WE arise before dawn and we see the dark shape of land - the Aegean Sea is funnelling into the Dardanelles, just a narrow strait but with a name that triggers an emotional response in most Australians.
In the half-light we can see silhouetted on the rocky clifftop that marks the strait’s entrance four soaring columns of a massive monument and an oversized Turkish flag.
At about this time on 25 April 1915, 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders traversed these waters to be landed on Gallipoli’s precipitous and lethal shore.
Over the next eight months until the Allies retreated, 33,000 Allied (Diggers, Kiwis, Tommies, French) troops were killed – as were 86,000 Turks.
In the outcome, this invasion was a failure of literally Churchillean proportions for the Allies. But, despite the defeat and the ultimate midnight escape of December 1915, the way these young men fought in this inhospitable place forged their reputation, galvanised the peoples of Australia and New Zealand and gave birth to the legend of Anzac.
And, from the conversations I had in their land, Turks of my generation (ageing) know this story every bit as well as we know it.
From the sea, the battlefield presents as a long series of undulating hills and ridges fringed by the steep cliffs I recall from graphic and heroic paintings hanging in the cold brick corridors of my primary school in Nowra 60 years ago. The vegetation is of a khaki-olive not unfamiliar to Australians.
As MV Nautica comes abeam of the great monument, the sun rises, bursting through a low sea mist. With 200 passengers gathered on deck, a bugler (“just call me Piotr, I’m from Poland”, he says) plays the Last Post and Reveille, and the ship’s PA system (starring cruise director Willie Aames) offers the words inscribed on that giant monument –
“…mothers wipe your tears … your sons lie at peace … they now lie in the soil of a friendly country … they become our sons as well…”
A moment charged with high emotion for the assembled Aussies and Kiwis. I shed a tear.
It was a fine gesture by the US-owned Oceania Line: Nautica had been scheduled to transit the Dardanelles at 2am but the skipper held back for four hours to enable this rare opportunity for his Australian and New Zealand passengers to pay respects to our shared and considerable national tradition.
As Taps is played, followed by a five-minutes silence (yes five minutes, no messing about by the Americans), the giant red Turkish flag alongside the monument is borne aloft like a spinnaker on a brisk, cool southerly wind that has emerged with the dawn. And Nautica motors on through the Dardanelles.
Some 30 minutes into the strait, at its narrowest point, I observe a large swathe of cleared hillside. White stones pick out the figure of a gun-bearing soldier and, in white and red, a stone eternal flame has been confected to flare from a stone crucible (top photo).
Etched in Turkish, again in white stones, is this injunction -
“Traveller, halt. The soil you tread once witnessed the end of an era. Listen. In this quiet mound there beats the heart of a nation.”
The Dardanelles campaign surely ended in defeat for the Anzacs and our Allies, but it was a great military triumph for the Turks under their great leader Kemal Ataturk.
Gallipoli helped build the Turkish nation through victory just as surely as it helped build our own through defeat.
Nautica’s transit of the Dardanelles takes about two hours, and then we are in the Sea of Marmara, final resting place of one of Australia’s first submarines, AE2 (AE1 also lies on the seabed somewhere off the Duke of Yorks in Papua New Guinea).
Later in the morning, we enter the Bosphorus (a narrow strait no wider than an average river, separating Asia and Europe, and where currents flow in each direction, one atop the other).
On both sides sit Istanbul, a misty, mystical, mosquiccal, minarettal city. Nautica moves on carrying us into the Black Sea.