Huddled in the dark some whispered quietly while others, like myself, listened as water lapped the nearby shore, taking in the atmosphere of such an emotionally-charged event.
As the waiting crowd swelled, the cold settled on our shoulders. There were no raised voices; none of the embarrassing chants so often associated with Australians on tour.
I stood with a sleeping bag wrapped around my body and the Australian flag draped proudly around my shoulders.
It was April 25, 2009 and I was in Gallipoli to commemorate Anzac Day.
In those few minutes before the Dawn Service started, my thoughts were with the young men whose lives we were there to honour; the thousands who did not make it home and those who did, scarred forever by the tragedy that unfolded over eight months in 1915.
It had been 94 years since the Anzacs landed on the beach at Gallipoli in the early hours of April 25, yet their spirit lives on as thousands of young antipodeans visit this tragic spot as a rite of passage.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
– The Ode of Remembrance –
Living in London, I was keen to see this infamous battlefield for myself and pay my respects to the 60,000 Australian soldiers believed to have served in this small seaside area.
What I experienced during those 24 hours will stay with me forever because no one walks away from Gallipoli untouched.
Walking through a beachside cemetery on the eve of Anzac Day, I passed a grave honouring John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Although I’m not much of a history buff, I remembered the story of Simpson and his donkey from my days at school.
Later, as dusk turned to night, people continued to stream into the area, each snuggling down among those around them, adding more layers to keep out the bitter cold.
As the hours passed, the mood which was jovial upon arrival turned sombre as letters that had been sent home by soldiers were read aloud. Some spoke of the harsh realities of army life while others, often written by the younger servicemen, were filled with bravado and talk of the great adventures which lay ahead.
As dawn approached, more than 7500 people joined together in the shadows of the rugged cliffs which had proven to be our troops’ downfall.
During the service tears flowed freely among even the toughest of men. Despite many of us being strangers and far from home, we joined together in pride.
However it was at Lone Pine, a 3.1km uphill trek from Anzac Cove, where the reality of my pilgrimage hit home. In a drawn out battle, the Anzacs drove the Turks from the area, but it was a hollow victory.
The Lone Pine memorial honours more than 600 men who died and almost 5000 who went missing on the Gallipoli peninsula.
I cried as I imagined our boys facing enemy lines, so close that guns and grenades were rendered useless. Surely they knew their death was imminent.
“There may be close to one million Australians who can trace a direct family link to those diggers who landed at Gallipoli in 1915.”
—Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of Anzac, Warren Snowdon—
Many of the memorials were for boys far younger than my 26 years, so it was impossible not to be moved by their bravery. Each was somebody’s son, husband, father or brother.
Tears ran over my cheek as we sang Advance Australia Fair, aware for the first time that those who sacrificed their lives are the very reason our beautiful country remains able to rejoice ‘‘for we are young and free’’.
What also stood out was the respect and friendship the Turkish have for the Anzacs. Walking through Istanbul we heard constant cries of ‘‘Aussie. Kiwi. Anzacs’’.
There are also statues and monuments honouring the ties between the countries; each was caught up in a war they couldn’t win, fighting without knowing why.
As the sun set on Anzac Day, I caught a bus back to Istanbul.
I was burnt, tired and emotional. The previous 24 hours had left a mark on my soul and taught me things about Australia’s history I couldn’t have learned from a book, movie or in a classroom.
Lest we forget.