Remembering ANZAC Day While in Turkey

The ceremonial laying of a wreath in the water
The ceremonial laying of a wreath in the water

The military played a big part in my early life.  I suppose I even owe my existence to war, as my Italian father met my Scottish mother when he was a POW in England during World War II.  As a student, I attended military school, and once I graduated, I served in the Italian Army. However, I moved away from that world once my career transitioned to cruise ships, and my days focused on caring for my guests.  Little did I know, that one of the most moving experiences I would have in my job would be organizing a memorial service to remember veterans from a land far away from my own.

In 2009, I was proud to be part of the team that would take the cruise ship, Dawn Princess, on her first world cruise from Sydney.  In looking at the itinerary, we knew we would be passing by a site of great importance to people from Australia and New Zealand – ANZAC Cove on the coast of Turkey.  Even though we couldn’t dock there, we wanted to mark our passage with a special ceremony to honor the courage, sacrifice and tenacity of those who fought and died there.

I was familiar with some of the history of this World War I battleground, one of the landing places for the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, but as we approached this part of the cruise vacation, I felt the need to learn more.  As I poured through a number of books in both English and Italian, I came to understand why this small stretch of beach is so important to so many.

In 1915, the Allies were trying to open up a passage through the Dardanelles Strait to capture Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) so they could re-establish communications and sea traffic to Russia.  Turkey was part of the then-crumbling Ottoman Empire, which joined the war on the side of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, so part of the Allied strategy centered on gaining control of the forts guarding the strait on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.  To this end, several amphibious landings were planned along the Gallipoli coast.

Among the Allied troops were members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs), taking part in a campaign now regarded as a coming-of-age in nationhood for both Australia and New Zealand.

On April 25, the first ANZAC troops landed on a 600-meter-long stretch of beach that within four days, would become known as ANZAC Cove.  It became the main base for the ANZAC troops throughout the eight-month Gallipoli campaign, serving as a supply depot, command post, landing port with floating jetties, and even a bathing site.

The hillside above the cove has been described as a rabbit warren, with a trench network dug to provide shelter from shelling.  Because the cove was often subject to shrapnel fire and much of the activity happened at night under the cover of darkness, the ANZAC troops were never on fully safe ground.  Through the Gallipoli campaign, the action never progressed very far inland, and eventually the allies were forced to withdraw.  The remarkable withdrawal from Gallipoli, in which thousands of troops departed silently and undetected at night, remains part of the ANZAC legend.

For people from Australia and New Zealand, ANZAC Cove symbolizes the Gallipoli campaign and how an ultimately failed military expedition, with the tragic loss of so many young soldiers’ lives, marked their nations’ debut on the world stage.  Today, those countries commemorate ANZAC Day (now equivalent to Remembrance Day in the UK or Memorial Day in the US) on the landing day at the cove on April 25.

In 1985, the Turkish government officially recognized the name of the beach as “Anzak Koyu” in Turkish.  Today, it is part of a national park in Turkey and looks like a peaceful, yet unremarkable, stretch of beach.  Every year on ANZAC Day, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, many of them young people no older than the soldiers who fell there, make an emotional pilgrimage to Gallipoli to remember the events of 1915.  It’s hard to believe that it was such a hive of activity and bloodshed more than 95 years ago.

Fortunately, the day we sailed along the Gallipoli coast turned out to be a beautiful day with sunny skies and calm winds.  We had been preparing for many days to offer our mostly Australian guests a moving ceremony capturing the importance of the place for them.   We even had a choir composed of passengers that had begun rehearsals earlier in the voyage.

As our cruise ship maneuvered into position off the coast of Anzac Cove, I stood beside the captain as he opened the ceremony on the ship’s top deck.  I could see the full expanse of the deck from my vantage point; it looked as if the entire ship had turned out for the occasion.  But never had I seen such a large crowd so silent.

I saw stoic faces, as well as a few tears, as the captain read: “We are assembled here to commemorate the immortal day when the young men of Australia and New Zealand by their deeds and sacrifice, demonstrated to the world at Gallipoli that Australia and New Zealand are truly great nations.”

As the choir sang “Amazing Grace,” I was able to take a look at the shoreline off the side of the ship.  I was struck by how quiet a place it is now, so peaceful.  I found myself contemplating the futility of war, saddened at the number of lives lost in this very place.  How strange it must have been for these soldiers, so far from their homeland.  I wondered what these young men who never went home would have contributed to the world had they lived.

This experience was emotional for me, an Italian not all that far from my home in La Spezia, so I could only imagine how this experience is for our passengers.  With the passage of time, we didn’t have any Gallipoli veterans with us, but many of their sons and daughters, and a number of veterans of later wars including Vietnam, participated in the program.  Among the ship’s company were several crew members from New Zealand who were part of the event, including the ceremonial laying of a wreath in the water.

We couldn’t see it from our position off shore, but I knew from my research that there is a memorial on shore at ANZAC Cove, inscribed with the words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who heroically led his Turkish troops in the defense of the Gallipoli peninsula and later became the first president of newly independent Turkey.   His words of respect have resonated with generations of Australian and New Zealand visitors, as they did with me.

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.