats. Several groups of young Australians draped in the national flag were chanting 'Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi and oi', calling out to Prime Minister Howard and generally creating a carnival atmosphere — not exactly what I had expected.
As the searing sun in a cloudless sky reminded me I had not slept for 30 hours, we scrambled to find seats for all the VIPs and the growing number of Turkish military officers streaming in to the site, and somehow find places where a few thousand more people could at least hear, if not see, the service. While this first experience was somewhat fraught I remember enjoying the community feel of the services I attended at Lone Pine over the following two years, when volunteer choristers from home sang, and Australian primary school children who had won writing competitions read poetry and talked about Simpson and his donkey (sadly, like Ataturk's words, this story is more myth than history).
After three years attending Anzac services in Gallipoli, I remained somewhat baffled by the large numbers of young Australians who made a pilgrimage to an event marking a battle with which they had little if any connection. I was in awe of the success of the Government's efforts to create such passion in a younger generation when I had no such feeling, even as the granddaughter of a World War II veteran and a student of World War I.
Perhaps this was because I made my own connection with this place in a way that had nothing to do with ceremonies or ritual. I made my first trip to the Gallipoli peninsula in late December 2004. With Turkey's best guide, Kenan Celik OAM, and my English husband I visited the sites familiar to most Australians: Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, Hill 60, and then the battle sites and memorials relevant to other Allies and to Turkey. I learned more about Gallipoli from Kenan in one day than in all my years of schooling in Sydney.
The last thing Kenan showed us was a simple stone monument with no names of the dead or details of the battle inscribed. It marked a site where thousands of soldiers, mostly Turkish, were buried as they were killed (because the battle had to continue). It was mid-afternoon and we were beginning to lose the winter sun. I had spent a day walking among graves of young men and gazing at monuments to important stages in the battle. Yet although I had long been taught that this event defined my nation, I was struggling to create my own relationship with the place. It was only at this last, most unfamiliar of sites that I could hear the souls of the dead and I understood.