My Gallipoli story

Coverage of the 100th anniversary of the landing by Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in 1915 is about to get wall to wall coverage in the media – deservedly so. I was moved to write this piece after watching Sam Neill’s excellent documentary this week on the ABC (and NZ television I presume) where he told his Gallipoli story.

This is my Gallipoli story. It is one I am not particularly proud of. I am writing it up and distributing it to demonstrate the many ways that Gallipoli impacts people. I am sure there will be some that sympathise with me. There will be others that will scoff at me. The reaction isn’t the issue. The sharing of the experience, for better or for worse, is my reason.

So, what am I “not particularly proud of”? Well, I have not been to an ANZAC Day Dawn Service or another military commemoration since 1990. Until now, I was embarrassed to admit this. Am I too lazy to get up at an early hour? Am I not interested in Australian history? Heaven forbid, do I not hold those that have served their country with the utmost respect? The answer to all of these questions is, no, absolutely not. This is my story.

In the late 1980’s and at the start of the 1990’s, I was a radio reporter. My last job was that of Bureau Chief of the Australian Radio Network at Parliament House in Canberra. I started there in 1989 and finished a year later when several commercial radio news bureaux merged (including mine). I had got to do some great things in radio – covering the Bicentennial Celebrations on Sydney Harbour on 25 January 1988 and traipsing around the country on the 1990 election campaign chasing Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock. But there was one more “big one” that I wanted to cover before following a career on the other side of the fence in PR.

In April 1990, the Australian Government undertook an enormous project to take back to Gallipoli, approximately 100 veterans of the campaign, including nurses and their widows to commemorate the 75th anniversary. It was an enormous and risky exercise, transporting 100 people who were in their nineties or centurions to the other side of the world and back in about 10 days. This was no “Women’s’ Weekly World Discovery Tour”. This pilgrimage was a ‘military operation’ involving veterans, their families, media, politicians (including Bob Hawke and Margaret Thatcher) and thousands of young Australian and New Zealander backpackers who made their way to Gallipoli. QANTAS donated a 747 and a crew for the charter flight via Singapore to Istanbul and back. I was selected as the ‘pool reporter’ for commercial radio by the Australian government and made an official part of the pilgrimage. There were other pool reporters – Steve Sailer from ABC Radio, Peter Casuben from ABC TV, Terry O’Connor from AAP and a large, bearded and cranky News Ltd photographer whose names escapes me. From memory, it took us about three days to get to Gallipoli, we spent four days there and we had another three days on the way home again via Singapore. To this day, covering the pilgrimage remains a career highlight that was for me life changing.

Gallipoli is a ‘far flung’ place in Turkey. It is not on the way to anywhere. If you go there, you are going there for a reason. It is like an Australian going to Cooktown in North Queensland. There’s a small town near Gallipoli called Eceabat. It is about the size of Macksville on the Pacific Highway on the New South Wales north coast. Back in 1990, Eceabat or ANZAC Cove (one of the other side of the range) didn’t have the facilities that exist today for visitors. Indeed, the 1990 pilgrimage turned the ANZAC Day pilgrimage to Gallipoli into an annual thing. It went from having tens or hundreds in the 80’s to thousands in the 90’s and various governments have invested in making the site visitor friendly.

In the days before we departed Sydney, I planned my coverage. It was hard being a radio reporter back then. You had your voice, notebook, tape recorder and telephone line coupler to play audio back to the studio. There were no laptops, tablets, smartphones or Skype let alone a mobile telephone which would work in remote Turkey. You became very adept at finding public phones and pulling them apart to connect an audio lead from the tape recorder to the phone’s mouthpiece via alligator clips. The Australian Navy kindly gave us a few minutes of satellite phone time from ANZAC Cove on ANZAC Day. I decided I would interview every veteran, widow and nurse who was a part of the official pilgrimage. I also interviewed the many excellent officials, doctors and nurses who made the trip happen. From these I would send reports on happenings back to Australia and when it was all over, work on a two hour documentary for use by the Australian Government as it saw fit.

We assembled in Sydney a few days before departure at Lady Davidson Hospital in Sydney and I started working my way through the tourists. Most were lovely and happy to talk. There were a few “cranky old buggurs” and there were some who couldn’t talk or their voice was too soft for broadcast. They all told amazing stories. Some loved telling ‘war stories’. Others wouldn’t say a word about it. All reflected on the impact that the campaign had on Australia’s psyche. I became quite close to some of the veterans and shared many a smoke and beer with them in hotel lobbies where they were mobbed like rock stars by the throngs of Aussie backpackers. Some would remember you. Some you spent an hour with the day before wouldn’t remember you the next day. Some snuck out with us at night to go for drink. I remember ending up in a belly dancing restaurant in Istanbul with a few of them. My other lingering memory was that they were all short. I am tall, six foot two or 188 centimetres. Some of these men were once like me but over time that had shrunk and, of course, become frail. What they did have was photographic memories of names, places, events and faces from what happened in 1915. It was literally etched into their memory.

I think we spent about four days and three nights at Gallipoli. I stood at the shore of ANZAC Cove looking up at this enormous escarpment that we have all seen on television many times. Some call it a hill or escarpment. It was bigger than that but I didn’t know the right word for it. It wasn’t quite a mountain but it was bloody big. Later we went up to the top, to Lone Pine. We were a long way up. Either side of the plateau, it was relatively flat. In Sydney terms, it was the equivalent of being on Collaroy Plateau and looking down at Collaroy Beach. It was as high and as steep as that. The flora is not dissimilar to what you would find in any national park around Sydney. The soil was a browny-golden colour. The beach was just like any Australian beach.

In the space of a day, I saw Gallipoli from two perspectives, the beach and the plateau. I stood on the beach looking up thinking to myself, this is madness, what were they thinking in landing here. When I stood on the plateau, I looked around to see I was on the highest point for as far as the eye could see. It was flat either side. Again, I said to myself, this is madness, what were they thinking in trying to get here. Why not land on the flat land, I thought to myself. I was hit by the farce of the war and in particular this campaign. This has had a long lasting effect on me.

I spent much time very close to the veterans over the next three days, observing them in highly emotional, sombre or reflective periods. I saw some look at the names of the war dead on walls for hours on end. I saw others wander into the bush and look at the trenches. I saw others just walk through the tombstones of the cemeteries. I saw those proudly remembering 75 years previously. I saw those too overcome to take anymore in. It was remarkable. With the AAP reporter, I was there when a Digger said to us “I think I just found my own grave!”. He found his name on a wall. There’s a story as to why his name is there which I wont go into now. The next day, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph screamed “DIGGER FINDS OWN GRAVE”. It was “the” story of the trip. I was also walking with a veteran when Margaret Thatcher was coming the other way. He had a hearing problem and spoke loudly. He grabbed my hand and said, loudly, “There’s THAT woman!”. Well, THAT woman heard this, pivoted and came over and shook his hand. She said “Thank you for all you did”. It was a special moment. The pilgrimage was getting massive coverage back in Australia. We were heartened to see that crowds at ANZAC Day services were the biggest ever they had been since the 1950’s.

This trip too was a big deal for Bob Hawke. It was his idea. He put millions into it and made it happen. A month before, he had just won the 1990 election and was on a high. He mixed with the foreign leaders, the veterans and the thousands of backpackers. He was a rock star. He gave many speeches while there and just as many news conferences. At his final news conference, I asked him if he thought every Australian should make the effort to get to Gallipoli at some stage of their life. He agreed and spoke to why. We all ran a story the next day “Prime Minister Bob Hawke has urged all Australians to make the effort to visit Gallipoli in their lifetime”. It was nice angle on an amazing story.  After ten days, the pilgrimage came to an end and everyone went their own ways. In the following month I concluded my documentary and presented it to there Department of Veterans Affairs. I also got good feedback from my network on the coverage saying listener feedback was positive. I have two big tubs in my storage facility with hundreds of photos; all of the original audio recordings; newspaper clippings; my reporter notes and countless souvenirs, including bullets and shrapnel found in top soil. These tubs remain largely untouched. I have been “meaning to get around to them” for over 20 years.

For me personally, there were two key themes running through my mind in the weeks that followed. First and, as I mentioned, I was struck by the farce of war and of this campaign. It was literally a ‘mission impossible’. It was in a ‘far flung’ part of the world that to most would seem pretty inconsequential. “It was stupid,” I thought to myself. The Dawn Service and the events either side of it were incredibly emotional. I heard stories, saw expressions and observed silences that had a profound impact on me. With no disrespect to those involved, they were victims of the farce of war and this campaign and had paid for it every day in the 75 years since they were there. No one deserved this, I thought to myself. I then thought that with world war two and subsequent wars, we didn’t learn a thing. The management, the location, the impact and the lack of learning left me incredibly sad. Many died and many were scared for life in a futile and poorly managed exercise that we learned nothing from. I have wanted to attend Dawn Service in the subsequent years and have set the alarm many times. I haven’t attended. It just makes me too sad thinking about it let alone attending. I feel I should be there. I am embarrassed I am not.

In 2004, I was doing some work in Papua New Guinea and went to a Commonwealth War Grave near Port Moresby, called Bomana. There were white tombstones in beautifully manicured gardens and lawns for hundreds of metres. I spent an afternoon there, more often that not, teared up. I met some world war two veterans in this desolate place. We were the only people there. They were on their annual pilgrimage to remember one of their brothers killed in action and buried at this cemetery. I returned home and recall sitting in my backyard at Manly sobbing, thinking of what I saw in Port Moresby. Again, the farce or war and the lack of learning was at the forefront of my thoughts.  

Twenty five years on since the Gallipoli pilgrimage and 11 years since my experience in Port Moresby, I still feel sad and angry. Maybe that’s a good thing. I revere all service men and women. I do it, however, in my own way. Like everyone, I am forever thankful for their heroics and sacrifice of the dead, injured and unscathed (is anyone unscathed by war?). I agree with what Bob Hawke said in response to my question in Gallipoli in that I too think every Australian (and New Zealander) should make the effort to get to Gallipoli at some point in their life. It is a special place that everyone will have a different reaction to.  

Maybe I should go to a service this Saturday.

PS: Just on Gallipoli, there’s no actual place called Gallipoli. That’s the name given to it by those 100 years ago who couldn’t pronounce the Turkish name – Gelibolu.

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