Gallipoli Centenary – Part III

This is my third and final post on the pilgrimage I undertook last year to the Centenary of the ANZAC landings in Gallipoli on 25th April, 1915,

Click links to go back to Part I and Part II

Antipodean Ignorance

Travelling with my sister, we made the 6 – 7 hour journey from Istanbul to the Gallipoli Peninsula en masse in lines of coach-buses. This was the cheapest way to get to the Gallipoli National Park and also one of the few options left to us with only a few weeks to go until the event started and private transport being prohibited in the park. Our tour company had outdone themselves sourcing 30 or 40 extra buses and tour guides as ballot winners got last minute advice that they had successfully secured a ticket. Thousands of Kiwis and Australians of all ages and varying degrees of knowledge of Turkey, swept into a succession of roadside comfort stops enroute, often overwhelming limited resources.

We had a slightly embarrassing incident at one of these.  The line for the “ladies” was so long that we had genuine concerns that our bus might leave without us. As we inched closer to the bathroom, we noticed some local girls giving us all odd looks as they walked out. The queue turned a corner and I spied a sign above the door. I only have a very basic grasp of the lingo, but possibly more than the other women in our queue, because I began to suspect that this wasn’t the ladies bathroom we were queuing for. I got out my smart phone and tried to translate the text, but it took me a while by which time we had made it into the outer section of the bathroom. This consisted of a square room with nothing in it, only serving to confirm my suspicions more. My translator finally blinked out an answer. It wasn’t a bathroom but a prayer room. The queue was heading right through the prayer area and there did appear to be an ablution room in the back. This consisted of a row of taps and benches, presumably for washing feet. In the far corner there was a door which I was told by the person who was next to go in that it contained a single squat loo. We decided that as we were so close to the front of the queue we’d stay there, but later as we returned to the bus, we saw the real toilets, with no queues, around the back of the cafeteria. It wasn’t to be our last bathroom mistake, and I hope the locals were forgiving of our antipodean ignorance.

The Good, The Bad and the Disgraceful

We had all been told we would have to negotiate three checkpoints to get in to the event. There were very real security worries and important guests, such as HRH the Prince of Wales, would be in attendance. It was reassuring to know that the Turkish armed forces would have the place completely safe-guarded. The entire national park had been in lock-down for 24 hours while they swept the area for terrorist activity. It obviously takes time to get 10,500 people into a small area, so we were expecting queues and long waits.

In my mind, a long wait is an hour, maybe two hours. I never thought, as our bus joined the queue just 500 metres from the first check-point at the Kabatepe Museum, that it would take five hours to get through it.

Our young tour guide was obviously a last minute ring-in. Like a mother hen with 50-odd wards, he was always on the verge of panic. He appeared to know very little about the battles at Gallipoli and didn’t seem to realise that nearly all on our bus were New Zealanders. He kept calling us Aussies and wondered why we didn’t want to buy the Australian flag from the hawkers that walked up and down beside the row of buses.

The other two checkpoints were straight forward. Well almost. At checkpoint 2 where we left the bus, we were given bags of goodies: programmes, information, a plastic poncho and a beanie. Unfortunately, as it was dark by this stage, we were unable to read any of it.

Just before we went through the final checkpoint into the stadium, we passed in between a double row of chemical loos. Not knowing if I’d get another chance to go, I decided to brave one of them. I noticed they all had bey (men) on the doors, with not a single one being designated for women. I figured that the wording was misleading, probably from another event, and these loos must be unisex.  I randomly chose an unoccupied loo, handed my bags to my sister and pulled open the door. Sitting facing me (yes sitting – no squat loos here), was a member of the Turkish Gendarmerie, with his uniform around his ankles. I don’t know who was more surprised, but the jandarma have a reputation not to be messed with. I slammed the door shut but not before I saw the priceless, bewildered look on his face. My sister, who was holding my bags, and I reeled back in shock and then we ran away as fast as we could; overtaken by uncontrollable giggles. When we arrived at the final checkpoint seconds later, they thought we were drunk and wouldn’t let us in until we calmed down.

Dawn Ceremony Stadium Gallipoli 2015
Looking right from my seat
IMG_2263
Looking to the left of my seat

There were more chemical loos inside the stadium which we used, fortunately, as we were unable to leave our seats again. The tiered seats were arranged in about a dozen sections. Most of them seemed to be taken already, but the crowd was very friendly and people were calling out when they had spare seats near them. Eventually by climbing over several people, and apologising for banging them on the head with our mini backpacks, stepping on knees and and in one case falling into someone’s lap, we managed to find two together right near the back. The evening’s warm-up programmes had already begun and on checking my ipone I found it had gone midnight. We were too far away to see the stage area, but giant screens faced us. We could see the water— dark and ominous at this time of night, and we could feel the atmosphere—expectant, tired and united. It was a good feeling.

We knew the temperature could drop below zero, but we had brought sleeping bags and merino underlayers. In an effort to reduce luggage, I had not brought a beanie because we had been promised one in our welcome packs. I was now finally able to get this out and put it on and to my dismay found it was made of cotton fleece instead of wool. I have to say that my head was the only part of my body that was cold that night. I watched the school choir that attended from a Sydney college with horror. They were all in their school uniforms. No rugs, jackets, gloves or hats. Even my grandfather had a great coat during the campaign 100 years earlier. His diary mentions ditching it on the first day because it was too heavy and hot, but these would have been collected again.

I tried to find my elderly parents who also managed to get last minute tickets. They had gone on a longer tour of Turkey and we had no idea where they were, but it turns out they were seated just as far away from the water as we were. I found myself being very thankful for our distant seats. Many many people did not get seats at all and they packed them in so tightly that they were told they weren’t even allowed to sit on the ground. I can’t imagine standing for that many hours and really feel for those people. On the plus side though, they were able to get out of the stadium at the end quickly, while we waited over an hour.

Probably the cleverest part of the pre-dawn entertainment was the moments of silence in between each segment. Yes the silence. Here they had piped in the gentle sound of waves lapping against the shoreline. Although not very authentic, it did give a certain eeriness and I found it lent a degree of anticipation and helped me focus on why we were there without the clutter of people talking.

The worst part was that we were seated amongst mainly Australians and I have to say they rudely chatted and stood up during any segment that was based on NZ experiences. But they were all respectfully silent during the Australian segments. I think it would have been better if the two groups had been separated.

I had been looking forward to the arrival of a group of New Zealand and Australian surf lifesavers who had rowed all the way from Istanbul down the Dardanelles to ANZAC Cove and were due to arrive at dawn. The surf boats they rowed are very similar to the boats the ANZACs landed in and I thought it would be a nice touch for them to arrive on the beach during the moments of silence. I heard later that they did arrive at ANZAC Cove at dawn, but as I already mentioned in Part II, the stadium is not at ANZAC Cove, but a few hundred metres further along the coast, so we didn’t see them at all.

The best surprise (for those of us that couldn’t read our programmes in the dark) happened while it was still dark, but just as the sun was beginning to make its presence felt. Across the water, a bright light seemed to be growing in size and coming closer. A looming shape began to emerge from the mists. This slowly grew larger until it was unmistakably a great warship of unknown nationality. As it approached, another warship emerged behind it. And then another and another. Until as the dawn broke, a dozen warships and destroyers lined up in a column across the front of the stadium. These came from six nations including the frigate HMNZS Te Kaha all the way from New Zealand. They were silent, graceful and powerful.

I got a few grainy photos with my iphone, but had trouble using it in the dark, and was worried about the battery running out.a column of warships

The ceremony began in the traditional fashion at dawn. Princes Charles and Harry and other dignitaries gave speeches. The Gallipoli Campaign happened while Prince Charles’ great-grandfather King George V was on the throne of England. His speech did not acknowledge that there were children and grandchildren in the crowd. He merely referred to the great-grandchildren and gt-gt-grandchildren. We thought that was indicative of the attitude of the whole organisation. There are many many children of original ANZAC soldiers still alive, and it is obviously most meaningful for them, so it was sad that yet again they weren’t especially recognised.

After the ceremony, we began the long wait to leave the stadium and then started the trek up the hill. At first we made good progress, until we reached the back end of the queues waiting to get into the Australian service at Lone Pine. Then it was walk five seconds, wait five seconds. This went on and on, until we decided to push past on the left, often precariously balanced on the edge of a steep cliff. Some of the Australians seemed to be very offended at us pushing past, perhaps not realising that there was no point in us waiting in their queue. We still had a long way to go to get to the top at Chenuk Bair where the New Zealander’s hold their civil service. Standing all the way along the dirt track at regular intervals, were fully armed Turkish soldiers wearing the pale blue beret. They seemed incredulous at the crowds, possibly especially at the number of women and older age groups amongst us.

Lone Pine Track
The pink line shows the track up the hill. If you look closely you can see the crowds of people all the way along the track.

Once we left behind the Australians, the pace became much more relaxed and to be frank, friendly. We met several mounted soldiers/police. I have to say here that they were all, without exception, polite, approachable and very proud. There was now plenty of space to walk freely and explore the battlefields and cemeteries that we passed. I was surprised to find so many people who had no link to Gallipoli at all other than being New Zealanders. This just goes to show how important this day is to all Kiwis. Why else would you put yourself through the trials and expense of ANZAC Day at Gallipoli, if it weren’t important?

My sister had begun to feel ill at the bottom of the hill, despite being a generally fit and healthy person. It was almost like she was trying to hold on because she hardly complained at all but, by the time we reached the holding area at the top of the hill, a fever took hold of her and she had to lie down. While she was resting, I went to find my parents who had been waiting for hours, having themselves been driven to the top. Then I checked back on my sister only to find she was deteriorating very rapidly. There was a Turkish first aid tent and I encouraged her to go see them, where they gave her a jab of antibiotics and let her lie down on a stretcher.

Our tickets for the special New Zealand service, were each printed with a letter from A to E. Ours was the letter “E”. The “A’s” were told to line up and sent off to the temporary stadium that had been erected around the Chenuk Bair memorial. Finally it was the turn of the last group – the E’s. To our dismay, we were told that there wasn’t room in the stadium for us and we would watch the service on a screen in a paddock. I decided that if I was just going to watch a telly, I could do that back in New Zealand, and went back to stay with my sister. There was another screen in the holding area which had shown the Australian service, but this broke down and was unable to be reconnected. I would have loved to have been there, especially because I later found out that the service was being taken by the minister who married my husband and I.

I cannot fathom how the organisers thought it was appropriate to give out tickets to people when they knew there was no room for them. Perhaps they thought we wouldn’t mind. We never received an official apology. I have to say, that it was a disgraceful state of affairs, and while some of the E-ticket holders didn’t mind, there were many that I spoke to who were furious. For many of us, the civil service is more important than the dawn ceremony.

After the service that I didn’t see, there was one final wait, while each of our buses trudged up the hill to collect us. It was just on midnight when we finally walked through our hotel door in Istanbul.

So, in summary, did I enjoy myself? Yes absolutely. Was it worth going to? No, it really wasn’t. I felt, on the whole, that the day which belonged to us, the descendants, was hijacked by self-important personages. I truly felt that the organisers just didn’t really understand what Gallipoli means to those of us who are descended from the original ANZAC soldiers. But I was pleased that so many New Zealanders feel the day is sacred and a new generation of Kiwis are likely to keep the  spirit of the occasion alive. I was also pleased at how beautifully the National Park and the various cemeteries and monuments are kept.

I would recommend people visit the national park, but just not on ANZAC Day. Stay at Çanakkale for two nights and take a private car across on the ferry. Visit the museum to get your bearings, arm yourself with a trench map, and then go at your own pace.

I love to hear your views. Please leave a comment.