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Gallipoli, or The Battle of Canakkale: What ANZAC means for a young Turkish-Australian woman

In January 2015, young Australian poet Yasmine Lewis took part in the ‘Mateship Trek’, retracing the fatal footsteps of Australian Diggers at Gallipoli. The trek marked the Centenary of World War I, and it concluded on Australia Day with a commemorative service at dawn held at ANZAC Cove. At this place, where more than 4,000 Australians rest in peace in marked and unmarked graves, Yasmine was confronted with what “Gallipoli”, or the “Battle of Çanakkale” as the Turkish know it, might have meant for her own ancestors. Here, she reflects on the meaning of ANZAC Day for a young Turkish-Australian, and shares her experiences during her trek through history.

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“Let’s go to the beach!” called out one of the trekkers.

It was just after midnight and the evening activities at the campsite had just wrapped up. With only our head torches for light, we strolled down to the beach through the crispy cold wind just near ANZAC Cove.

To be honest, it was pretty disappointing when we arrived. I was expecting to see loads of stars while lying on a blanket of soft white sand but it was too cloudy, too windy and way too cold. Not to mention, there was barely any sand among the gravel of rocks and stony pebbles. “What are we doing here?” I thought to myself. “It’s freezing and we can’t see sh*t!” Then my mate ordered, "let’s turn off our lights.”

On April 25, 1915 at 4:30 am, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at Gallipoli. We all know this. However, one of the things that I didn't know before visiting Gallipoli was just how dark it was when the troops landed. I mean, real dark. Imagine being in your bedroom at midnight with no lights on AND blindfolded. I think I lasted about 30 seconds at the beach before I had to turn my head torch back on. The next day one of the historians accompanying us on the trek told us that the ANZAC assault formations became so mixed up in the dark that soldiers ended up shooting their mates.

Another thing I found quite confronting was that while we Australians call it the "Gallipoli landings", Turkish people actually refer to it as an invasion - as a multinational force trying to take over their homelands.  People in Turkey don’t refer to the war as “Gallipoli” but rather as part of the “Battle of Çanakkale.” While I come from a Turkish-Cypriot background, I never really understood just how close villages were to the actual site of the conflict. So close, in fact that the Gallipoli campaign even had civilian causalities.  This really sunk in when we where visiting the local pre-school to donate money on behalf of the trek. The Mayor of the village asked us: “I just don’t understand, you Australians are so friendly, why did you do this to us so long ago?” None of us really had an answer and it made me wonder the same thing.   

The third thing I learnt, and probably the most ironic considering I was on a ‘Mateship Trek’, concerns the comradery between Australian and Turkish soldiers that supposedly surfaced in the midst of this bloody conflict. This is actually a bit of a myth, according to our trek historians. Apparently these stories of enemy soldiers sharing food and cigarettes are often exaggerated, or just completely made up. . In fact, there are more stories of Australian and Turkish soldiers doing particularly nasty things to each other that are just ignored. Some historians have even questioned the authorship of the famous words of condolence attributed to the revered Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to the mothers of the ANZACs:“there is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours.” This was a huge shock to me, especially as the speech is displayed at countless ANZAC memorials and is frequently cited as a diplomatic tool for promoting contemporary Australian-Turkish relations.   

I am from the ‘Cronulla generation’, where at school, an Australian flag pencil case or a southern cross scrawled on a school bag, meant hostility wasn’t far behind.

– Yasmine Lewis

These three discoveries really started to open my eyes to what ANZAC really means. I felt like I came back from Gallipoli with more questions than answers. It was a bit like discovering Santa Clause isn’t real. You can choose to believe in Santa and enjoy the warm, fuzzy feelings of joy that it brings you each year, or you can begin to learn the truth. The magic may be gone, but you develop your own understanding and appreciation of what that day is really all about.

I appreciate that ANZAC carries deep significance for many Australians. I respect the tradition, just as I try to respect all significant cultural traditions. To me, though, I am still trying to work out how I fit into that tradition. Coming from a Turkish-Cypriot background on my mother’s side (where my family has their own experience of conflict), and Irish-Anglo background on my father’s side, I have to admit to feeling pretty indifferent about ANZAC Day.

I accept that official ceremonies and commemorations marking the day are important for veterans and their families. The ceremony is, in itself, a vital, participatory aspect of commemoration. But I find it hard to understand how the celebratory aspects of the ANZAC Day tradition, like two up, a visit to the pub,  and drinking that accompany any public holiday in Australia, can be reconciled with commemorating such a significant, sad time in history when so many innocent people lost their lives. Outward displays of nationalism have always made me cringe. But then I am from the ‘Cronulla generation’, and at school, unfortunately, the Australian flag on a pencil case or the Southern Cross scrawled on a school bag signified hostility to many people, not mateship.

My grandfather was a World War II veteran, and while he marched on ANZAC Day, he was never particularly impressed by overt displays of nationalism either. In fact, he never involved us grandchildren in the marches, as it was his own way of remembering those friends he fought with. I guess all of this combined has led me to feel a sense of indifference to ANZAC Day, but not towards the solemn ceremony that is its true heart and spirit. Rather, my indifference is towards the marketing, the revelry, and the flags worn as capes at dawn services.

As I reflect on ANZAC Day, I can’t help but think of how our image of Gallipoli is a bit like us trekkers sitting at the beach on ANZAC cove – cloudy, dark and unsure of what the hell we were doing there. 

The Point

Slam poet Yasmine Lewis reflects on the meaning of ANZAC Day for a young Turkish-Australian woman

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