Today is the centenary of the landings at Gallipoli. There will be a Dawn Service at ANZAC where Australian and New Zealand troops came ashore on 25th April 1915 and perhaps some UK media attention to remember the British troops who landed with the French at Cape Helles.
Gallipoli is part of my earliest known memories connected to the Great War. I grew up on my grandmother’s stories of WW1 and her brother Dan fought at Gallipoli. As a child she used to tell me how after he had been sent home following a wound at Ypres, the family took him to a shop in Colchester to buy him a ‘tropical helmet’ to take with him to the Dardanelles, as she always called it. Not long after he got to Gallipoli he was wounded by a Turkish sniper; shot clean through the elbow while drinking a cup of tea. She used to take my arm and show me where his scar had been.Bringing home a Victor comic one day which had a Gallipoli story in it, my father picked it up and related the story his father had told him about the landings in 1915. I never knew my paternal grandfather and this was one of the first times I ever remember my father talking about him. A boy sailor, he had joined the Navy in the early twentieth century and was serving on HMS Implacable at Gallipoli. He worked as a Leading Stoker in the boiler room and had volunteered to row troops from the ship into shore, just to have a break from his world of darkness, heat and soot. In fact his boat was taken off to bring in some of those from 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers into W Beach and he recalled the water there running red with the blood of the Lancashire Fusiliers. When I was a teenager my local cinema showed the Peter Weir film Gallipoli. I must have gone to see it a dozen times and although I now know it was flawed historically, it still rates as a magnificent piece of cinema and made me even more interested in the campaign.
When my travels to the Western Front began, my immediate thought was what about Gallipoli? I tried when I was Inter-railing as a student but in the end I didn’t get there until 2000 when I spent a fabulous week staying at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission base camp on the peninsula. Located right on ANZAC, we spent each night on the beach watching the sun come down and the amazing colours as the sun reflected on the cliffs above. All my reading, and all my interviews with Gallipoli veterans which I had the chance to do in the mid-80s, came together on that trip. I stood where my grandfather had been, I saw where my uncle Dan had been wounded by the sniper and saw my great uncle’s name on the Helles Memorial.And ever since I have been going back: revisiting, filming with the BBC and taking battlefield tours. Gallipoli gets under your skin; you never quite forget it: its beauty, its tranquility, its wildlife. A wondrous landscape full of memory but tinged with the sadness of 1915. Having spent so much time there over the years you feel a great kinship with the men of that campaign. When up and down the Western Front I often come across the graves of men who had fought at Gallipoli and spend a few more moments than usual at their grave, thinking of that Gallipoli sun melting into the Aegean sea and wondering if they saw it too. In this centenary year I am not at Gallipoli for ANZAC Day… sadly. But I will be there later in 2015. Once more back with the ‘Men of Gallipoli’, in the gullies and on the shores, and thinking of those words of Gallipoli poet Leon Gellert.
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too
I heard the epics of a thousand trees,
A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore-
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.