I expect almost any New Zealander or Australian will be familiar with the term ANZAC, but for everyone who isn’t, this is the name given to soldiers in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought in the battle of Gallipoli. This group was formed in 1915 and was sent to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, this would open up the Dardanelles Strait for the Allied fleets and help with their overall goal to take control of Constantinople (which is now Istanbul).

Though the capture was anticipated to be quick and easy, the soldiers were met with an unexpectedly strong resistance from the Turks, and a literal uphill battle against them. The cove where the soldiers landed on April 25 1915, was beneath steep, desolate cliff sides, which meant the ANZAC’s were forced to battle their way up while the Turks defended from above. After 9 long months, the failed campaign was abandoned and the surviving troops began to be evacuated in secret during the night.

Though this was not a triumph, it does remind us of an important part of Australasian history. The loss of population in New Zealand was devastating, being such a small nation to start with. However, it is believed that some truly great qualities were showcased during the battle – bravery, loyalty, endurance and camaraderie – which helped define us as a nation. Because of this, we commemorate the battle with ANZAC day each year on April 25. An important symbol for the remembrance of our ANZAC soldiers is the poppy flower. We wear them pinned to our shirts and lay them in wreaths at war memorials all over the country. The tradition dates back to the 1920’s when red poppies bloomed over soldiers’ graves in France and Belgium. The red petals are also a striking reminder of the blood lost in war.

When Kieran and I decided to visit Turkey early last year, we knew without a doubt that we wanted to visit the site of the battle of Gallipoli and pay our respects there. Thousands flock to the site on ANZAC day, but we would visit in the summer sun of August with plenty of peace and quiet to contemplate the history in this significant area. My mum sent us felt poppies in April, all the way from New Zealand to England, and we made it our mission to lay these in remembrance when we visited.

I must admit, I only knew the very basics about Gallipoli and the role the ANZACs played, so I anticipated a relatively short visit, seeing where the troops landed, taking in the atmosphere and laying our poppies before leaving, but thanks to our amazing Turkish guide, we visited a handful of significant memorials dotted around the area and ended up on a journey of discovery, learning, all the feels, and a search for the perfect poppy placing spot.

I’m not sure what I was expecting Gallipoli to look like, perhaps some somber bays, rocky and desolate, a few plaques and some basic information about what had happened there over a century ago maybe? On arrival at the first stop, North Beach, I certainly didn’t expect to gaze out over an endless stretch of the bluest water I’d ever seen, petite shores of soft white sand and lush plantations of trees and shrubbery. The entire scene was bright with brilliant sunshine, the nearly cloudless sky mirroring the water and all I could do was stare dumbly, completely lost for words at the beauty of it all. My first thoughts were about the irony of something so devastating happening in a place that looks like paradise. Noticing the awe, our guide explained that the name Gallipoli comes from the Greek, Kallipolis, meaning “Beautiful City”, and it wasn’t difficult to see why it was so named. Just by standing there with the sea in front of you and the cliffs rising behind, you could really feel the spiritual intensity of the site. The memorial space was wide open and bare, perhaps intended to symbolise the gap left by those who fell, it didn’t seem quite right to disrupt the emptiness with our poppies here. So, we stood together in silence for a few moments and absorbed the reality that we were really there.

Along the shore line, there were actually 5 memorial sites. These serve to remember a mix of all the nationalities involved in the battle of Gallipoli. Some of the sites had dedicated graves, and others showcased messages of peace carved in stone, but each one looked out on the same magnificent view and was as beautifully kept as the next.

North Beach, Gallipoli
North Beach, Gallipoli

After passing Brighton Beach, the road took a steep turn up the cliff sides towards trenches, battlegrounds and the largest Australian and New Zealand memorials. It was slow climbing in the mini bus – but I had heard that on ANZAC day they close the road to vehicles, meaning that the thousands of ceremony goers must walk from the beach all the way up to the larger memorials – so there wasn’t much to complain about! We reached Lone Pine after a short while, a site that earned its’ name very early on in the campaign, as there was a single pine tree marking the spot. The wee tree was shot away after a few days, but not before the name stuck. For Australian soldiers in particular, the battles of lone pine were incredibly difficult and bloody, so it formed part of their national tale and was later picked as the site for their principal memorial. We weaved between the endless rows of headstone marked graves slowly, looking for names we might recognise and attempting to process just how many men were resting here. Before we knew it, we had wandered far enough through the field to reach the cenotaph at the tip of the ridge. Names of those who were never recovered or could not be identified were listed there, and I think that’s where the tears prickled a little bit for the first time, the number of names was incredibly overwhelming. Suddenly feeling the need to escape the poignancy in lone pine, we wandered along the road on foot, poppies safely tucked away in pockets, towards the trenches.

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might easily miss the tangle of century old war trenches, preserved right at the roadside. It amazed me that troops were even able to get themselves up the cliffs under the circumstances, let alone dig a hoard of trenches and continue to battle after all that. I found the trenches really interesting and could imagine more clearly what Gallipoli might have looked like that the time – the opposing sides would have been in trenches a mere 5 meters apart. I also felt a huge amount of gratitude towards Turkey in that moment, for preserving such an important part of history. The trenches could easily have gone to ruin, been covered over and forgotten about, but here they were for us to experience.

The dedicated viewpoint from the trenches proved just how treacherous and difficult it must have been to move an army upwards from the beach. Any steeper, and it surely would have been impossible to trek up, and then of course there would have been all the gunfire raining down from the ridges above. At this point on the journey, looking back towards the beach where we started, it really was becoming obvious how much effort had gone, and continued to go into making this entire area special. Special for those who were visiting and special for those resting there. By now, it was also clear where we really wanted to pay our respects and plant our poppies. Almost at full emotional capacity for the day, it was time to drive the final stretch up to Chunuk Bair, New Zealand’s heart in Gallipoli.

The famed battle of Chunuk Bair was testament to New Zealand’s huge efforts in Gallipoli and I believe that’s why the spot was chosen for our remembrance. The battle lasted from 6 – 10 August 1915 and was ultimately unsuccessful – the disadvantage of having to battle uphill took its toll on the already struggling troops once again. However, for a brief period on August 8 1915, the Wellington Battalion of New Zealand actually held Chanuk Bair successfully and it just so happened that we were standing at the memorial in glorious sunshine, August 8 2016 exactly 101 years later. Though it wasn’t ANZAC day, it was still a very significant date, and one that neither Kieran or I had known about until we got there – it absolutely made the day that extra bit special for us. There were no crowds so we were able to wander freely as we had all day so far. We made our way to the highest point of the memorial and took in the view back towards the sea before turning to gaze down upon the cemetery. As in Lone Pine, there was a large cenotaph and memorial dedicated to those with no known graves (this is a staggering list of 853 New Zealand soldiers), but the big difference here was the distinct lack of headstones. Our eyes were drawn to a single row at the base of the hill. It was harrowing to learn that of the 632 soldiers buried here, only 10 were able to be identified and given marked graves. Naturally, we made our way down, carefully read each of the names and held a long silence before finally placing our poppies in the ground.

Chunuk Bair and beach front memorials, Gallipoli
Chunuk Bair and beach front memorials

Though Gallipoli was an incredible sight to behold on its own and had a very powerful aura about it, the experience we had was truly made great by our TravelTalk tours guide. Mustafa’s information and explanations were delivered to us clearly and in ways which made it very easy to understand. His knowledge was accurate, extensive and varied. It also gave perspective from another side – we know that over 8700 Australian, almost 2800 Kiwi, 33,000 British and 10,000 French soldiers, all lost their lives during the battle of Gallipoli, but it is often overlooked that an estimated 87,000 Turkish lives were also lost defending their country. We highly recommend TravelTalk Tours if you’re looking for a great experience here. Our visit was part of a wider Turkey tour, however they offer ANZAC Day trips also. Check out their website to find your perfect trip.

It was a special feeling visiting Gallipoli as a group of New Zealanders and Australians with our Turkish guide, only 101 years later, in complete harmony and with much respect for each other. One piece that resonated with all of us and really brings light to how seriously gracious the Turkish are, is pictured below. It reads;

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 in peace
After having lost their lives on this land, they have
Become our sons as well
(Ataturk 1934)

Monument showcasing a heartfelt message from Turkey to Australia and New Zealand
Message from Turkey to Australia & New Zealand

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