ON April 25, 1915, the first young Australian waded ashore at Gallipoli to begin what became one of the greatest episodes in our military history.
The first to go ashore were four infantry battalions from the 3rd Brigade, First Australian Division – the West Australian, South Australians, Tasmanians and Queenslanders Charles Bean described as coming from the “outer states” – with these troopers sent to drive the Turkish soldiers into the hills and cover the main force as it headed for the beach in a swarm of landing craft.
These men wished a flat beach with lots of cover, but what they found was a narrow patch of sand with the steep hills of the Gallipoli Peninsula almost meeting the waterline and they were fighting for their lives as soon as they left the rowing boats.
But this was more than one battle in one war, it was the event that marked Australia’s baptism by fire and gave our young nation the common experience it needed to become a true federation.
“This significant April occasion allows every one of us to focus with pride on the qualities that we see as uniquely Australian, the same noble traits that our soldiers showed as they slogged ashore in Turkey on that first Anzac Day 90 years ago,” I wrote in The Courier-Mail on April 25, 2005.
“Our troops, under the most adverse conditions, refused to give in even though the cause seemed hopeless. They stuck by their mates, relying on a dry sense of humour and a healthy irreverence for authority.
“These fine men – subsisting in holes in the ground and suffering terribly with lice, crippling illness and a woefully limited died – were nevertheless buoyant about their situation, showing resilience and ingenuity, stoicism and self-respect.”
The first two men to die were from Western Australia – Captain William Annear from Subiaco, and Lieutenant Mordaunt Reid from Coolgardie – with the young Australians cut down in the shadows of a peak that would become known to everyone on the ground as Ari Burnu.
Almost a century after Annear and Reid, and 620 other Australians, died on that first day of the Gallipoli campaign I stood on this sacred soil and finally – after more than 20 years studying this infamous episode in our history – saw with my own eyes what they saw on that April day in 1915.
The point below Ari Burnu is now a cemetery, with 253 allied graves and a wall crowned by a cross that looks across the headstones to the patch of sea where the Anzac fleet anchored during the months of our first Great War campaign.
“Until 2000 Ari Burnu Cemetery has been the site of the Anzac Day Dawn Service,” Gallipoli and the Anzacs explained.
“The cemetery was begun during the campaign (and) among the 182 Australian graves are 82 of men from the Australian Light Horse regiments.
“The first row of graves above the seawall contains mostly soldiers of the 8th Light Horse from Western Victoria (and) their date of death tells their story – August 7, 1915, the morning of the charge of the 8th and 10th Light Horse (Western Australia) at the Nek.
” It wasn’t the only Anzac cemetery I visited today, with every graveyard occupying a notorious landmark where Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought the deadliest battles of that eight-month campaign.
Lone Pine, the site of some of the fiercest fighting, was named after the single pine tree the Australians saw growing on the hill as they struggled up from Anzac Cover on April 25.
“From that date through to August there was much heavy fighting at Lone Pine,” the website noted.
“The rear of the cemetery today marking where the Anzac lines were during those months and the wall, and pylon of the Lone Pine Memorial to the Missing marking the region of the Turkish trenches, (and) the burials and commemorations in Lone Pine represent virtually every phase of the campaign in the Anzac area between the April landing and the December evacuation.”
Some 72 graves mark the final resting place of men killed during the Battle of the Landings, clashes that happened between April 25 and May 3, while most of the headstones identify men killed during the August Offensive which took place four months after the first landings.
The last Australian buried there was Sergeant Edward Grice, from the 24th Battalion, who was killed in action on December 18 just hours before the evacuation that look the Anzacs off Gallipoli on the early hours of December 20.
There isn’t much left of the Lone Pine battlefield, but if you know where to look you can walk in the depressions that were once the Australian trenches on the ridge above Anzac Cove.
Corporal John Wadeson from the 7th Battalion wrote about the battle he fought in these tranches on the night of August 7, 1915, and as I wandered through the scrub I couldn’t help thinking that the soil was a rusty red colour because of all the blood that washed across that hill during the August Offensive.
“We had a full hand dealt us when we were given the trenches won at Lonesome Pine on August 7,” the Great War soldier wrote in his diary after the fight.
“We held it all that Red Sunday, it cost us something like 400 casualties, the trenches were something awful as the dead of both Australians and Turks were still in them, and mixed up in all kinds of positions.
“But when things cooled off a little, burial parties were going solidly getting the awful litter away.
“Sometimes, when the attack was solid, our dead in the bottom of the trenches, all huddled up in heaps, and it was with difficulty that fresh men could pass to take up their posts.”
I only spent a few hours exploring Australia’s Gallipoli battlefields – The Nek, Baby 700, Chunuk Bair, The Sphinx, Hill 60 – but I have a greater appreciation for the suffering our soldiers endured as they tried to capture a peninsula that would give the allies access to Constantinople and, ultimately, the Black Sea.
And tonight I feel like a pilgrim that’s been to a very holy place, just as a Muslim might after seeing Mecca or a Catholic after attending a mass said by the Pope at The Vatican.