In November last year, Essendon trio Cale Hooker, Jobe Watson and Tom Bellchambers ventured to Gallipoli to gain a greater appreciation of the ANZAC story. Hooker kept a diary during the trip, which was published in three parts on Essendon’s official website, and can be accessed here. All three entries can be read in full below.
When the club offered the opportunity to visit the Gallipoli I couldn’t have jumped at the chance any quicker. It’s a privilege to play on ANZAC Day every year for our football club, our fans and in particular as players. And with 2015 commemorating 100 years since the landing at Gallipoli, the opportunity to visit ANZAC Cove and the surrounding battlefields to pay tribute to our diggers was an experience that I wasn’t going to miss.
‘Although Jobe likes to think he is an intrepid traveller, the jet lag hit him hard and on the way to dinner, he fell asleep on the boat!’
I did some reading prior to the trip to make sure I had enough background information about the history of Gallipoli and what to expect when we got there but in the end nothing could have prepared me for what we were about to see.
It was a long journey. A 15-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, a three hour stopover and then a five hour flight to Istanbul. The flight path from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul took us over Iran, Iraq and Syria. Out the window, the rugged snow capped mountains and baron desert terrain stretched as far as the eye could see.
Landing in Istanbul, we made our way to the hotel to freshen up and go for a wonder around the old city before dinner. Istanbul is an amazing city. It effectively splits Europe and Asia and is a melting pot of cultures and real mix between the east and the west in every sense, religion included.
We walked the cobbled streets and took in the unique architecture of the old city buildings. Our first stop was the former Christian church, then Islamic mosque, and now museum, Hagia Sofia. An incredible building. Then we visited the famous Blue Mosque. A place of worship for Turkish Muslims and an impressive landmark towering high above the city walls. As we were wearing shorts, we were required to put sheets around our waist to cover up our bare legs. A Muslim custom.
We also had an excellent guide/interpreter, Erkal Aykac, or as he quickly became known to us, Uncle Erkle. He took us on a cruise across the Bosphorous River that night and we had a beautiful dinner on the water.
Although Jobe likes to think he is an intrepid traveller, the jet lag hit him hard and on the way to dinner, he fell asleep on the boat!
It was tempting to head out later and check out the night life in down town Istanbul but with an early start the next morning, we decided to pack it in and get some sleep.
The next day, we would get our first taste of the Gallipoli peninsula.
It was an early start to the morning in Istanbul but not because my alarm had woken me up, it was the sound of the early morning prayer call echoing around the city. I jumped up and ran to the window to see what it was all about, but as the sounds moved around the neighborhood I realized it was a normal part of life in Turkey.
Before breakfast, there was time for a quick morning run with the boys.
‘As soon as we stepped off the bus, we could feel this was a special place. It just has an aura and evokes this powerful sense of emotion.’
The crowded streets from the night before were now deserted and as we made our way through the cobbled laneways of the old town, down to the Bosphorous River, we were greeted with a beautiful sunrise.
Uncle Erkle ran a tight ship. By 8am we were all on board the bus ready to make the 5 hour pilgrimage to Gallipoli. A place I had heard so much about but never fully understood what happened all those years ago and why so many lives were lost.
As we travelled through the outskirts of Istanbul, I was reminded of a modern day war with Syrian refugees lining the streets on the highway, begging for money, shelter and food. It is sad to think 100 years on and there are still so many devastating and destructive wars happening around the world.
On the road to Gallipoli, we made the occasion bathroom stop. Getting a good coffee in Turkey is difficult though. The traditional Turkish blend is thick syrup and is definitely an acquired taste.
Erkle provided plenty of commentary on the bus ride down. Passionate and very humorous, he was a talking encyclopedia and made the trip down very enjoyable.
Approaching the Gallipoli peninsula, the landscape quickly changed. It really is not dissimilar to the beaches and terrain in Australia.
We finally arrived at Gallipoli. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we could feel this was a special place. It just has an aura and evokes this powerful sense of emotion. For a while, we all just stood there and stared out into the ocean. Waiting for someone to say something.
We made our way down to the beach at ANZAC Cove. Our eminent war historian from McLachlan Battlefield Tours, Mat McLachlan, began to tell the story of the boats arriving and the first few hours of the campaign.
It was interesting to learn that the beach became a place of sanctuary for the ANZACs during the campaign. I always thought that the majority of lives were lost on the beach with soldiers gunned down from the nearby hills. That was not the case.
The ANZACs used the beach to set up base and then advance up into the sand dunes to try and capture the next position. They would reach a certain strategic point and then have to dig in and build a trench, waiting for the next order to advance. That is how they became known as diggers.
Often the diggers did’t get far. Thousands were gunned down in the early campaigns. With so many soldiers returning to the beach wounded or dead, it is inconceivable to imagine what must have been going through the minds of the next wave of diggers to be sent into battle. They must have developed a sense of fatalism and mortality unlike anything a human being should have to experience. For me, this was hard to come to terms with and has left a lasting impression.
Lest we forget.
Our final day in Gallipoli was Remembrance Day. We had stayed overnight in a small university town called Canakkale, which is a short ferry ride across the Dardanelles.
The Gallipoli campaign was the result of a failed attempt by the British and French forces to take the Dardanelles. The Dardanelles was important strategically because it separates Europe from Asia and is the only waterway between the Black Sea in the east and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. When the naval campaign failed, the British changed tactic and decided to attack on foot by landing at Gallipoli. The rest is history.
‘It was a senseless disaster. Even 100 years on it is difficult to reconcile how it happened. It was a suicide mission.’
The Turkish Government has done a fantastic job preserving the Gallipoli peninsula and surrounding area. We spent the day visiting many of the famous sites. It felt like every corner we turned, there was another cemetery, another memorial and another tragic story of courage and sacrifice. The futility of the entire campaign is really difficult to comprehend but nothing could prepare us for the story of The Nek.
Four waves of 150 men each were ordered to attack Turkish trenches just metres away. They were met with a hail of machine gun and rifle fire as they charged the enemy line. They had no hope. We stood in the trench and we tried to put ourselves in their shoes. What must have been going through their heads as they literally waited to die?
It was a senseless disaster. Even 100 years on it is difficult to reconcile how it happened. It was a suicide mission.
We made sure we were at the Lone Pine Cemetery on the 11th hour to pay our respects and hold a special commemorative service. It was a really moving experience to be there on this emotional day.
I’ve always had an understanding of why we commemorate ANZAC Day, but having visited Gallipoli I now have a far greater appreciation of the significance and what this day means for our country. I would encourage all Australians to go.
When we line up for the ANZAC Day ceremony on Saturday afternoon at the MCG, and when we pause for that minute’s silence and remember the courage and sacrifice of the ANZAC’s during the Last Post, I will remember them.