A teenager’s Anzac pilgrimage
Two weeks before Anzac Day, 2013, and anticipation hangs in the air at Gallipoli. As a 17-year-old surveying the steep gullies, rocky hills and barren cliffs that have become entrenched in the Australian psyche, the temporary metal bleachers seem abruptly out of place. My camera tries to dodge the grandstands and red plastic seats overlooking Anzac Cove where up to 15,000 people will gather before dawn on April 25.
Further up from the beach on the plateau of Lone Pine Cemetery, the drilling and construction of another set of bleachers shakes the reflective mood. But as my study tour enters the tiny, marble Lone Pine chapel with the then Australian consul in Canakkale, Nicholas Sergi, the outside din subsides to a different noise.
Lone Pine Cemetery commemorates soldiers known to have died on this battleground but whose bodies have never been recovered. In post-war years this memorial became a place of pilgrimage for grieving fathers, mothers and widows who didn’t have a grave to kneel by.
We learn the story of Mrs Irwin, an early pilgrim who ventured to Gallipoli in 1926. When her son, George, was reported missing in 1915 she refused to believe him a casualty of battle. Nine years later she is reported to have arrived at the sacred ground upon which I stand and, on seeing his name engraved on a commemorative plaque, exclaimed, “He is not lost, he is found.”
I’ve been asked to sing Amazing Grace to pay homage to soldiers such as George and the lyrics — “I once was lost but now am found” — resonate deeply. Our tour party is still and all remove their Akubras as the melody bounces around the small stone space. As a student studying the horror of war I see this memorial as a place of mourning and loss, yet for mothers such as Mrs Irwin, Lone Pine brought closure.
As the sun sets over the Aegean Sea, we return to the homely Kum hotel in Eceabat on the coast of the Saros Gulf. Its proximity to Anzac Cove, only 8km across quiet farmland, allows tourists and pilgrims to linger for days and cover the battlefields. Although a whistlestop tour of Gallipoli from Istanbul will allow you to tick Anzac Cove off the bucket list — visiting more than 30 Allied cemeteries and memorials — absorbing the dramatic landscape and evidence of a generation lost warrants the luxury of time.
While Australians cling possessively to the Anzac legend, a trip to Gallipoli reinforces that it’s not just our story; 14,300 French died here, represented by hundreds of vertical black crosses in the French war cemetery perched high above Morto Bay. Further north at Suvla Bay, the British memorial of Hill 10 and the predominantly British headstones at Lala Baba and Azmak cemeteries remind us that capturing this peninsula wasn’t only “our” campaign.
Returning south, we visit the much smaller cemetery of Plugge’s Plateau, a grassy pocket with 13 headstones. I’ve prepared a commemorative speech to honour Sydney Smith from Dartmoor in southwest Victoria after discovering his story through an “Adopt-A-Digger” research project. Enlisting on August 31, 1913, in the 6th Battalion, Smith sailed with the first convoy of Australian troops to Egypt, before moving on to Gallipoli on April 25. Within hours of landing on the peninsula, Smith died making his way up Pine Ridge, separated from his fellow troops in the frantic confusion of the landing.
It’s easy to see the carnage of World War I in broad brushstrokes, a multitude of loss. But on reaching Smith’s grave in Plugge’s, the name and service number on the pages of my research become more than two-dimensional facts. The connection I feel with him in this emotive landscape may as well make him my great-grandfather.
Kate Mani is a law/journalism student at Monash University, Melbourne, and the winner of the Boroondara Literary Award 2014 in the Courage in Adversity category. She travelled to Gallipoli and the Western Front in 2013 as a recipient of the Victorian Premier’s Spirit of Anzac Prize.
Memorial at Anzac Cove, top; Lone Pine Cemetery, above right; the writer, above left