Spring is coming to the Gallipoli Peninsula, so surely there is a pulse to it. The shepherd bends down, cups his hand under a new lamb, all clanging heart and spongy ribs, and tucks it under his arm. The lamb wears yellow smears of foetal fluid down its hind legs and a speckle of gore on its forehead. The mother stares up at the shepherd, half-trusting: he gave it back last time. The other ewes mill around the car, hoofs clicking like castanets on the bitumen. They are old and daggy and heavily in lamb, and they are trying to be skittish. The warm wind has set off something in their
heads. They smell the sappy grass in the culvert and blunder into a trot, trampling the bluebells in the roadside gravel. The shepherd owns a stick, too rough to be called a crook, and
three yellow dogs with pitiless eyes. He wears a woollen fez and a brocaded vest and grins through stubble. He appears to be straight from antiquity, doing what shepherds have been doing here for thousands of years. So long as the Athenians weren’t fighting the Peloponnesians, that is, or the Ottomans the Venetians. And so long as the city-state at one end of the Dardanelles wasn’t scrapping with the Persian stronghold at the other end. Then you notice that the shepherd wears an earpiece that leads to a transistor radio in his shirt pocket and that his lunch of bread and olives is flopping about in a supermarket bag tucked through his belt.
Doesn’t matter. Antiquity – or timelessness, its near-relation – is easy to find here. You stand at the foot of the Kilitbahir massif, layer upon layer of wavy sandstone known to the locals as the
place of gigantic ghosts’, and stare across the water to the Asianshore of the Dardanelles. This is where the British-French battle fleet ran into a minefield in 1915 and limped off determined not to fight another day if it could possibly get out of it. This is also close to where, 3000 years earlier, the ships of the Achaean Greeks arrived for the Trojan War. There are no skyscrapers, no petrochemical
plants or corporate signs. History’s stadium is much as it was. You are seeing pretty much what Alexander the Great saw. Close your eyes and you can see St Paul trudging behind a caravan
and wondering whether the villagers up ahead will want to pelt him with stones or fete him. Everyone came to the Dardanelles, but only to get somewhere else. In 1915 the British and French were
going to Constantinople. This was to be a stopover.
The tortoises are out grazing today, poking their heads from under black-and-khaki helmets, as though they have been outfitted by an army surplus store and are shy about their new clothes. A dolphin performs languid arcs beneath the castle on Kilitbahir harbour and sardines boil in the creek at Kum Tepe. A fisherman pulls on a wetsuit and begins to herd fish into the net he has set off the Anzac battlefield. Purple irises are poking through in the cemeteries and the wild pear trees wear white blossom. The Judas trees among the headstones at Shrapnel Gully are a blaze of pink and purple, so gorgeous that no betrayer of a messiah would consider hanging himself from a lesser tree. A hawk glides in the fairy blue sky over Anzac, surveying the great boneyard for signs of life.
Anzac was never farmed like the rest of the peninsula. General Otto Liman von Sanders, the German who commanded the Turkish land forces during the Gallipoli campaign, called this coast a ‘waste landscape’. Here is a tangle of gullies and ridges that is eroding away, bleeding its yellow sludge into the Aegean every time the rains come. All that blood and bone from 1915, and still this place refuses to bloom. As an Australian soldier wrote home in 1915, it wouldn’t feed a bandicoot. At the other battlefields on the peninsula, on the plains of Helles to the south and Suvla to the north, poppies appear like blood clots in fields of bright green wheat. Farmers work the stubble with chisel ploughs, their tractors rocking and throbbing like tramp steamers in a swell. Behind the plough you still pick up the flotsam of war. A brown-and-beige shard from an English rum jar. A curling piece of shrapnel, splintery and rusty and leaden in your hand. A tobacco tin that disintegrates as you force the hinges and falls through your hand like dust.
The tomatoes are going in on the red-brown dirt of the Suvla plain. Everyone is out in the fields, as if to celebrate the land coming alive again. Old men lean on whatever is handy and occasionally lift something heavy; mostly they give advice. Women in great bloomers of trousers tamp in the seedlings. Young men unravel the black irrigation pipes that lead to the pump on the well. At dusk the family clambers on to the trailer behind the tractor and goes home exhausted, except the old men. They light cigarettes and explain how things might have been done better.
No-one, neither locals nor tourists, much visits the cemeteries of Suvla. Anzac and Helles, though defeats for the British and French empires, are thought to have honour and the hint of romance.
Suvla is untrodden; the cemeteries seem to say ‘Lest we remember’. Suvla is for tomatoes and wheat and peppers. And goats, large herds of them, a black-and-tan breed from the Greek islands. They browse the ridges, a bite here, a bite there, all the time going forward,
their neck-bells tinkling. This land has been farmed and fought over for 5000 years that we know of. Along the coasts are the ruins – sometimes nothing more than a litter of broken tiles or a burial mound – of fabled cities: Troy and Dardanos on the Asian side of the Dardanelles,
Elaeus down at Cape Helles, Sestos and Abydos up near Nagara Point. Australian sappers in 1915 came on pottery and other artefacts while tunnelling towards the Turkish trenches at Lone Pine. French soldiers at Morto Bay dug into a graveyard thought to be 3400 years old; the corpses were in jars. Some of the Frenchmen tried to protect the relics and were killed – by artillery fire from
near Troy. The warriors come and go but the rhythms of the land are eternal.
The caravans from the east once came to Canakkale, the largest town in these parts, on the Asian side of the Narrows. The shores of the Dardanelles are only 1400 yards apart here. Pilgrims came on their way to Jerusalem or Mecca. Canakkale was the cockpit of the world; here, Westerners liked to think, European virtue met Asian vice. In old ~anakkale, home to 16,000 people in 1915, the houses were of wood or sun-dried bricks and minarets towered over all. Muslims lived near the docks, gypsies behind the castle guarding the Narrows, Jews along what is now the main street and Greeks behind the waterfront north of the docks. Over on the peninsula, Maidos (now Eceabat) and Krithia (now Al~itepe) were Greek villages, as was Kum Kale, at the entrance to the Dardanelles on the Asian side. Gallipoli, the English word for this place, is derived from a Greek word meaning
‘fair city’. Canakkale is now a university town of 62,000 people. Apartment blocks of white concrete rise behind the sweep of the esplanade. The old part of Istanbul (which the British called Constantinople in 1915) is still Byzantine and dark and teeming with street vendors, all of whom have relations in Sydney and Melbourne and, should you be foolish enough to confess that you come from there, Dubbo as well. Canakkale is Mediterranean and sunny, too relaxed to be on the make.
Fish are for sale in panniers on the docks; they flop and send up frantic bubbles and skinny cats with the hearts of thieves crouch near a bollard, waiting for someone to get careless. Across the esplanade, youths are playing basketball and ponies hitched to gypsy carts nuzzle into feedbags tied with twine behind their ears. The corn vendor leans over his griddle with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a boy hurries past with sesame rings on a tray on his head. The locals stroll along the esplanade, day and night, hot or cold. The view is too lovely to hurry.
The water is never the same: blood-red, then pastel blue, then slate, then silver, then pink. It is sometimes all these colours at once, like the tail of a gigantic peacock, as someone once said. Most days you can see, across the water from Canakkale, the New Zealand memorial high on Chunuk Bair; sometimes Chunuk Bair hides in the mists like a mysterious and faraway country, which it
is. University students in jeans and Nike tops go hand in hand along the esplanade, giggling into mobile phones; alongside them are women in veils and ankle-length gaberdine coats and whiskered men in woollen fezzes. That’s how it goes in Turkey: some think the spiritual capital is Mecca and others, mostly the young, lean towards Hollywood. As in 1915, the country doesn’t know whether it belongs in the East or the West. clocktower the Troy-Anzac Travel Agency looks across at the
Hotel Anzac. Down the street is the Aussie and Kiwi Restaurant; around the corner is Anzac House, which advertises that its tours are ‘hassle free’. In spring the peninsula tizzies itself up for the
A few days before Anzac Day the crosses in the French cemetery at Morto Bay are sticky with black paint. There is something honest about them. They have the starkness of iron fencing stakes,
which is what they look to have been made from; you expect to see barbed wire twitched to them. With their rose beds and open spaces, the British cemeteries seem to be saying that war is sad but
ennobling; the French crosses say it is black and grubby. Graders and tip-trucks lumber over the Anzac and Helles battlefields. Walls are being patched, lawns watered, towers installed so that mobile phones will work. Bitumen is sprayed straight on to the gravel roads like paint. Matthew Taylor, a landscape architect from Sydney, is preparing the new site for the dawn service at North Beach. Several dozen Turkish labourers have not turned up for work today. No explanations;
they simply aren’t here. In the afternoon Taylor discovers why. They had to plant tomatoes. New ceremonial sites are interesting; tomatoes are the stuff of life.
THE DAWN SERVICE draws about 15,000 pilgrims: old men with their uncles’ medals jangling on sportscoats, Vietnam vets with medals pinned on yellow rugby guernseys, backpackers lumping bedrolls, 20-year-olds with Australian flags draped over their shoulders, school kids on trips, matrons from Sydney’s North Shore. Around 3 am the mood is like a sports stadium before the teams run out:
whistles, catcalls, skylarking, half-hearted Mexican waves, a turmoil of emotions looking for an outlet. The Australians murder a few slabs of beer and the New Zealanders murder a few vowels. In
the coldest hour of all, just before dawn, the mood becomes serene, just the odd murmur behind the flames from hundreds of candles. What this beach symbolises to the crowd is beyond reason and
probably beyond knowing. Jean Cocteau, the French writer who drove an ambulance in World War I- what did he say? ‘What is history after all? History is facts that become lies in the end;
legends are lies which become history in the end.’ This is far from being Australia’s costliest battlefield. In 1916 two battles at Fromelles and Pozieres produced roughly the same number of Australian casualties- around 28,000- as the eight months of the Gallipoli conflict. Three times as many British and French troops died here as did Australians and New Zealanders.Gallipoli was a defeat, not at all like the triumph of the Light Horse in Palestine, yet no-one lights candles as dusk falls at Beersheba on the night of October 31. Good and evil did not meet onthe field here. Gallipoli was about strategy, not ideology. Gallipoli did not threaten Australia as did the fall of Singapore in 1942. As a battle, Gallipoli did not change the world as Stalingrad did. Gallipoli was all about the British empire, which is as dead as Rudyard Kipling and just as quaint, and a world where the test of manhood and of a nation’s right to exist was thought to be on the battlefield. This is Australia’s largest memorial, and it isn’t even in Australia. And another curious thing: the Australians and New Zealanders who died here were, in truth, fighting for Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia. He had been promised Constantinople.
None of this matters. The siren-call of this beach has little to do with facts or common sense or the desiccated footnotes of academics. It is rooted in myth and nostalgia – and imagining. Everyone who comes here tries to paint pictures on the empty landscape, to bring it back the way it was. Dugouts and tents and piles of stores. Woolly clouds of shrapnel. Battleships rocking and half-hidden behind mustard clouds as they bombard the hills. Lighters hovering around frail-looking piers and, behind one of these piers, a post office and a telephone exchange. A biplane droning overhead. A mule squealing and trying to buck off its load. Troops swimming to drown their lice. The crackle of rifle fire up on the escarpment. The music of a smithy’s hammer. The smell of upturned earth and open latrines and pipe tobacco and creosol and cordite. The smell of corpses, the ripeness of death in your nostrils all day and all night. The hollow pop of rifle shells being ejected, like no other sound there is. The wind blowing pages from the Bulletin and the Ballarat Courier into the Turkish trenches. Bayonets bobbing above the Turkish parapets, the occasional glimpse of an Ottoman soldier in a cloth helmet. Bundles that were once men, arms and legs at grotesque angles, lying out in no-man’s land. Men hefting water up the ridges. Men stumbling down the ridges, bloodied and befuddled, heading for the beach, following the same instinct that tells a wounded animal to go home. Flies. Flies everywhere. Blue flies, green flies, black flies. And the scent of thyme.
And how did the Anzac soldier look? Lean and laconic, as he is supposed to be, wearing torn shorts and a cheeky grin as he brews tea, everything about him saying that war is just another hindrance and will you take a squiz at the Pommie joker over there with the monocle. Or was he scared and bewildered and wasted by dysentery, as he isn’t supposed to be, because these things don’t sit too well with mythology? Anyway, we shouldn’t be too scornful of mythology. Where would religion be without it? And this part of the peninsula is rather like Golgotha, a place of skulls, quiet now but loaded up with old agonies.
What were these Australians doing here? They had joined up to fight Germans in France and Belgium, and here they were lost in antiquity, in this place some of them had never heard of until a few weeks before they landed. We know what they wrote in their letters and diaries. But what did they really think? Imaginings. Young Australians come here for one, maybe two, days in the European spring and wander these hills trying to discover their past, to unearth truths about an Australian nation, white and rustic and British, that no longer exists and is not coming back. Gallipoli, as a wise man once said, is a country of the mind. Everyone who comes here sees the story the way they want to see it.
TINY WAVES CARESS the shore an hour before dawn. A flash of phosphorescence,
the rattle of shingle, then silence. A shooting star cascades through the night and the moon begins to slide down behind the Sphinx, the jagged spur, fluted and sharp like a rotten tooth, that dominates this part of the beach. The master of ceremonies tells the crowd the service is being broadcast live on television to Australia. ‘Hi, mum,’ a girl shouts. Australians and New Zealanders swarm over the Anzac battlefield as soon as the service ends. Black figures are silhouetted on the skyline of Walker’s Ridge, clambering upward, as though there is still some need to get inland before the sun is properly up. Near Shell Green cemetery a retired Australian army officer points in the direction of Bolton’s Ridge and says, half to himself: ‘Now if we’d landed over there, where we were bloody well supposed to … ‘ A 25-year-old Turkish schoolteacher smiles at him and says in English:
‘You Australians never learn.’ Here is one of the peculiar things about the Anzac tradition, or myth or legend or whatever it is. The Australians and the Turks, the enemies of 1915 who didn’t much bother about taking prisoners in the first weeks of the campaign, have ended up friends. They laugh with
each other easily and share a dry sense of humour. Their war, they feel, had honour; there is no incident that festers, no Burma-Thailand railway, no Babi-Yar, hardly a dead civilian. It was a soldiers’ war.
The service at Lone Pine cemetery, on the ground where Australians won seven Victoria Crosses, begins in bright sunshine at 9 am. The dawn service was subdued and respectful; this one has an air of triumph, as though this is really Australian ground and everyone can behave as they would back home. Australians stand shoulder to shoulder on three of the four walls. The cemetery lawn is like an island rookery in spring: teeming with life, territorial plots marked out by rucksacks and tracksuit tops. Backpackers who have been up all night fall asleep among the graves. One sleeps through the Turkish national anthem but lurches to her feet, as if by instinct, when the first few bars of Advance Australia Fair ring out. A couple from the Hunter Valley stands with an air of proprietorship at the grave of Private Oliver Cumberland, from Scone, New South Wales. They know his family and have brought a red rose.
Next Day the pilgrims have gone. It rained overnight, just as on the first night at Anzac Cove 85 years ago. The ground is greasy, dull brown rather than orange-yellow, and the leaves of the dwarf oak are glossy and beaded with tears. The Aegean is a sheet of pale-blue glass and the rain has dissolved the haze. You can see the yellow streaks of beaches on the island of Imbros, from where General Sir Ian Hamilton directed the campaign and began his long journey down the Via Dolorosa. For the first time in three weeks you can see Samothrace, home of Poseidon, god of the sea and of horses. Samothrace looks like a mountain peak exploding out of the Aegean, which it is. It also looks like a proper home for a god: a corona of mist swirls just below the summit. After its one wild day of the year Anzac has reverted to type. Hawks ride the currents. A shepherd near a village behind the battlefield holds up his flock while an old ewe stares at her flanks, then finally lies down and starts to lamb. The tomato seedlings are standing up erect and bright today. Politicians and pilgrims come and go but the earth abideth forever. The wind keens and burns your face.