This week I’ve been thinking about Gallipoli.
I’ve mentioned Anzac Day on this blog before, the April 25 commemoration of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landing on the Turkish coast in 1915. The main aim of the campaign, which also involved French, British and other Commonwealth forces, was to secure the Dardanelles for supplies to the Black Sea and Russia.
Every Anzac Day Australians and New Zealanders around the world remember these landings on a day that, for us, has become even bigger than Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day, as we call it). Anzac Day is our poppy day and our day to remember all those from our country who died in that campaign, that war and all conflicts since.
Eight months after the landings and some short-lived victories, however, the campaign ended with the Turks still holding Gallipoli. Those eight months came at a massive cost to the Turks, with 87,000 killed. There were 44,000 killed from France and the British Empire, which included 8,500 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders – almost one of every four who served in Gallipoli.
So April 25, 2015, will be an extra special commemoration: the 100th anniversary of those dawn landings. And I will be among thousands of Australians and New Zealanders on the coast for the dawn service. This is thanks to my sister winning a double pass in the ballot. (I won’t go into detail on the ballot but, if you’re interested, the information is at www.anzac.govt.nz/gallipoli-2015 ).
I’ve never been to Gallipoli, or even to Turkey, and I’m very excited. I will be able to stand on those cliffs and hills and appreciate how strong my countrymen were 100 years ago. I’ll climb up with my sleeping bag and little daypack, wondering how they managed to do it bearing heavy guns and ammunition – and in the face of determined Turkish defence. And I’ll consider, as I often do at that time of year, why a military defeat has come to be so sacred to my country and its sense of being.
I suppose there is something in all of us that wants to look for the positive. But there were other dates that “made us the nation we are today”. The first Maori MPs took their seats in Parliament in 1868. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote, the same year Elizabeth Yates became mayor of Onehunga, making her the first female mayor in the British Empire. Capital punishment was abolished in 1961 and, in 1996, the country’s first openly gay MP was elected. Ten years later, New Zealand sign language was recognised as one of New Zealand’s official languages.
All of those things are among those that made our country what it is today. And we can add to that the bravery against the odds of those troops almost 100 years ago. I wonder if they had any idea that they were doing so much more than fighting for control of the Dardanelles.