Chronicle of the day to day struggle of an average Aussie as he muses on his life and the world in general.
Friday, 24 April 2015
A Day to Remember
The long tentacles of darkness retained a vice-like grip on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The rugged ravines and ridges that were once home to thirty thousand homesick, lonely frustrated soldiers remained hidden and silent. The low hum that permeated the valleys and headlands grew louder by the hour as the backpacker invasion massed on the insignificant, narrow little beach, just as their countrymen had over eight decades previously.
John Henry and Winston Price were but two of the thousands of Australians and New Zealanders who had gathered on this dry, desolate and rocky piece of Turkish coastline to pay tribute to men they never knew. Young men not unlike themselves, who had crossed half the world to find adventure, excitement and companionship. Alas, too many of them had found only death and remained buried on the Gallipoli Peninsula to this day. But they had established a legend that told of courage, sacrifice and determination which, despite the eventual failure of the campaign, was still revered in their native lands. A legend that the patriotic masses gathered on the beach at Anzac Cove would ensure was never forgotten.
Winston Price’s grandfather had landed at Gallipoli at dawn on the 25th of April 1915. The young miner from Kalgoorlie had distinguished himself on the first day of fighting and remained in the thick of the action for five months until evacuated through illness. Winston never knew the man who he was named after, he had died years before Winston was born. But he had heard of the courage and perseverance of his grandfather, and longed to visit the hallowed ground where he had fought, and where Australia had become a nation in the truest sense of the word.
He had decided to travel through Europe, taking the opportunity to visit Turkey and attend the annual dawn service at Gallipoli. He had worked long and hard at his father’s bakery in Perth to get to Europe. He was fulfilling a lifetime ambition.
Winston’s travelling companion was his best friend, John Henry. The young men had gone to school together and had been inseparable for as long as they could remember. John however, was a complete contrast to his friend. He had little interest in history or culture and had simply accompanied his friend to indulge in his passion for drinking and loose women. His father had paid his airfare hoping a European trip would give his son some purpose in life, rather than loafing around Perth, drifting from job to job.
They’d left Australia five weeks beforehand and proceeded to London. After much partying and merriment they had taken a bus tour of the United Kingdom before crossing to mainland Europe. They travelled through France, Germany and Switzerland, partying as they went, before carrying onto Italy. After touring the ancient ruins of Rome they boarded a plane bound for Istanbul.
They stayed in the old capital of the Byzantine Empire for several days, touring the grand mosques and riding the ferries on the Bosphorous before joining an Australian tour group for the five hour trip to the Gallipoli Peninsula and Anzac Cove.
John was getting bored. He had spent most of the money his father had given him and he was running out of patience. Winston had insisted on inspecting every ancient ruin from Scotland to Turkey. John figured if you’d seen one ruined Roman city, you’d seen them all. It had been interesting at first, but he was beginning to find it tedious. Now he was stuck on the Gallipoli Peninsula, a remote, backwards part of the world where there seemed to be little entertainment or fun. He wondered why anyone would want to fight over it.
While Winston toured the Peninsula’s old battlefields, John had stayed in the town of Cannakale, hoping to find some excitement. However there was little to be had, as Turks rarely drank and didn’t seem too keen on partying either. They were flying back to Australia in a few days and John could hardly wait. The Anzacs meant nothing to him, but his life back in Perth did. He was looking forward to getting home.
John had intended to stay in bed rather than go to the dawn service. Winston however had pleaded with him. He felt that his journey wouldn’t be complete if his best friend wasn’t with him. Winston eventually dragged him out of bed and on to the bus, despite John’s continued protestations.
They found themselves in the Ari Burnu cemetery, close to dawn on Anzac Day. Fifteen thousand people from around the world were gathered in the small cemetery on the headland separating Anzac Cove from the long, sweeping crescent of North Beach. Buses and cars, jostled for parking space on the narrow dirt road that ran along the edge of the peninsula, and divided Ari Burnu cemetery from the high sandstone cliffs and scrub-covered hills of the hinterland.
Most of the visitors were Australians and New Zealanders, uniting in the Anzac brotherhood yet again. There was a good smattering of Turks, marvelling at the loud and obtuse demeanours of these foreigners, and diplomatic representatives of a dozen nations, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France and Germany among them.
Around the podium, which was set up on the beach stood a half dozen Turkish policemen. Heavily armed and dressed in black, they were possessed of an attitude that suggested they wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. John wondered what they made of this circus, as he made his way through the crowd and found an empty space for he and Winston to sit. He relaxed and stretched his long legs out in front of him, while resting his back on one of the numerous gravemarkers that dotted the cemetery.
It was spring in Turkey, and though the days were hot, the nights could be chilly. John drew the collar of his jacket around his neck. It was always coldest just before dawn.
‘How long before this show gets on the road?’ asked John of his friend.
‘Well,’ replied Winston, ‘I think it starts around five. That’s when the official party arrives.’
‘Geez,’ remarked John in mock disgust, ‘I could have had another hour in bed.’
‘Well think of it this way,’ said Winston, ‘You could be 20 years old, as you are now, sitting in a rowboat which is heading towards a foreign shore where thousands of enemy solders are waiting to kill you. But you’re not, are you.’
John screwed up his face. ‘I’m sorry Winnie, I don’t get your point?“
‘My point is that the Anzacs who lie in this cemetery gave their lives so as you and I could have a future. It could easily have been us, had we been born at the right time.’
‘Or the wrong time, depending on your point of view. In any case, what makes you think they had any idea what they were fighting for. I’ll bet most of them wouldn’t have been able to point out Turkey on a map, let alone give you an explanation as to why they were fighting here.’
‘You know you can be a real shit at times John,’ replied Winston angrily.
‘Yeah I know. It’s part of my charm.
The pair remained silent for some time.
‘You know,’ continued John, ‘I’ve never been able to figure out this Anzac thing anyway. These guys invaded someone else’s country, were sent home with their tails between their legs, yet we commemorate them every year.’
Winston knew that John was only trying to stir him up. He tried not to bite but he couldn’t help it. Not for the first time, he wondered why his friend had to be so obnoxious and disrespectful.
‘I’ll tell you something Johnny,’ he said, raising himself to his full height. ‘You might not care or understand but I do. And thousands of other people here today do as well. If you make one more half-witted comment between now and the end of the day, I swear I’ll leave you buried in this cemetery. Understand.’
John smiled at his friend through the gloom. He wasn’t sure if Winston was serious or not. In any case, he knew he’d pushed too far.
‘Sit down mate, you know I’m only joking.’
Winston relaxed and sat down. The pair remained silent as they listened to the chattering hordes and waited for the service to begin.
John’s eyelids were growing heavy. The early start to the day and his frequent late nights on this trip, were starting to affect him. He battled the urge to sleep. If he nodded off now, he’d never wake up. Perhaps Winston would wake him. He gave into temptation and closed his eyes. He was soon sleeping deeply.
John was eased out of his sleep, not by Winston, but by a gentle rolling sensation that had overtaken him. A faint breeze began to tickle his face and he noted that the quiet chatter of the backpacker legion had been replaced by deafening silence. He opened his eyes slowly. Nothing. Darkness.
He began to detect the quiet growling of a small motor boat nearby, and the lapping of sea water on a solid hull.
He became aware that he was sitting upright. He tried to move but couldn’t. He seemed to be stuck hard. There were men either side of him, pinning him in place with their shoulders. He could feel their arms and elbows digging into his ribs, and he could hear their short, shallow breathing.
There was something in his hands. Through the gloom he could make out the shape of a .303 rifle. His grandfather had owned one and John had often seen it.
It occurred to him that he was dreaming. It made sense. It was the only thing that did. He was dreaming that he was part of the Anzac landing. But it seemed so real. He could hear, feel and smell everything around him. It was though he was re-living history.
‘I must be dreaming,’ he muttered.
From somewhere in the darkness came a gruff, muffled order.
‘Quiet Private Jones.’
The man on his right whispered in a familiar yet tougher voice
‘You’re not dreaming Johnny, we’re gonna’ be amongst em’ any minute. Plenty for both us.’ It was Winston. He sounded different. Rougher, Harder.
John was on the edge of panic.
‘Winnie, wake me up,’ he whispered. There was no answer.
He heard the pinnaces towing the landing boats pull away. It was extraordinarily eerie in the gentle green-black sea. The surface of the water became as smooth as glass and phospherence glistened on the bows of the boats. The strain was palpable as the landing craft glided slowly to shore. John had learnt enough about Australian history to know what was about to happen. He closed his eyes and asked God to wake him. His dream was about to turn into a nightmare.
The dark shadow of the peninsula loomed above. A flare shot up from a headland followed by the rattled shout of a foreign voice. John heard a single whip crack, then another. Fear swept over him as he realised what it meant. Scattered firing broke out to the front. John’s boat struck the beach hard. He could barely discern the outline of the young subaltern climbing out of the front of the boat.
‘C’mon boys, it’s Australia’s turn,’ he shouted.
Other boats were landing up and down the beach. In the half light of dawn John could just recognise the low headland of Ari Burnu. Young Australians were rushing across the beach, bullets sparking off the shingle all around them. They were cheering and shouting and swearing at their unseen enemy.
John was paralysed with fear. Something beyond his comprehension was happening. It couldn’t be real, he thought.
The man in front of him had fallen backwards into his lap. His khaki tunic was bullet torn and drenched in blood. John pushed the dead man to the floor of the boat. He’d never seen anyone die violently. He vomited.
His comrades had charged out of the boat and he was alone. He surveyed the madness around him.
‘What’s going on,’ he wondered. He dropped his head into his hands in despair. The sporadic gunfire had turned into a cacophony of noise. It crept up the hills in front as the Anzacs began their advance. A horrid shrieking filled the air. It grew louder each second and culminated in a deafening report on the beach. Men went flying as the shell scattered its shrapnel with a dull thud. A second shell burst almost on top of John, shredding the timber boat and throwing him to the ground. He curled up into a ball on the beach and cried with terror.
Shrapnel had torn into his leg. That was certainly no dream. It felt as though someone was whipping him with barbed wire. He grabbed at the wound and felt the blood run down his fingers. If death would end this nightmare then he was prepared to accept it.
A firm hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him to his feet. He recognised at once the solid frame and freckled face.
‘Are you hit?’ asked Winston anxiously.
‘It’s my leg Winnie I’m stuffed.’
‘It’s only a flesh wound. For chrissake snap out of it.’
‘Winnie, I don’t understand what’s going on’
‘The company’s re-forming in a gully up the beach. They need every man they can get. Everything’s been stuffed up. We need to get to the top of the ridge before the buggers counter-attack.’ Winston surveyed his
mate’s face, wondering at this unusual timidity. ‘This is what we left Kalgoorlie for Johnny. It’s what all the training’s been about. It’s time to earn our pay and show these bastards what West Australian’s are made of.’ He picked up John’s rifle and cap and handed them back to his mate. ‘Now c’mon, our country needs us.’
Winston turned and scarpered up the beach, leaving John in a bewildered loneliness. Gunfire cracked all around him and the shelling was getting heavier. The sound of thunder echoed offshore as the heavy guns of the Royal Navy opened up in reply.
Dawn was breaking. A golden sun was rising in the east, bringing with it the promise of a new day. There wasn’t much promise for John, or the dead and dying young men who lay up and down the beach, surrounded by the debris of battle. Abandoned packs and rifles lay everywhere.
Then the real meaning of war hit home to him. He noticed a snowy haired young man lying motionless on his back. Some Australian mother’s pride and joy. His tunic and undershirt had all but been ripped off by a shell burst, and he lay in a grotesque posture, his legs drawn up almost behind his back, with one arm behind his head and the other beside him. His snowy hair was matted with blood and a hideous gash zigzagged across his exposed stomach. His intestines protruded from his wound and a bloody froth ran from his mouth. Despite his violent death, a peaceful look was on his face and his sightless, baby blue eyes looked towards the heavens. He was barely old enough to shave.
A second wave of boats was landing. More soldiers spewed onto the beach with the same vigour and courage as the vanguard, and quickly charged up the rocky precipice confronting them. An enemy machine gun opened up from North Beach and men were hit, but the glorious charge continued unabated.
John decided his best chance of survival was to stay with Winston. He was a sitting target on the beach. Winnie had always covered his back and protected him. He followed Winston’s path up the beach into the rugged, scrub covered hinterland.
He found himself in a high-ridged valley. It swung away to the north, sucking the attacking force away from their objective. The going was tough, with twisted weeds and dense growth slowing down the heavily laden men. In some places the foliage was six feet high, disorienting even the most capable soldiers. The Australians had found it impossible to concentrate their force in this terrain and had broken up into hundreds of small, uncoordinated groups.
John noticed a high hill to his left where soldiers were engaging the retreating enemy on the opposite ridge. To his right, other Australians were scaling the sides of the ridge in an effort to get to grips with the Turks.
Wounded soldiers were limping back down the gully towards the beach while still managing to urge their mates on. Dead Turks in grotesque dispositions of death littered the line of the Australian advance.
John was driven on by fear and despair. He had neither training nor any idea on what he was doing or how he was going to get out of this mess. Winston was his only hope. Winston would look after him.
He stopped and dropped the heavy pack from his shoulders. The sweat dripped off him in a torrent and his lacerated leg throbbed with a searing pain. The valley he was traversing was quiet but an almighty battle was raging on the heights to his right. Scattered groups of soldiers were rushing up the ridge to aid their comrades. Winston was among them. He noticed John coming up behind and waved his hat.
‘C’mon Johnny, let’s get into ‘em,’ he cried with a dreadful enthusiasm.
John stumbled up the steep ridge after Winston. He was still clutching the rifle, which he had no idea how to use. His bayonet scabbard slapped on his thigh. He reached the top of the ridge and was staggered by the sight that greeted him. A massive black cloud of humanity was descending the opposite height. It was the developing Turkish counter-attack. They were pressing it home with suicidal ferocity. They were fighting for their homes and families with a fanatical desire to drive these infidel invaders back into the sea. Many died with the name of Allah on their lips.
A thin green line of Australians was holding them back. Scattered along the ridge in dribs and drabs, they frantically dug shallow trenches for protection, in-between beating off wave after wave of fanatical assaults. These young men from a country few people had ever heard of. From cities and country towns. Teachers and public servants, butchers and miners. Scholars and larrikins. Fighting only for each other and the young nation that was their beloved home. The nation they hoped would win eternal fame through their deeds.
For the first time John understood what Anzac meant. Out of the horror and carnage, Australia had found an identity. Young Australians were the equal of anyone. These men had spilt their blood to prove it.
‘Get down you fool,’ someone yelled. It was too late. John felt a hammer blow to his chest and was flung backwards. He could feel the warm, sticky mess flooding from this body and the crushing sensation on his lungs.
Winston crawled over to his friend. He ripped open John’s tunic.
‘Oh Christ,’ he gasped. He tried to apply a field dressing but the wound was too big.
‘Don’t worry Johnny, I’ll get you down to the beach. Just hang on. Those doc’s will fix you. You’ll be back in the Grand Hotel in Kalgoorlie before you know it.’
John grabbed Winston’s forearm.
‘I’m cooked mate,’ he groaned weakly. There wasn’t much pain. Just an empty feeling, as though the life force was ebbing away.
‘I just want you to know your country’s proud of you.’ Winston looked at him quizzically. Darkness engulfed him.
John could feel someone shaking his shoulder. He sat bolt upright. Winston was smiling at him. Backpackers were filing out of Ari Burni cemetery.
‘You fool,’ declared Winston in mock disgust. ‘You slept through the whole thing.’
John looked around dazedly. The glaring sun hurt his eyes. He was back in the present.
‘Geez, it was only a dream. I’m really here aren’t I?’
‘Yeah, you’re really here.’ said Winston, as he helped John to his feet.
‘You’re not going to believe the dream I had. It was so real. As though I was really here at the landing. I was with you. At least someone who looked like you.’
Winston gave his friend a strange look and wondered if John had been smoking illicit substances.
‘Winnie, you’re right. I should take more notice of what’s going on here. Coming here has made me realise the importance of Anzac Day. If not for you I wouldn’t be here experiencing it. Thanks mate.’
Winston was now sure that John was off his rocker.
‘I’m glad you feel that way although I’m not sure why. It’s too bad you don’t have life changing dreams more often.’ The pair laughed. ‘Let’s get going,’ said Winston.
It was only then John noticed the grave-marker he’d been resting on. It read:
25TH APRIL 1915
TO HIM WHO NOBLY FELL
THAT WE MIGHT LIVE
‘My god,’ he gasped. ‘It couldn’t possibly have been real, could it?’ He looked around the precipitous hills and scrub-covered ravines and wondered.