Gallipoli battlefields kindle memories

By Claire Trevett

Old soldiers cast an expert eye over unforgiving and sparse Turkish terrain where so many died

Family ties: War veteran Morris Johnstone honours the uncle he never met at Chunuk Bair. Photo / Getty Images
Family ties: War veteran Morris Johnstone honours the uncle he never met at Chunuk Bair. Photo / Getty Images

On a brilliantly sunny day at Chunuk Bair, Morris Johnstone lays down his cane and kneels in front of the list of the dead from the Otago Infantry Regiment. He touches a name and then sticks a poppy beside it, using borrowed chewing gum.

The World War II veteran is helped back to his feet and looks at it with some satisfaction. The name was that of his uncle Roy Johnstone, who he never met.

"That's something. I can go home now," he says.

Chunuk Bair - where the New Zealand memorial is sited to mark the New Zealanders' capture of that one point of high ground from August 8 to 10, 1915 - was the last stop on the veterans' visit to the battlefields at Gallipoli. Down at Anzac Cove earlier in the day, many of the 22 veterans and 23 students on the trip had taken pebbles from the beach as a keepsake.

The veterans analysed the terrain with old soldiers' eyes, walking up the steep road to Lone Pine, past Shrapnel Valley where supplies were sneaked to the front lines at night.

They discussed the campaign's failure. One blames lack of reconnaissance, lack of ammunition. Dick Anstis was more succinct: "It was the Pommy generals. They didn't have a clue."

Vietnam veteran Gordon Garwood looks at the steep slopes and scraggly scrub peppered with low thyme, shrubby pines and broom.

"I'll tell you what, I'm glad I fought in the jungle. At least you had something to hide behind, at least in the jungle there was always a bloody tree."

He pauses. "I'm glad I came here. It won't stop the emotions of Anzac Day itself, but ... bloody hell, the enormity of it."

Over that five-month campaign, 44,092 Allied and 86,692 Turkish soldiers died.

The students find it harder to imagine the same place in a bitter war. But they do at least get an inkling. Walking up the steep road from Anzac Cove to Lone Pine, they marvel when historian Ian McGibbon shows them Shell Green cemetery and tells them it was where the soldiers once played cricket.

When a veteran later asks which cemetery it is, Danny Garry, 17, answers "the cricket pitch cemetery", and explains why. "That's pretty ballsy eh?"

It is a hot, still, sunny day. The rock outcrop dubbed the Sphinx stands above the cove with a benign, statuesque air rather than with any menace. The rosemary hedging scents the air at Ari Burnu cemetery. Further along the coastline, workers put the finishing touches on the temporary stands and get the 239 portaloos into place for the expected crowds of 10,000 on Anzac Day.

Up at Chunuk Bair, tourist buses clutter the roads, stall vendors do a busy trade selling nuts, tea and Gallipoli-themed clothing. Turkish schoolchildren pelt around laughing and shouting "Turkey" for photos.

The day on which the New Zealanders visit makes it hard to comprehend that far grimmer day of the landings in 1915. But in the background of the melee, the Defence Force is rehearsing for the New Zealand service tomorrow. They are largely ignored until the Last Post is played. Then every veteran within earshot stands to attention.

In total, 44,092 Allied and 86,692 Turkish soldiers died during the war at Gallipoli. The Allied losses were:
* Australia: 8,709
* New Zealand: 2,721
* Britain: 21,255
* France: about 10,000
* India: 1,358
* Newfoundland: 49

- NZ Herald

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