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2015 Gallipoli evacuation was one big mess

May 12th, 2015

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AND so to Gallipoli, for the centenary of the disastrous first World War campaign, in the company of An Uachtarain Michael D Higgins of Ireland.

That’s slightly gilding the poppy, as your correspondent wasn’t in the President’s party, but on the same plane, in steerage rather than the glamour of first-class.

Turkish Airlines are a pleasant carrier, but even the president’s presence didn’t mean we got into the air on time at Dublin.

However that was a minor transport consideration compared to what lay ahead.

It was all right for the Prez, he was limousined into the site of the famous dawn service at Gallipoli, along with Prince Charles of England, Prince Harry, prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Key, from Australia and New Zealand respectively, very early on April 25. They would have arrived a short time before the 5.30 am commencement of a very beautiful and moving tribute to the thousands of Irishmen, Australians and New Zealanders – the Anzacs – who were slaughtered here between April and December 1915.

But for the rest of us, the common herd, it was an arduous journey of many hours, then standing room only on a cramped piece of lawn in the nippy cool of a Turkish April night.

It’s unbecoming to complain about minor physical discomfort when you’re all there to remember loss of promising young life on an appalling scale. Still, as my companion and I travelled around Turkey in the two weeks after April 25, we continually bumped into antipodeans who had also attended the dawn service, and, more arduous, the subsequent individual services to remember the Australian and New Zealand casualties.

“Were you at Gallipoli?” would be the greeting, followed by “Which bus were you on?” The second question was invariably asked with lowered voice and heightened intensity, then maybe some laughter, or maybe moans. For the “evacuation” of Gallipoli 2015, unlike the astonishingly smooth departure 100 years ago, was a messy affair. People, many in the later decades of life, who had walked miles and gone without sleep, had the added bonus of waiting between one and six hours – average four – for their departure bus. The “evacuation’” process was led by the Turkish authorities, but implemented by the Australian government, in particular the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

This, as noted by the humorous gent called Martin Page who commandeered the public address system, was run something like bingo. A large screen in the middle of the memorial site showed a chart with coloured boxes, which indicated whether a bus was nearby or ready to leave with its load.

Every bus – and there were nearly 300 – had its own identifying number, which all passengers had practically embedded in their skin, and certainly their souls.

At first there was just the odd bus number appearing – number 51, for example. As the day wore on – and perhaps the authorities realised that many of the 10,000 attendees would still be on the isolated hillside when darkness fell – more bus numbers would pop up at the same time, with the exit at which passengers should assemble.

The numbers were also read out by our friend Martin, who added social details – “and Jenny and Graham, on bus 179, have just got engaged!” Loud cheers from the crowd. “I’m afraid Daisy Johnson is missing from bus 211.” A chorus of “Daisy, Daisy, get to your bus-stop do” was the crowd’s response. Everyone was shattered with fatigue and lack of food– one small food vendor for 8,000 people was clearly not enough – but the crowd maintained its even temper.

Anzac Day has reached gigantic proportions of significance in Australia, where it is often referred to as the genuine national day, rather than January 26, the official national holiday, which marks white settlement. The First Fleet of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into what became Sydney Cove on that date in 1788; in some thought circles it’s referred to as Invasion Day. Anzac Day, once a time for marches of returned soldiers, many elderly, through half-deserted city centres, is now a focus for near-hysterical rhetoric about this being the founding myth of Australian identity, mateship, strength in adversity and so forth. This narrative was promoted tirelessly by former Liberal (ie, conservative) prime minister, John Howard, and his current unpopular descendant, Tony Abbott.

Mr Abbott, who took personal interest in this year’s centenary, made a lacklustre speech at the dawn service, the highlight of which was a Maori choir, and, surprisingly, well-chosen words by Prince Charles. The heir to the British throne chose to read much of a letter written by an Anzac to his wife, which was evocative and touching.

As an Irish citizen and a Michael D. fan, I found it a serious omission, an organisational oversight, that President Higgins did not speak at the ceremony. Granted, many of the crowd might not have known that, proprtionally, the Irish contingent had the greatest loss of life at Gallipoli. But the president was the senior non-antipodean politician present: rumours that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would attend proved groundless. (It should be noted that the Turkish nation suffered a huge loss of life defending the Gallipoli peninsula, and has its own day of remembrance separately.)

The peninsula is one big graveyard, beautifully maintained in parts, left wild and natural in others. It’s about five hours’ drive from the capital, Istanbul, out in the beautiful Turkish countryside, with its poppies, tulips and yellow mustard-plant everywhere. At that time of the year, the blossoms are coming out in a million trees across the vast land. So pretty – but if only all those boys and men who were shipped to a place so many had never heard of, 100 years ago, at the behest of Churchill and Kitchener, had also never laid eyes on it.

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Further reading: What’s Wrong With Anzac? by Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

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