Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in both Australia and New Zealand that commemorates members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who both served and died in the battle at Gallipoli in World War I. It is held each year on April 25, and is also observed in a number of other countries in Oceania, as well as Turkey – where the battle took place.
As our month long trip to Turkey in 2014 fell during the month of April, we arranged our travels so that we would arrive in Gallipoli in time to incorporate the ANZAC Day ceremony into our itinerary. Neither of us had ever attended a dawn service before for various reasons, but we decided that it would be remiss of us not to make the most of the opportunity to pay our respects whilst in the country.
The quest to attend the 99th Anzac Day in Gallipoli began!
As we were travelling completely independently, we had hoped to travel to Gallipoli on our own also. In our research though, we struggled to find information on how to do so – with most Anzac Day memorial trips being held as part of a tour, through bigger tour companies like Contiki and Topdeck. There was a severe lack of information online as to how others had gone about it, so after a few fruitless months of research we decided that we would leave the days surrounding the Anzac Day free and figure out a game plan once we arrived in Turkey.
The majority of Anzac Day tours both start and finish in Istanbul, so upon arrival in Turkey we found dozens of small travel operators all selling tours. Our hostel was associated with a small travel agent located next door, whom we discussed our dilemma with. It turns out that you’re not able to attend Gallipoli as a solo, independent traveller as all those who attend have to be associated with a travel company and be registered, in order to maintain strict security on site. That explained why we were able to find so little information online.
The travel agents were extremely helpful in assisting us with our travel plans – as we would not be able to depart from Istanbul for any of their tours, we had to look at other options. We ended up making arrangements to join their tour at the halfway point, as we would not require the trip from Istanbul. This meant a slightly cheaper tour, and one that fit in with our travel plans – we would be able to proceed as normal and then meet up with the group on the 24th of April – too easy.
We arrived in Canakkale on the 23rd of April, a seaport town on the coast of Turkey and a gateway to the Gallipoli peninsula. The town of Canakkale had quite a party vibe due to the large number of backpackers there – presumably there to make the trip over to Gallipoli.
We had just a half day of sightseeing, before we caught the ferry from the main port to the town of Eceabat – the nearest town to the battlefields of Gallipoli and Anzac Cove. We made our way to one of the local hotels – the meeting point for the tour group that was coming from Istanbul.
Leaving our bigger bags behind and taking only the essentials – warm clothes, a sleeping bag and food – we set off on a bus tour around the peninsular. The selling point of our particular tour was that it was the only tour offering a trip by ferry to Anzac Cove itself – viewing it from the water and seeing it as the soldiers did that day in 1915.
Viewing Anzac Cove from the ferry was definitely a unique angle, one that not a lot were able to see. However whilst on the ferry, we couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of tour buses already outside the grounds, and the thousands of people lining up to get in. An hour later, when we arrived back on the land and pulled up at the ceremony site – those thousands of people had been allowed in to the grounds…
We spent the next hour walking around the grounds – which are incredibly small for the amount of people in attendance – to try and find somewhere to settle in for the night. We ended up finding a tiny patch of grass, on a downwards slope, next to the fence underneath one of the two main speaker towers – it was going to be a long night.
As the sun began to set, we sat back and watched the various programs and documentaries that were played on the large screens around the memorial site, providing a history into what happened at Anzac Cove in 1915. We attempted getting some sleep around 10PM, despite the fact that the program played all night and the thousands of people surrounding us continuing to socialise most of the night. Ear plugs are a must!
Everyone seemed to arise at the same time in the early morning, without the need for alarms. The atmosphere was completely different from the more ‘party vibe’ that had been present the night before – everyone was silent, sombre. We made our way over to the main stage, where a side presentation played on the screens – the names, ages, cause of death and parting words from the families of the soldiers who’d died at Gallipoli. It was incredibly sad.
A lone trumpeter played the familiar tune of the Reveille, before the dawn service got underway. There was a number of speeches, presentations, poems and songs performed by a number of dignitaries, politicians and school-children, lasting approximately an hour. The ceremony came to an end as bagpipes were played and a number of wreaths were laid at the base of the flag poles, the flags swaying gently in the early morning breeze.
After the dawn ceremony, all the crowds dispersed, headed for the ceremonies to be held at the memorial sites further inland – Lone Pine (the Australian site) and Chunuk Bair (the New Zealand site). It was a three kilometre hike uphill, and fairly tough-going after a sleepless night – it was only made bearable by the beautiful views from the top over the Gallipoli peninsula. The ceremony started at 10.30AM, and once again we stood for the National Anthem and listed to a series of presentations, poems, and choir performances over the course of an hour or so.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, we were free to wander around the memorial grounds – the final resting place of many of the soldiers – whilst we waited for our buses to arrive. Thankfully ours was one of the first group to arrive – a blessing as I’d happened to catch a chill overnight and couldn’t stop spluttering and sneezing – and I was out of tissues! The bus collected us from Lone Pine, then made its way to Chunuk Bair to collect those attending the New Zealand ceremony, before heading back to the hotel in Eceabat for everyone to pick up their belongings. After a brief stop, we made the 6 hour journey back to Istanbul – arriving around 8PM at night.
We felt very privileged to be able to attend the 99th Anzac Day Memorial. Even though neither of us had any family ties to the ceremony (relatives who’d been involved in the war), we knew we had to make the effort to attend the ceremony whilst in Turkey. It was incredibly moving, but I won’t lie – the physical experience of attending was exhausting. The long travel, the sleepless night, the cold, the physical exertion – it can take its toll, especially if you fall ill like I did. However, it’s still an experience we’re thankful to have had and if you are ever in Turkey during the month of April you should absolutely take the opportunity to observe Anzac Day at Gallipoli.
- Getting there:
The majority of ANZAC Day tours depart and return to Istanbul. As Istanbul is usually the starting point for most travellers to Turkey, you can easily arrange a tour on arrival – most of them all have the same itinerary. If you’re in a situation like us – travelling independently and making your way to Canakkale first – speak to your agent about joining up with the tour at the meeting point in Eceabat.
- Cost of tours:
From memory, I believe we paid 100 Euros for our tour ($145.00 AUD), give or take. As mentioned before, there are many tour providers so it pays to shop around and see what different companies offer as part of the price.
- Tips for visiting:
Bring your own food – most tours will provide a packed breakfast however this is usually a pretty meagre offering. Bringing your own snacks and food means you won’t go hungry nor have to line up at the food stalls for dinner the night before. Pack warm clothes and bring a sleeping bag – it gets very cold at night and sometimes even rains so a waterproof sleeping bag is a must. Pack your own toilet paper!
Have you been to the Dawn Service for Anzac Day at Gallipoli? How was your experience? Share in the comments below!