Posted by: sommecourt | 24/04/2011

ANZAC Day Remembered

The 25th April is ANZAC Day, the day when Australian and New Zealand servicemen, along with British, Indian and French troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side after the outbreak of war, and by 1915 shipping routes to the Black Sea and Britain’s ally, Russia, were threatened. A Naval expedition failed to open up the Dardenelles and allow passage to Constantinople to besiege the Turks and knock them out of the conflict, so a poorly planned and thought out military mission was put into place from 25th April 1915, when the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ (ANZAC) landed to the North, and British and French troops to the south at Cape Helles. 25th April was no D Day, and the British underestimated both the fighting ability and determination of the Turks. Gallipoli soon turned into a microcosm of the Western Front with trenches, barbed wire, mining and gas masks… and huge casualties as both sides strove to achieve victory. Despite later landings at Suvla Bay in August, by the autumn it was clear that Gallipoli was a lost cause for Britain, and evacuation began in December, with the last troops leaving Helles in January 1916. It cost Britain more than 21,000 dead and France 10,000. For young nations like Australia and New Zealand the figure was lower, but the blow was felt far greater; more than 8,700 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli. Given these losses and the significance of 25th April – it being the first time both nations had been committed to conflict in a world stage –  the legend of ANZAC Day was born with the first anniversary being commemorated by survivors in France in 1916 and the first post-war commemoration at Gallipoli itself in 1923.

The first ANZAC Day commemorations in Gallipoli, 1923

Tomorrow, some 96 years after these landings, the symbolism of ANZAC Day never diminishes, despite the fact that the last survivor of Gallipoli passed away some time ago. In the early hours of the 25th thousands of young Australians and New Zealanders will assemble on the shore at ANZAC Bay in Gallipoli and remember the sacrifice. The number of those attending this, and new events in Belgium and France, grow every year – the spirit of ANZAC lives on, it seems

But in Britain few will even know the significance of the day, or that so many British troops were involved. For myself, I will be thinking of my grandfather who as a Naval volunteer rowed the men of the Lancashire Fusiliers into a hailstorm of bullets at W Beach. Later that day the 1st Essex would land on the same beach, among them my great uncle Tommy Sainty, who died near Krithia a few weeks later. My uncle Dan, who I have fond memories of as a child, landed just as Tommy was killed, and served in the same battalion until he too was wounded; shot through the elbow by a Turkish sniper while drinking a cup of tea. For these reasons Gallipoli has always fascinated me – it is a very personal battlefield for me to visit and guide on, perhaps more than any other Great War site.

My mind will also flash to the many times I’ve sat below the Sphinx at ANZAC Cove, and looked up at the sun drench rock as a long day on the battlefields comes to and end, thinking of the words of Australian soldier-poet Leon Gellert, who fought at Gallipoli.

I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
The height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night
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.

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