Going to the Front - Simpson Prize 2011
Today we tried to trace some of the key points on the ANZAC line. We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of those men early in the day by taking the steep climb to the top of Plugge’s Plateau. The hill is thick with dense shrubs which seem to all have sharp bits on their sharp bits. The track is well cut until you reach the cemetery on the seaward side but from there it is a case of find some semblance of a track, head towards the heights and mind the spiky bushes. Reaching the end of the plateau we were confronted with the same sight that those ANZACS were on the first morning, the Sphinx and the razor back. The razor back is the only piece of land at that height that connects the plateau with the first ridge. It stretches out maybe 120 meters and there would not be a flat piece of ground wider that the sole of my shoe. There was no way that they could get across and for the students to see that with their own eyes really gives them the understanding of what the troops must of felt when those first soldiers believed they were well on their way to their objective and then stopped at the last gasp.
We walked down to Shrapnel Valley cemetery and explored the many moving epitaphs. Some of these could move even the toughest soul to tears. Imagine standing in the shade of the Judus tree in the middle of the cemetery surrounded by chirping birds and beautiful flowers. The valley foliage of yellows, greens and purples climbs upwards all around you and a brilliant blue sky to top of the scene. You look down and see the epitaph “Tread gently on the green grass sod, a mother’s love lies here” it is hard not to be moved.
We took the time here and with the opportunity that the weather had presented to us, we decided to have a morning snack. We talked about what the men would have eaten on those first days and how they felt about the monotony of eating the same thing over and over again. We read some of the comments made by men about the rations and how they tried to jazz them up. Like everything on this trip our understanding of this campaign is about experience, so our mid morning snack was bully beef and hardtack biscuit. The hardtack was backed using the original recipe for authenticity and the bully beef was as close as we could get. One by one we all tried the biscuit and the beef and one by one we realised just how much better toast and vegemite with a cup of coffee would have been.
The afternoon was spent working our way from cemetery to cemetery from Lone Pine to Chunuk Bair. The students presented their research on a soldier and we had a small commemorative ceremony for each. Walking to each of the sites we had time to reflect on the loss of the campaign and really understand what the front line would have looked like. Stopping at the Nek was a moving experience. We sat the students down and told the story of what had happened in the tiny square of ground. We explored some of the stories of the individual men who had fought on that fateful day. Looking across the open ground from the site where the Australians would have been to the Turkish lines were it really is very clear of just how withering the fire must have been to stop every one of those hundreds of men before they could take those few dozen steps.
There was so much more to our journey today and I would encourage you to follow the student’s blog on the other site http://simpsonprize2011.wordpress.com for their perspective. No matter how many times you visit Gallipoli there is always a way that this place reminds you that this tiny peninsula and what has gone on here is incredibly powerful. Today I was able to walk into Baby 700 again and go the stone that tells visitors that Blair Inskip Swanell is somewhere in this small grassy patch on top of this hill. He was an officer, an international rugby player and a great leader. He died on the 25th of April, the first day of the campaign, leading his men to the objective of baby 700. He had said to Charles Bean the day before that “I will play this game like I play rugby, with my whole heart”. He did and he died doing so, his body left behind enemy lines as the Australians were forced from the hill. Seeing his name there on that wind swept grave yard once again moved me to tears.