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Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula
Making the Most of Your Visit to the Battlefields
By Tony Wright
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2010 Tony Wright
All rights reserved.
It was late afternoon now and the sun that had hammered our shoulders all the long rambling day was in our faces, tossing shadows behind us across the Second Ridge Road.
Such a no-frills name; Second Ridge. Better to call it the High Front Line. Or Frustration Alley. There is an ache in this name. Second Ridge implies that there is something beyond, a Third Ridge, and so there is. But the Third Ridge always remained beyond the reach of the Australians and New Zealanders and British who struggled to reach it. The Turkish soldiers who would have none of foreigners trying to take their land refused right to pass, throwing their lives away in the doing of it. The Second Ridge was as far as an invading soldier might climb, and further than most of them would have wished. The only thing good up here was the view. No road then, either. It was all jam-tin bombs, tunnels, lice, periscope rifles and suffering, the Australians and New Zealanders on one side, the Turks the other.
Just about no one cared in the long-ago to venture to the spot where we stood, a bit of a cleft in the ridge over a ravine known as Wire Gully. Here was another straightforward name that only a jaundiced soldier could have conjured up. A long time ago spools of barbed wire choked the gully to grab at uniforms and entangle exhausted men who might have been foolish enough to try to slither their way into the cleft. Wire Gully broke a lot of hearts and bodies.
Today, though, there was no wire. Peaceful as a grave. Not a stirring of a breeze. Not even a bird rose into the air.
Beneath our feet the land fell away into a gorge leading to a lazier valley. Shading our eyes we looked beyond, out at the Aegean Sea stretching to the horizon. A big sun hanging in a bigger sky lent the languid sea a sheen. It caught the hills, lighting them with every shade of green. Bared cliffs were rendered ochre.
Yet the valley beneath us sucked the light out of the sky and buried it beneath a dark scrub. We knew there would be twists and turns and dead ends down there, but we could not see them. Not yet. The whole landscape of what was once called Old Anzac is a cruel illusion. Reach the crest of a hill, imagining you have made it to your goal, and another hill rises. Take a path into a gully and you will be lost in dead-ends.
Still, my mates Tom and Ben and I, having hitchhiked out to the peninsula at dawn, had managed to trudge and climb and dawdle our way across all the main ridges and valleys of Old Anzac, most of the lifeless battlefields and all but a few of the graveyards, and we were both astonished and outraged that we had been able to do it in a single day. Surely this patch of ground that had consumed the lives of so many young men and had lodged its myth so deep into the stories of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey should have been bigger, grander?
There was, however, a fair slice of grandeur on view from up here on the Ridge Road, and Tom and Ben, young as a lot of the soldiers who once lost their innocence around here, stood and gaped. They glowed with a naïve enthusiasm that seems to come packaged with an Australian passport, youth, a backpack, an international airline ticket and a worn pair of rubber thongs. I was glad of their company.
'Shit,' said Tom, 'will you look at that!' Tom had a vocabulary as wide as a continent but tended to abandon it when things got too vivid for words.
Grandeur yes, and a promise, too.
Beyond the end of the valley, we knew, hunkered a little bay.
I had come a long way to swim at Anzac Cove, and Tom and Ben, raw blokes in shorts and legs scratched by the peninsula's uncompromising undergrowth, had become infected by the idea.
An old diary I carried in my backpack demanded that this be the act that tied together months of planning and weeks of wandering and wondering. All we had to do was climb down the valley now, and we would be in the sea.
Up here on the high ridge we couldn't see the cove. It was hidden behind a hill that reared out of the scrub way down towards the shore. We handed around a bottle of water and squinted and tried to imagine how fiercely a lot of the men who once suffered on the ridge had longed to be away down there bathing at the cove.
Too many of them had never made it back to the beach at all.
To our left past old trenches dug in among a copse of trees and past a little cemetery bearing the curious name Johnston's Jolly — surely a satire — sat a place that occupies a position squarely at the heart of the myth of Anzac.
Lone Pine. If Wire Gully has all the romance leached out of its name, Lone Pine is a much more satisfying moniker.
We had spent a fair slice of the afternoon drifting around Lone Pine. It is impossible not to. It grabs you and holds you. More Australian men lie beneath the ground at Lone Pine or are commemorated on its stone roll of honour than at any other place on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Yet that tender name has nothing at all to do with Australia beyond the memory of a song the homesick soldiers might have heard on a gramophone or a pianola. Its genesis is to be found in a remote locale that few Anzacs had ever been to: the Appalachian mountains of Virginia in the United States of America.
On the 1915 map I carried with me in a pack on my back, the place we call Lone Pine was called Lonesome Pine. It got the name from a song called 'On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine'.
It was written in 1912 by US songsmith Ballard MacDonald, with music by Harry Carroll. The thirst for American pop culture had travelled across Australia even then.
It was a bouncing little ditty, replete with the most innocent and corny rhyming, yet full of yearning:
On a mountain in Virginia
Stands a lonesome pine
Just below is the cabin home
Of a little girl of mine
Her name is June
And very very soon
She'll belong to me
For I know she's waiting there for me
'neath that lone pine tree.
The song, though, was not the start of it. In 1908 the American author John Fox Junior wrote a novel called Trail of the Lonesome Pine. It was a winsome love story set in the Appalachian Mountains, beginning and ending with two lovers, June Tolliver and Jack Hale, meeting at the base of a large pine tree at the top of a mountain. Fox spent his writing years in a mountain town called Big Stone Gap in Virginia, and his book made such an impression that three movies of the story were made — the first in 1911, the last in 1936. It remains a cherished part of American mountain culture: every summer since 1964, a stage adaptation of it is played by Virginia's Official Outdoor Drama in Big Stone Gap. It's a stretch to imagine that many who attend the event would be aware of its connection with a hilltop on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey.
When the Anzacs climbed from Anzac Cove towards the plateau the Turks called with unsentimental accuracy Bloody Ridge or Crimson Slope, they spied a lone Aleppo pine tree standing there. All the other trees on the plateau had been cut down by canny Turks intent on using the logs to buttress the trenches they had dug into the land they were intent on maintaining as their own.
Perhaps someone, struck by the silhouette of the single tree, began singing 'On a mountain in Virginia/Stands a lonesome pine', or perhaps some dreamer had read John Fox Junior's love story, or maybe a few of the boys had seen the silent movie of 1911 at a travelling picture show. How could any of these young men without women who knew the song or the story not feel a tug of the heart at the idea that somewhere a sweetheart might be waiting? 'For I know she's waiting there for me/'neath that lone pine tree.'
Something altogether less idyllic awaited the Anzacs beneath the lone pine on Bloody Ridge.
In five and a half hideous days in 1915, from dusk on 6 August to the mind-numbing morning of 12 August, the men of the First Australian Infantry Brigade tore away those logs covering the Turkish trenches and went at the business of killing with bayonets and bombs and bare hands. The Turks counter-attacked and counter-attacked, but the Australians were mad with the idea of gaining a toe-hold on the heights and would not relent. The Turkish trenches, which lay under what is now the Lone Pine cemetery, were captured, and seven Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery. The equation was this: for a piece of land not much bigger than a football field, 2000 Australians and 5000 Turks were counted as casualties. Casualty is the easy, lying word the military uses to strip emotion from the reality of death and maiming and the fracturing of nerves and minds. Many of the captured trenches were used as mass graves.
The lonesome pine, like so many other living things on that plateau, was blown to bits, but a length of its trunk was later found in the remains of a tunnel. Australian soldiers gathered cones and took them home, where the seeds were propagated and new life was coaxed from a memory of death and worse. A tree grown from one of these seeds stands in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and others can be found at memorials and schools all over the place.
A couple of years ago a storm struck the tree at the Australian War Memorial, cleaving a branch clean off and triggering anguished newspaper headlines. The tree was saved, and craftsmen carved from the dead branch jewellery boxes, pens and clock-stands, setting off a rush from collectors who wanted their own piece of Gallipoli.
Such is the continuing affection for the lone pine and the notion that it symbolises redemption after the visitation of horror, a seedling of an Aleppo pine from the Gallipoli Peninsula is now growing in the town of Marysville, once a lovely village in the cool Dandenong Ranges above Melbourne that was all but destroyed by bushfire on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. The fire took the lives of thirty-four Marysville residents, though others lived when they sought shelter in the town's park. Gallipoli Park it has long been called, and now, as the little mountain town battles its way out of its ashes, Gallipoli Park, Marysville, will have its own Lone Pine, donated by Turkish Rotarians. And so the world turns.
Back at Bloody Ridge, another such tree, grown from just such a seed taken back to Australia and then returned, spreads shade in the Lone Pine cemetery still. When bushfires raged across the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1994, destroying pine forests and returning Old Anzac to the sort of spare environment that greeted the Australians and New Zealanders in 1915, the tree inside the Lone Pine cemetery escaped untouched by the flames.
Tom and Ben and I took a little shelter from the sun's intensity beneath the pine before venturing out among the rows of headstones. A scattering of other travellers combed the cemetery around us, some searching for ancestors, all of us deprived of words by the epitaphs chiselled in the stones.
'2195A Private N.W. Clarke, 3rd Bn, Aust. Infantry. 7–12 August 1915. Age 18. God took our Norman. It was His will. Forget him No. We never will.'
'365 Private G.F. Preston, 3rd Bn, Aust. Infantry. 7–12 August 1915. Age 22. Gone Before.' Before everything a life might hold, one imagines.
'1393 Private H. O'Donnell, 11th Bn, Australian Infantry, 12 May 1915. Age 16. He sleeps where Anzac heroes came to do and die.'
'75 Driver W. Bergin, 10th Bn, Australian Infantry, 6 August 1915. Age 21. A mother's thoughts often wander to this sad and lonely grave.' We stood a bit longer before W. Bergin's grave. The thought of his mother's grief compelled us to do so.
I imagined mothers and wives, sisters and girlfriends across Australia and New Zealand sitting through long nights, a candle guttering or a lamp hissing, chewing on pencils and choking on loss as they struggled to find a few final words for the sons and husbands who would never again walk through their doors. In 1919 the Imperial War Graves Commission was established to give every fallen soldier a decent burial or a memorial. Every family of a dead soldier whose remains could be identified received a letter inviting them to write a few short words for a headstone that would stand in the sun and the rain and the snow, far away. The words could add up to no more than the space of two lines on the little stone: sixty-eight letters, including spaces. How does a parent sum up the love for a child, his body beyond reach, in sixty-eight characters? Mrs Bergin, I thought, had done as well as might be imagined.
Then there were the graves of the unidentified dead, who will never have an epitaph: 500 of them. At least they had graves.
On a long, long memorial wall of stone were chiselled the names of 3268 Australians and 465 New Zealanders who died during the Gallipoli campaign and who have no known grave, and another 960 Australians and 252 New Zealanders who, wounded, sick or drowned, were buried at sea.
Above this stood the Lone Pine obelisk, its stone flaring in the slanting sunlight. Tom and I had seen the obelisk shining on the ridge-top a few days before from the rolling deck of a ferry far out in the Aegean Sea.
It contained a small echoing chapel, with visitors' books open. I took refuge in the cool chamber and flicked through the books. Most visitors seemed unable to write more than 'rest in peace' or 'lest we forget', but I found my throat strangely constricted after reading a little message from Ian and Bron of Townsville. 'May we never forget you,' they had written. 'RIP Great Grandpa, wish we could have known you.'
Now, the advance of the hours had forced us to leave Lone Pine to its memories and we had walked a few hundred metres down the Ridge Road to Wire Gully and its view.
We finished our water and found a stepped path leading down towards the valley.
The pathway proved very nearly vertical. At the bottom, we burst out of the scrub to be confronted by one of the loneliest and loveliest graveyards on Anzac. The 4th Battalion Parade Ground cemetery, a small raised patch of the most perfect green with a view straight down Shrapnel Valley to the sea, was deserted. We felt as if we had found a secret place — the feeling that had visited us frequently during our walk in the morning. There are 117 graves at the 4th Battalion Parade Ground — three British, 107 Australians and six unidentified. Private S.C.O. Matthews, who died on 11 May 1915 aged 23, has been given the epitaph: 'Someday, sometime, our eyes shall see the face we keep in memory.' Private Phillip Lush, also of the 4th Battalion and who died the same day as Private Matthews, is remembered poetry-free: 'He made good.'
The day was disappearing fast now. Avoiding the black depths of the low ground, we walked up behind the graveyard and found a footpath winding uphill a little to a spur that cut the valley in half. Shrapnel Valley plunged down to our left and Monash Gully fell away to our right. As we wound higher on the spur, the wall of the perfectly named Razor Edge formed a silhouette half a kilometre to the north, and we wondered aloud at the madness that had tempted us to crawl across its dizzying spine early in the morning.
Eventually, fine dust ghosting from our heels, the track led us down towards the junction of Shrapnel and Monash valleys — and then disappeared. We found ourselves confronted by a wall of head-high entangled vegetation and thorned bushes that snagged our clothes and took no pity on our skin as we tried to beat through. We shrugged off our packs and held them in front of us, trying to ram a path, but it was futile.
Tom and Ben settled on a new strategy, veering left and downhill where the undergrowth was not so uncompromising. It worked, and we discovered a rough track running alongside a small creek. It was slippery, but we were heading in the right direction — towards the sea.
Tom pointed to a white object beneath a bush and I recoiled. Was it a skull? Ben investigated and found it was nothing but the shell of a long-dead tortoise. I was relieved, and Tom clowned around with the thing, tossing it about and chortling at my initial revulsion. A minute later, the laugh was on him as he leapt from one side of the creek to the other, lost his footing and hit the muddy bank with a thud.
Suddenly, the confounding scrub opened out and we were confronted by Shrapnel Valley cemetery, the spreading branches of its Judas Tree ablaze with purple flower.
We had completed a great triangle of a walk over old Anzac, and it was time for a final ritual.
Excerpted from Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula by Tony Wright. Copyright © 2010 Tony Wright. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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