Surprised by Anzac

By Lula Saunders

Our small bus pulled into the roadside and we stepped out into the stillness of a sunny, blue, quiet day  – no chattering tourist hordes pouring out of coaches, no groups being moved along by talkative guides – just one other small bus parked further along. The northern hemisphere summer was drawing in and most holiday-makers had departed. Turkish children were back at school after their three-month summer break, and the next year of living and labouring was underway.


Stretching before me was a small cove surrounded by two headlands, and behind me, a flat area behind which the ground rose into a sloping hillside. As I gazed out onto the gently lapping sea, I found myself wondering if  this was the place where, in 1919, my father, twenty-three-year-old Socrati, perhaps with his good friend, Dimitri, might have scrambled out of the boats bringing the Greek soldiers to the Turkish shore.  It was the beginning of the disastrous  Graeco-Turkish war, better known to Greeks as the ‘Asia Minor Catastrophe’.


Was this the place of my fleeting memory of stories shared and reminiscences exchanged around the large, rectangular, kitchen-table behind our White Rose Café in country-town NSW?  Being the oldest of five, I was allowed to stay up late – to sit, listen and try to make sense of the Greek stories being shared over bottles of Pilsener or McWilliams’ Sauterne.  My mother would chop into a large block of Kraft cheddar while watching over the slices of garlic sausage grilling on the big, black fuel stove. These 1950s Aussie staples were very inferior substitutes for the then non-existent feta cheese and salami. But for olives, there was no substitute – a painful reminder to my parents, of the ‘tyranny of distance’ which sits at the heart of the migrant experience. Eventually a local farmer came looking for someone who knew about olives. and happily his olive tree became our supply source. The same, big kitchen-table was where we all learnt to slit the olives, ready for my father to pickle them in brine.


Often, our visitors would have come from the three other cafes in the town, and sometimes from other nearby towns, where they too owned or worked in ‘Greek Cafes’, though Greek food was never served.  Some of them, just as my father did, had left their ancient Greek island of Lesvos, and their beloved Aghia Paraskevi, a small, lively village nestling in the centre of the island, surrounded by some of the eleven million olive trees which make the island famous for its olive-oil. In Australia, many years would pass before olive oil could be found in places other than the laxative shelf  in the chemist shop.


As the beer and wine flowed, so would the stories. Two outstanding memory-facts have survived the decades  – the puzzlement in my young head when Socrati (the locals called him Bill) would talk about 1919 as the year of sailing across to Turkey from nearby Lesvos. But hadn’t the War happened between 1914 and 1918?  So why were they going to fight the Turks in 1919? And what were these mysterious ‘Dardenelles’ that they had to sail through to reach Kali Poli? Gallipoli, as I later found out.  Confusion reigned for many years, especially since there were no educational resources in our house where Greek was the dominant language, and because there would not have been any reason for the Graeco-Turkish war to be on the NSW primary-school curriculum.


But Anzac Day most certainly was, and at Anzac Cove, as I made my way over pebbles and rocks to the gently-lapping water, I remembered how disconnected I had often felt, to the whole Anzac Day program, even though, for many years, I  ‘marched in the March’ as part of the Red-Cross contingent from our school. The old photo says it all – white dress, cardigan, white veil with its big red-ribbon cross, sitting just above my forehead.  I recalled my youthful anxiety of having to return home as quickly as possible after arriving at the local Cenotaph – no listening to speeches or watching the wreath-laying ceremony. The imposed nine-to-twelve shop-closing time would soon be over and my parents were always anxious about us being there to help with the flood of hungry and thirsty locals.


As we moved quietly around Anzac Cove, clicking away with our cameras, I found myself wondering if the Greek boys, racing off their boats, knew of the devastation that had occurred in this very place, just four years previously?  Were the buildings still there which the Anzacs had erected?  There would have been field hospitals, wireless radio stations, floating jetties, various storehouses and other buildings. As I looked back up to the sloping hillside, I could see how easy it had been for the Turkish troops.  The Aussie boys coming off the boats didn’t stand a chance; and in 1919 neither did so many of the Greek boys. I pondered the mixture of Aussie, New Zealand and Greek blood soaked into the dry ground we were walking on, and I so regretted not knowing more of the history of my two countries.


Further along, at the Lone Pine Cemetery, our Turkish guide very wisely left us alone.  As I walked through the neat rows of headstones, set in the green, tidy lawn, my mind travelled south to another cemetery, another final resting place for hundreds of young Australian and New Zealand boys. My husband and I had been visiting Crete, Greece’s largest island; the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay was a scheduled stop on our coach tour. I had asked our young Greek guide where the Australians were buried and, very obligingly, she hurried us through the hundreds of rows of marble headstones. That day also was clear, blue and sunny, with quietly-lapping water in the bay.  We began reading the headstones; many said simply: ‘Known Only Unto God’.  I still feel the weight of the silence which filled and surrounded us as we walked, hand-in-hand, back to the coach.


At Lone Pine, as my siblings and I walked through the rows of headstones, reading names, and pondering ages – teens, twenties, thirties. I thought about their families, and particularly the mothers back in Australia and New Zealand – so many of them would barely have known the location of this place, where their sons were fighting and falling.  And, as with Souda Bay, there are hundreds of  young Aussies whose names could not be determined. Innocent participants in the overwhelming  decisions and devastation of war, they too are ‘known only to God’.


Wordlessly, we climbed back into our mini-bus. overcome by emotion. What was it about that place?  What was that intense, emotive ‘something’  I experienced? Something heartfelt, poignant – something indescribable.


We sat in mute silence until our next stop where we were once again surrounded by the coffee-drinking, souvenir-buying tourist bustle – and then were herded onto a large ferry-boat to cross the Dardenelles and head for Troy.


ANZAC had indeed been a complete and unexpected surprise.