Federal Politics

License article

As we that are left grow old, we are reminded of our story

JULIA Gillard was at Gallipoli in two capacities this week. The first was as national leader, speaking on behalf of Australia at two solemn yet uplifting ceremonies on a perfect day, half a world away from the distractions of Peter Slipper.

At the dawn ceremony, she looked at the bigger picture, acknowledging the profound debt owed to Turkey, a country that suffered far more casualties than all the invading forces combined, yet renamed the cove where the Anzacs landed in honour of the vanquished.

At Lone Pine, she reflected in measured terms on the extent to which this ill-conceived and under-resourced campaign shaped the Australian identity. ''We come here in honour of qualities that defined the Anzacs and we hope, however faintly, might also define ourselves,'' is how she expressed it.

The second capacity was more personal, yet more universal. She shared it with me and thousands of Australians and New Zealanders who either camped there overnight or arrived in the very early hours of Wednesday.

We were visiting this sacred place for the first time, and trying to imagine what confronted the men and boys (as young as 14), who had been assigned an impossible task. It was, she reflected, ''a remarkable opportunity to be here, to experience it personally, to feel so moved by it''.

Most remarkable of all was the generosity of spirit of the Turkish hosts, who have remained utterly faithful to the promise of their hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to the mothers of the Australians buried here. ''Wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace,'' he had said. ''After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.''


Even though the hand-to-hand battles were among the most savage in history (almost one in 10 of all Australia's losses in wartime occurred in the narrow confines of this peninsula in just 240 days), the legend that began on April 25, 1915, is built squarely on the humanity of those on both sides.

This kind of inter-generational affection, even reverence, can be found in villages in France such as Villers-Bretonneux, but there it is easier to comprehend. Their freedom had been secured by the sacrifice of Australians and their allies.

Here the story is different.

The Australians were among the invaders, and almost 90,000 Turks lost their lives. Moreover, had the Allies succeeded in their campaign, it is conceivable there would be no Turkey now. Yet the bond between the two countries is profound. It is reflected in the museum of a nearby village, where one of the most poignant images is a photograph of an Australian soldier offering water to a wounded Turk on the battlefield.

It was implicit in the warm welcome I received from children at the village's primary school on Anzac Day. The reception included the showing of a video that included the Gallipoli story and, when the screen showed a Turk carrying a wounded British soldier, the children clapped as one.

The stories of extraordinary fraternity against the backdrop of immense ferocity are mythologised by the local guides, and recounted by the descendants of the Turkish soldiers, such as Turgut Kacmaz, the son of the last Turkish veteran of Gallipoli, who died in 1994 at the age of 110.

Over a lunch of gozleme (cheese-filled pastry) after the Lone Pine service, Kacmaz, 76, told me how his father, Huseyin, first tasted chocolate and biscuits because of the generosity of the Anzacs, who threw the treats from their trench, less than a cricket pitch away from his, during lulls amid the carnage.

There was also the drink that Huseyin described as ''strong and sweet'' and definitely alcoholic. In return, he would throw the Australians and New Zealanders dried figs and cigarettes. While his 17-year-old nephew died in the campaign, Kacmaz survived. His son says he feels like ''a relative of the Aussies'' and plans to visit Australia next Anzac Day, ''representing the peace''.

I was at Gallipoli as a guest of the Australian Intercultural Society and our group included a bishop, an MP, a Victorian deputy police commissioner and a human rights commissioner. That night over dinner, we reflected on what we had witnessed. George Browning, the former Anglican bishop of Canberra, was most struck by the Maori lament sung by two women at the start of the dawn service. ''It captured the spirit of the day more than the speeches,'' he said. ''And I'm not sure that in Australian culture we lament very well.''

But all of us were humbled by the attitude of the Turks. ''We were the invaders, and more than 80,000 of their young men died,'' said the policeman Tim Cartwright. ''Yet they named Anzac Cove to honour us. That's pretty big.''

Gillard called it ''the story of us all'', and it is certainly one of the courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice of the Anzacs. Going there, being there, makes you realise it is about much more than that.

Michael Gordon is national editor.