Bodies are everywhere. Thousands of them. Quiet, and still against the blasting wind of Anzac Cove.
Some are wrapped tight in our flag, but mostly they’re dressed in green and gold – beanies, footy socks, rugby jerseys – as they bunker down in their sleeping bags, determined to stay awake until until dawn.
It’s an image that makes many of us cringe, and for good reason: young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli for Anzac Day haven’t always done us proud. The boozing, the bogan behaviour, the event’s MC Warren Brown has seen the very worst of it.
‘Dickheads pissing on Turkish war graves, throwing beer bottles. One year, a group of drunk yobbos threatened to punch a Turkish security guard. It was appalling.”
Behaviour that should make us all ashamed to call ourselves Aussies.
A study, commissioned by the Department of Veteran Affairs in March, revealed we’re concerned our most sacred military site is in danger of becoming a place to party for Australians living abroad. But that’s not what I saw when I travelled to Gallipoli last April, on assignment for Channel Nine.
The green and gold invasion starts the day before the dawn service. They’re mostly in their 20’s, living in London, working crappy bar and temp jobs, making just enough money to fund their European adventures. They’re bussed in by the hundreds. ‘It’s effing FREEZING!’ mutters a girl from Melbourne. ‘Imagine how those poor bloody diggers must’ve felt.’. She has the Australian flag painted on her face. Another bus load of Aussies arrive.
More green and gold, more proud painted faces. They look dressed for a footy match. I get chatting to a tattooed trade, from Sydney’s western suburbs. ‘My grand pop was killed in World War Two, so me and my dad are right into all that war history stuff,’ he tells me. This is his first trip overseas.
With its big red cliff faces and bright yellow wildflowers, Anzac Cove is startlingly beautiful… And small. The Turkish people have taken very good care of this place; we sometimes forget they lost fathers, sons and brothers here too. The Aussie contingent is respectful, filing quietly past neat rows of Port-a-loos into a roped off grass area, to set up for the long, cold night ahead. The event is well-organised and run with military-like precision. Every-one is given a wristband, bags are searched, and any alcohol is confiscated. It was banned back in 2003.
‘It’s much better now,’ Warren, the MC grins. ‘We show them war documentaries, we sing – anything to keep them awake and occupied until dawn.’
At midnight, the crowd turns into one great big choir, belting out ‘Waltzing Matilda’ through chattering teeth. It’s a far cry from the Bee Gees ‘Staying Alive’ scandal, which the RSL quite rightly blasted as ‘insensitive’ in 2005. This humble sing-a-long feels more like proud commemoration of a history that helped define us as a nation, not rock-concert style celebration.
Suddenly, dawn arrives, heralded by a long bugler blasting The Last Post. Everyone is standing, still and silent, as the notes hang sad and heavy in the air. There are many, many tears. Some try to wipe them away, making a mess of their painted faces. Others let the tears stream down their cheeks. No-one can escape the ambush of emotion daybreak brings; it’s obvious they’re humbled by the sacrifices thousands of young Australians made decades before them. ‘I’ve been fighting a lump in my throat the whole service,’ a young woman wearing a Kangaroos jersey smiles sadly. Her eyes are red and swollen.
I find I’m watching my fellow Aussies – a sea of green and gold gen-Yers – with a smile. Some are helping elderly tourists out of the reserved seating area, while others roll up their sleeping bags and pick up their rubbish, careful to avoid an embarrassing repeat of the 90th anniversary, which left Anzac Cove looking like a dump site. ‘We’re not all yobbos!’ a young bloke says defensively. ‘My great-great grandfather died here. This place is sacred.’
As we approach the Anzac centenary in 2015, I can’t help but feel the memory of our ANZACs and the land on which so many of them lost their lives, is in safe hands. .
And never have I felt more proud to call myself a young Australian.
Sarah Harris has been a journalist for more than a decade. She currently works as a reporter for the Nine Network and can be found on National Nine News. You can follow her on Twitter here.