ANZAC Day at Gallipoli was the topic of the last conversation I had with my Dad.
Dad was a veteran of World War II. His years of service in the Royal Air Force, both in the United Kingdom and in the jungles of Burma, became a topic of endless conversation as my siblings and I grew up.
He was born in Scotland in 1921, when the scars of the Great War on the landscapes of Europe and the Middle East must have been barely grown or blown over.
Dad also told stories of men who returned from World War I with scars that would never heal – lost hearing, lungs destroyed by mustard gas, disfigured and psychologically damaged. The lucky ones.
I remember when it came time at school to learn about the World Wars. The way it was taught made it seem like these events had happened a long, long time ago. In a time when life appeared to have been lived in sepia.
Yet I wanted to blurt out that the soldiers and civilians impacted so badly by these wars were real people, they had families, they had kids just like me. Exactly like me.
Because back at our house here in Australia was my own Dad, who had lived through the Battle of Britain a few decades earlier. He experienced the warning sirens and cold nights huddled in an air raid shelter. The occasional night when comfort won over safety and he stayed in his own warm bed, despite his mother’s protests.
Dad made a point of saying that they had lived all these things in full colour. How obvious, yet enlightening that was.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to tell my Dad that I was heading to Gallipoli to commemorate ANZAC day in 2010. We spoke about the war, about trench warfare and the English generals whose strategy gave way to slaughter.
“I’m glad you’re getting a chance to do that,” Dad said of my trip to Turkey. So was I. Just a few weeks prior to departure, I was looking forward to visiting Gallipoli, to see for myself and to learn, then come back and share the experience with Dad.
It was always going to be an emotional visit. It would be impossible to stand on the escarpment, to look down to the beaches where so many lost their lives, to walk through row upon row of headstones, and not be overcome with the sense of loss, of heroism, of pointlessness.
Like many Australians, I made the pilgrimage from the dawn service at ANZAC cove to the dedicated service at Lone Pine for those from Australia who fought, and those who died.
I also attended the New Zealand and French services, and memorials for the servicemen of Turkey who fought and fell defending home soil.
Of all the memorials, it’s a giant lonely obelisk with sweeping views across the peninsula that evokes the most powerful memory for me. It’s called Helles Memorial and commemorates more than 20,000 fallen Commonwealth servicemen with no known grave.
That ANZAC day in 2010, the Commonwealth service was the only one with a bagpipe player. The haunting drone as that lone piper started to play broke through the morning air and took me back to another place.
The last bagpipes I had heard had led the procession of the coffin to my Dad’s final resting place, on a hillside in rural Western Australia.
In the days after our conversation about Gallipoli, Dad passed away unexpectedly. The date of his death was 10 April 2010, just a couple of weeks before ANZAC day.
I had thought about cancelling my trip, but as Mum pointed out with the wisdom of mothers, that was not what Dad would have wanted.
Standing in that foreign land, solemn respect for all those who have served and sacrificed gave way to barely-suppressed personal grief.
This wasn’t my father’s war, but Gallipoli is forever etched in my mind as a place where I honoured his memory.
Lest we forget.