Julie Peasgood reports from Saga Sapphire in Anzac Cove as tribute is paid to the thousands who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign 100 years ago.
As the early morning darkness envelops the once bloodied battlefields of Gallipoli, the only sound is the gentle lapping of waves.
Then the uniquely Antipodean hum of a single didgeridoo, heralding the beginning of the centenary commemoration for thousands of allied troops who lost their lives on the shores of the Dardanelles.
It is 4.30am and our ship, Saga Sapphire, is bordering Anzac Cove, where Australians and New Zealanders – alongside their British counterparts – have arrived in unprecedented numbers to pay homage to their courageous ancestors, many of whom never lived beyond their teens.
On 25 April 1915, at precisely this time, the first troops landed and the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) legend was born.
“That was the day our nation came alive,” says 81 year-old Bruce Atherton, a long time serving warrant officer in the Australian army, proudly displaying his own array of hard-won medals. “Gallipoli was the first major conflict in which we fought, and it forged our national identity.”
Passengers gather on deck to remember the sacrifice of 46,000 Commonwealth soldiers who perished here.
The emotion is palpable as a roll call of the men who died is played out, together with messages from loved ones.
“Sleep on, dear son, and take thy rest, they miss you most who loved you best.” And, quite simply: “Our Sid.”
Heads of state from around the world have come together for this momentous event. Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, speaks of ordinary men doing extraordinary things.
“In volunteering to serve they became the founding heroes of modern Australia.”
John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, salutes the bravery of both the allied troops and the Ottoman Turkish soldiers. “Both sides were doing what they believed was right and what they believed was necessary.”
“Gallipoli symbolizes too the pity of war, because while this was a place of courage and heroism and duty, it was also a place of fear and waste and loss. It was a place of unspeakable suffering on both sides of the fighting.”
“The generosity of Turkey in welcoming us back year after year means that Gallipoli also symbolizes the healing power of time, forgiveness and diplomacy.”
Dawn light filters through a cobalt sky as Prince Charles, accompanied today by his son Prince Harry, delivers a moving reading of one soldier’s last letter to his beloved wife. It is written with a devastating simplicity that reduces both men and women around us to silent tears.
Wreaths are laid to the strains of a single bagpipe. We all stand for the final blessing, including the new generations of Australians and New Zealanders who have travelled here to honour the fallen. The ceremony concludes with the singing of the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand National Anthems.
One voice in our midst rises above all the rest in its purity, as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa joins her compatriots in singing their country’s national song. Like all of us she is here to commemorate one of the most significant days in history.
The traditional drink of rum and milk is served on Saga Sapphire at the close of the ceremony, served with ANZAC biscuits, and passengers begin to speak of their own reasons for being here.
“This is my father’s dog tag,” says Graham Douglas Moore, who has travelled from Australia with his wife, Alexandra. They are here to honour the bravery of Graham’s dad who fought in the 25th Battalion C Company. “My father survived the campaign – that’s why I wear his identification tag as my lucky charm – but so many thousands didn’t make it.”
“Too many mistakes were made,” says Andi Von Zeppelin of Australian based Zeppelin Travel, who has brought 71 passengers all making their pilgrimage to these shores. “On the morning of the landings, one hundred years ago to the day, several boats which were destined for different beaches were rammed together by strong currents and heavy mist, causing huge numbers of casualties. Those that did make it onto the narrow beaches were gunned down by the Turks as they tried to scale the cliffs. The whole bay was red with blood.”
Terry O’Connor agrees. As Chairman of the Royal British Legion in his village of Liss in Hampshire, he is here to represent the five villagers who were killed at Gallipoli, ranging in ages from 16 to 38. “Two thirds of soldiers who died here have no known graves – they were either lost at sea or their bodies were not identified.”
Terry has come to lay a wreath at the Helles Memorial, in a service conducted by Canon Richard Hanmer, who also leads the special service on board Saga Sapphire. It is poignant and respectful in honouring the vast numbers who gave their lives for others. “It is important to remember this war was not in vain” adds Terry. “Although the campaign was a failure, the men went with a glad heart because they felt they were doing right.”
The Turkish representative at today’s memorial spoke some of the following words from the Kemal Atatürk Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra.
If anything positive can come from the devastation of this war it is expressed in the words of the Turkish leader, the man who became known as Atatürk: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
Additional reporting by Karen Attenborough
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