Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anzac Cove

On May 10, 1916, the London Telegraph featured the story “Anzacs in France,” celebrating the arrival to the Western Front of “these splendid fighting men who have survived the heroic tragedy of the Dardanelles.” Leon Gellert had survived Gallipoli.  An Australian who had enlisted with the 10th Battalion just 18 days after Britain declared war on Germany, Gellert landed at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915, but shrapnel wounds, dysentery, and blood poisoning ended his war.  He was evacuated from the Dardanelles, and due to his injuries and epileptic symptoms, discharged from the military.

The Gallipoli campaign dragged on for another five months.  Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire put up a strong resistance until the British withdrew from the Turkish peninsula on January 8, 1915.  The battle had lasted just over eight months, and neither side could claim a clear victory, but over 100,000 men from both sides of the conflict died, and over 230,000 were injured. Gellert’s poem “Anzac Cove” remembers not only the men who did not return home, but those who loved and would forever miss them.

Anzac Cove by George Lambert, © Australian War Memorial
Anzac Cove

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :

There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South. 

Here's a beautiful performance of the poem set to music (thanks to Marina Maxwell for sharing this gem).  

The poem never details the battle, nor does it describe the men who fought there.  Instead, 9 of the 12 lines of the poem narrate the landscape of Anzac Cove, beginning with There’s or There are as they sketch a picture of the scene. There’s a melancholy tenderness in the description, as if a soldier has returned home to tell the family of his dead mate, “Here is where he fought; this is where he lies.” The hills, forts, and beaches bear witness to the lonely desolation of war: what has been left behind is battered, broken, torn, and rotting.  Sunken graves mark the lines of buried bones, and the valley is silent.

The only sound that breaks the silence is that of “gentle sobbing in the South – the grief of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and sweethearts who loved the men who fell at Gallipoli. 

Despite his efforts to rejoin the Australian Imperial Forces, Gellert was not among the Australians sent to France in the preparation for the battle of the Somme in July of 1916.  The London paper, in describing the Australian troops who arrived in France in the spring of 1916, characterized Gallipoli as a heroic tragedy, and it described the survivors as “hard fellows….with Homeric fighting qualities.”  As the Australians marched through a French market town, London correspondent Philip Gibbs noted,

Leon Gellert

“They had merry eyes (especially for the girls round the stalls), but resolute, clean-cut mouths, and they rode their horses with an easy grace in the saddle as though born to riding, and drove their wagons with a recklessness among the little booths that was justified by half an inch between an iron axle and an old woman’s table of coloured ribbons.  These clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered boys who had come out of the hell-fire of the Dardanelles…looked wonderfully fresh in France.  Youth, keen as steel, with a flash in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding down the street….For tough as they are, and keen as they are, many of the Australian soldiers are but grown-up children, with a splendid simplicity of youth, and the great gift of laughter.”



In less than six weeks, much of that youth and laughter would again be silenced and replaced yet once more by “a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.”   


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