It was Sunday 25th April 1915, the Great War was raging across Europe, but for the men of the Australian Infantry Force heading for the Dardanelles, it was just another ‘sad Sabbath morn’.
The 20,000 Australians and New Zealand troops were about to push Johnny Turk out of the war, to crush modern Constantinople, to sever the head of the Ottoman serpent. Their ships were heading to the Gallipoli peninsular, to a small beach called Gaba Tepe. It was a strip of sand that would become legend amongst the people of Australia, a place where a national identity would be forged with the blood of their young and christened ‘ANZAC Cove’.
As the barges approached the beach the jokes and bluster of the men eased, they looked at the formidable cliffs and the hidden enemy. The fight they had so longed for was finally upon them. Then forty yards out a single shot rang out, within a moment the machine guns and shrapnel joined the chorus. The carnage had begun.
All morning the murderous battle raged on, field-guns sprayed the beach causing heavy casualties to the men digging in and those still trying to land. Their boasting and devil-may-care attitude of the day before was gone. They no longer possessed the voices of men whose only thought was ‘to get at them’. They were surrounded by the bodies of their fallen comrades and the groans of the dying. The men in ANZAC Cove soon realised that between them and Constantinople stood a brave and formidable foe.
Something happened during these frightful, deadly days, the men found something within themselves that had not existed before. Wounded men cheered-on their mates still landing on the shores while the dying cracked jokes and urged on living. Australian voices were heard on these lands for the first time in the history of mankind.
The ‘Aussie Spirit’ had been born.
The Australian Officers in charge of the soldiers commended their troops, they were proud of their ‘physique and the sublime courage of the men.’ When asked to attack the Turkish trenches the ANZAC sang ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Australia will be there’ then said they were ‘ready for another go’ but it was wasn’t done for their officers or the English. It was all for their dead mates, for the man that stood beside them and for the rugged, sun-burnt country that their hearts ached to see once more before they died.
The ANZAC’s did none of this for Britain; they detested the High born English in charge of this botched campaign. These Britons were from the Aristocratic class, the same type that had cast their ancestors upon Australian’s fatal shores just a hundred years before. The ANZAC’s disdain for the Gentry was encoded into their DNA. Australians had tugged at the chains of English authority since they first stepped off the ships in 1788 but the Aussie would never walk away from a fight or their mates.
As the months passed the soldiers realised that a decisive victory was not foreseeable so they dug in and made the most of it just as the convicts and the Currency lads had once done. They gambled and played jokes on one another, they swam naked on the beaches as artillery boomed over head. The saying went, “If a shell comes the Englishman runs for shelter: the Indian calls on Allah: but the Australian merely looks around and says: ‘Where did that come from?’”
Over the months a potent ‘Nationalism’ became a more powerful sentiment than ever before, these men were no longer just colonialist of England, they were Australians. The ANZAC’s were also endowed with that special quality of all Australians to endure hardship, a feature learned from growing up in the unforgiving harshness of the ‘Great Southern Land’.
The men were not to taste victory and as the ANZACs retreated to the waiting ships in late December 1915 one soldier was heard to say, “Let us move quietly when we pass our mate’s graves, so that they will not know that we are deserting them.”
ANZAC Day is a time to remember these boys, to acknowledge the greatest sacrifice a man can offer his country, his people. Raise your glass and thank the Lord we were born in a different age, lest we forget a lost generation of brave Australians.