Thursday, April 25, 2013

Once on Chunuk Bair

So far as I know there is no Simian family blood in the soil at Gallipoli, nor the Somme.

view of Anzac Cove from Lone Pine
Some families have stories of great heroism in their past; the stories of the Simians' combined families are perhaps more ordinary, somewhat anonymous in their loss - two brothers among the hundred of New Zealand troops killed in the futility of Passchendale, a young Kiwi aboard a bomber shot down over Cologne, each in themselves small incidents in far greater events, but each one a devastating, irreversible blow to our respective families. My Nan kept a picture of her late brother, Sgt Walter Foch Kelcher, in her hallway, and as a young man I fancied I saw some physical resemblance between he and I; we had similar faces and shared the same slightly stocky build. He wasn't a big man, but in the picture stands fit to burst with pride in his RNZAF uniform, the picture taken, I believe, in Canada where he trained for a time.

Walter's name stayed with me through my high school years, listed as it was on my school's roll of fallen old boys in our school hall, surrounded by austere stained-glass windows depicting Richard the Lionheart, and a New Zealand soldier, with the names of our great World War battlefields - Crete, Tunisia, et cetera, winding around him in heraldic tape. Every ANZAC Day the school service would of course feature the head boy reading the long list of the school's fallen, and Walter's name was of course on it - they seldom got the pronunciation right.

It's on my list of things to do, to visit Walter's grave in Reinholt War Cemetary. In its stead, and because Turkey was on our itinerary during our brief overseas holiday thirteen years ago, we visited Gallipoli.

The tour was one of the worst I've been on, a combination of booking mix-ups which had our friendly guide questioning the validity of our presence constantly, and a general lack of knowledge of the area we were visiting (he took us to Troy as well, but coped better with guiding us around the site by reading aloud the English descriptions off the signs posted around the place). Because we were two Kiwis in a tour party of four, however (the other two being Swedes), ANZAC Cove and the Gallipoli Peninsula were ours.

Flagstaffs, Anzac Cove
Which isn't entirely true of course. The Peninsula and its highest point is no more 'owned' today by the people of New Zealand and Australia than it was on 10 August 1915 when it was decisively held by Ataturk, and it's his statue which rightly is posited on Chunuk Bair , and his holding of the point one of the few true victories of the campaign. As much as we believe that the nationhood and identity of New Zealand was born on the slopes of this cratered line of hills, it's also the birthplace of modern Turkey, its general and future leader's decisive moment of valour, now as much dedicated to the man who would free his country from its Ottoman past and bring it into the modern world, and of course it is his words in relief on the shores of ANZAC Cove, among the most eloquent and poignant lines of rhetoric I have ever read.
Ataturk's dedication
Gallipoli today is of course important to Turkey as a tourist destination as much a place of reverence and history. The battlefield museum on its lower slopes is a storehouse of some wretched stories and grim artefacts and remains, dead shells and bullet casings, shreds of cloth and shards of bone, each described on small cards as the belongings or remnants of a "martyr", regardless of its nationality (if ever such things could be determined from the shattered landscape.)

Off-season the battlefield sites are incongruously serene; the day we had set aside was warm, dry and blessed with azure skies a startling contrast to the mingling indigo waters of the Bosphoros and the turquoise Aegean. For all of this the landscape could easily have been that of home - the blasted cliffs of Anzac Cove simply resembled the similarly blasted quarry face of Cape Wanbrow, and I found myself constantly noting mentally that the soil on which I was standing was itself a burial ground, spent lives ploughed over by repeated assaults on the summits, the dry clay holding innumerable stories and pieces of other people's homeland. 

Grave markings on the beach

Also on the beach, a stray dog who knew the tourist market as well. He got some lokum for his trouble (it was all we had!) but looked like he could have used something a little more substantial in his diet.

Reaching Chunuk Bair by van and walking track was perhaps twenty minute's worth, past sites familiar to me from ANZAC Days past - Quinn's Post, Lone Pine, Johnson's Jolly, and the Canterbury Commonwealth Cemetary. Again, no familiar names, and the joshing of local stallsmen plying their wares on the road up to the summit ("why aren't you crying?" "this is a sad place!") was more than a little distracting. On to the top, then, for some peace and quiet and away from the wagons of painted plates and soft drinks.
restored trenches
Once on Chunuk Bair the entire Peninsular is evident, from the Dardanelles to the Aegean, we could apparently see Lesvos on the horizon, a tantalising glimpse of the nearest parts of Greece we'd see. Kicking the shingle at my feet near the Ataturk statute my toe caught a chip of blue-green shell, perhaps abalone, but maybe paua, no doubt left there by a traveler before me. It was utterly silent, and a perfect place for reflection, easily the most distant spot from home I could imagine. Despite there being no family blood spilt there, it's a place I'll not forget, and to which I still feel an eerie attachment.

Blogger and fellow tourists, Chunk Bair, September 2000.


  1. Thanks Morgue!

    I should say that your Great-Grandfather's fascinating war diaries inspired me to hunt out Walter's diaries. I haven't read them yet, but they're available - next time I'm home, hopefully...