I woke before dawn this morning. I dressed quickly, attached my new head and taillights to my bicycle, and I rode down to the Greerton RSA Hall.
It’s the fourth Dawn Parade I have attended (in commemoration of those who have served New Zealand in the armed forces over the years). There is something especially moving about attending the Dawn service as opposed to the mid morning ones. As the sky lightens, the inkiness seeming to leak out of it, it’s somehow easier to recognise the momentous and monotonous tasks carried out by those we commemorate.
Every time you close your eyes to listen more closely to the words being spoken, you imagine the horror of war – from the deafening booms and flying shrapnel, to the stench of the trenches and the sight of lifeless friends; the freezing cold and the listless heat and the flies and the dysentery and the blood and the boredom. Every time you open your eyes to watch the flag as it is lowered and raised, you see the sky has changed colour again. It is brighter. It is lighter. It is a new day.
I have an active imagination, and I’ve read war stories and seen war films, but I really have no idea what those men and boys were thinking as the sun rose on the 25th of April in 1915 at what is now known as Anzac Cove, near Gallipoli in Turkey. Nor can I ever know what the young Turks felt as our troops stormed their shores. And let’s be honest: I’m not an ambitious person, nor do I enjoy power games, so I can’t begin to imagine the thought processes that led to the decision to try to capture the Dardanelles, though from an intellectual and strategic standpoint, I can see the importance of making that move in that great game called war. And yes, I use the term “great game” with a bitterness and anger I don’t really have the experience to feel entitled to.
So what is Anzac Day to me?
Anzac Day is a sense of history. It is belonging. It is a day of respect for tradition I don’t fully understand and people who have served my country in a way I can’t comprehend or conscientiously condone. It is a sense of community in a world where I often feel detached. It is a commemoration, but also, in a way, a celebration: of our young country and our identity as a people of this place; of the friendship between Australia and New Zealand; of the fact that, as a nation on this volatile planet, we are at peace.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have stood on the beach at Anzac Cove. I told my Girl Guides this the other day and they said, “That sounds depressing,” and, “Creepy,” and, “Yuck.” I said it was beautiful, but they didn’t hear me.
It was so beautiful. No people, just white pebbles, blue sea, green lawn and bright sun. Like a picture postcard. Like a dream. If that nightmare had never occurred in 1915, I imagine it might now be a tourist hotspot, drawing beach bunnies and developers and the ugliness of the beautiful places people want to be, to see, and to be seen at in the modern world. It struck me – hard – in the guts and in the tear ducts – that Anzac Cove is so peaceful.
It struck me – hard – in the heart – that Turks are so welcoming to Australians and New Zealanders now. They are excited to meet us: “Are you Anzac?” they ask, and the children want to shake our hands, and the grown ups smile kindly on us and look proud to have us in their beautiful country. We attacked them. We invaded their country. For nearly nine months, our great grandfathers shot at theirs and vice versa, from trenches sometimes only the width of a road apart. And now they welcome us back as brothers and sisters and friends (though they are not so positively disposed to the British or French as far as I can tell).
The battle itself was a decisive victory for the Ottoman Empire, and made Mustafa Kemal a hero even before he became the “father of the nation.” But nearly 70,000 of their men died over the nine months they fought. Even now, there is no 57th Regiment in the Turkish army as a sign of respect to the 57th Regiment that was completely wiped out on this day 98 years ago.
About 53,000 Allied soldiers died. Of those, 2,721 were New Zealanders. Nearly 5,000 New Zealanders were wounded. We had sent just over 10,000 men, some as young as 17. At the time, New Zealand’s population was just over a million.
Anzac Day is, of course, not just about the battle of Gallipoli. On this day, we remember all servicemen and women who died or have served in all wars and peacekeeping missions.
To me, Anzac Day is a connection to a sense of nationhood, and to the past. It means collectively remembering the #@^! that has happened so that we do not make the same mistakes in the present or the future.
Lest we Forget.