Garth George: They died for duty, and boredom


On the mantelpiece in the lounge of my home sits a flat, nearly oval stone, about 10cm by 8cm. Seven years ago last Tuesday I picked it up from the stony beach at Anzac Cove at the top of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

It is light brown, almost the khaki of the battledress worn by our soldiers as they stormed ashore 97 years ago under withering fire from the Turks on the cliffs and hills above.

Those who survived long enough to take cover would have laughed uproariously had someone told them that the ill-conceived landing in which they were taking part would provide the genesis of their country's concept of nationhood; that on April 25 every year for generations to come they would be remembered at services throughout the land.

Later that day in 2005 I stood atop the dusty, scrub-clad hill called Chunuk Bair, whose name holds the ultimate place of honour in our nation's history.

And on that sacred ground where many hundreds of New Zealanders fought and suffered and died I wept as I heard echoing down the decades the yelling of orders, the screams of the wounded, the grunts as a bullet tore the life out of one of our men, the shrieks as the Turks charged our trenches again and again and again.

I heard the thunder of naval artillery, the crack of a hundred rifles, the stutter of machine guns and the murderous whirr of shrapnel that cut down the flower of a generation of this nation's young manhood.

I smelled the mud, the blood and the dysentery, felt the flies, the fleas and the lice, and could almost taste the putrid miasma of hundreds of bloated, rotting corpses - Turk and New Zealander - strewn on the slopes for kilometres around.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Next morning I arrived at Anzac Cove just after 1am to find thousands of people already there, hundreds strewn along roadsides and in every available open space.

Wrapped in sleeping bags, they looked much as the wounded would have looked on that fateful morning when the Anzacs established their beachhead.

And thousands more - Turk, Kiwi, Aussie and innumerable others - came streaming into the cove like battalions on the march, missing only rifle, bayonet and ammunition, but fully equipped with food, drink and bedrolls.

As dawn crept over the calm waters of the Aegean, the speeches were recited, the wreaths laid, the prayers prayed and the hymns sung.

That afternoon at the New Zealand national service on Chunuk Bair, as padres and politicians prattled about New Zealanders going to war because they wanted to bring peace to the world, I thought I heard laughter from the sky where the spirits of our men who fought, suffered and died there gathered above the imposing memorial monument.

"Nah," I heard them say. "We didn't do it for peace. Some of us went because we were bored and wanted to see the world and have some adventure. Some of us did it to prove ourselves men. Others did it to get away from moaning wives, persistent girlfriends or screaming kids, to have a bit of fun with the boys well away from home.

"But most of us did it out of a sense of duty to King and country which had been drilled into us from the time we were born; and a lot of us went because our mates did. We didn't go to bring peace, we went to fight a war that was threatening Great Britain, the place we still called home.

"Why don't they tell it like it was, instead of the way they would have liked it to be, these peace-obsessed people?"

On Wednesday morning I picked up my Anzac stone and gave it a rub, and in my mind's eye returned to the hills of Gallipoli, as if it were yesterday.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- Bay of Plenty Times

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