Like many first-time visitors to Gallipoli, Mike Rann was deeply moved by the personal messages on the gravestones of Australia’s fallen soldiers.
Australia’s outgoing high commissioner in London was also surprised by the physical beauty of the peninsula – another common response among pilgrims.
Rann spent three days in Turkey last week in his role as a Commonwealth war graves commissioner.
He visited 20 cemeteries on the Gallipoli peninsula and witnessed preparations for this week’s 99th anniversary commemorations of the 1915 landing at Anzac Cove.
“It’s going to be very much a dress rehearsal for next year’s centenary,” Rann says of Friday’s dawn service at North Beach.
“It’s an extraordinary operation with very much a mind that this is a place for pilgrimage – it’s not a place for tourists.
“There is a real difference between the two, so things are done with solemnity and respect and good taste.”
Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders will attend services at Gallipoli this week knowing the 2015 centenary is restricted to 10,500 people already allocated tickets.
The events will be solemn, but that hasn’t always been the case.
The 90th anniversary in 2005 was marred by controversy over roadworks at Anzac Cove, the inappropriate playing of the Bee Gees hits Stayin’ Alive and You Should be Dancing on big screens and pilgrims leaving the site covered in rubbish.
Some young Australians angered the RSL by lying on graves.
But valuable lessons have been learnt and over the past 10 years authorities have ensured Anzac Day is not only respectful, but educational too.
Rann’s first impression of the Gallipoli peninsula was of a place that combined “extraordinary poignancy but also extraordinary physical beauty”.
Personal messages from family members on the gravestones of the young men who died so far from home create a sense of “incredible intimacy”.
The former South Australian premier was also taken aback – despite having seen countless photographs – to find a landscape so stunning.
Australians who visit Gallipoli are always moved, too, by the words of the Turkish republic’s first president, Kemal Ataturk, which are engraved on a memorial at Anzac Cove.
“Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace,” the ex-Gallipoli commander wrote in 1934.
“After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
Rann last week spoke with Turkish stonemasons and gardeners who work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
“There’s great respect and affection between Australian and Turks and I certainly felt it in Gallipoli,” he says.
“They know how it important it was to us, we know how important it was to them – this is an example of two former enemies who’ve become very close friends.”
As South Australia’s opposition leader and then premier over a period of 17 years, Rann witnessed the crowds at Adelaide’s dawn service grow every year with an increasing number of teenagers attending.
He says the power of Anzac Day “as our national day for young people” becomes stronger even as the events of 1915 recede further into the past.
The 61-year-old’s explanation is that while the military campaign was a disaster it was Australia’s first test as a nation.
“Australia became a country formally in 1901 so this was the first big test of us as a nation and we were there with our traditional allies,” Rann says.
“It forged a special relationship between Australia and New Zealand that will never be broken.
“It was a combination of a sense of service, courage and mateship. All of those thing are very important in terms of Australian identity.”
Journalist Tony Wright – author of Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula – argues a combination of popular and political factors revitalised interest in the Gallipoli story in the 1980s.
First there was the 1981 film starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee and Bill Kerr, followed by the Hawke government’s decision to embrace Vietnam veterans 15 years after the end of that conflict, which led the nation to rediscover older diggers too.
Then there was the 1988 bicentenary, with a focus on Australian history, and Bob Hawke’s 75th anniversary trip to Anzac Cove with more than 50 veterans.
Rann says Anzac Day is now so important it will be the focus of Australia’s “century of sacrifice” remembrance to mark 100 years since the start of World War I.
Commonwealth leaders on August 4 will gather to remember the British Empire’s entry into the Great War, but even before then there’ll be a huge 70th anniversary event in Normandy to mark WWII’s D-Day.
There’ll be commemorations on the Western Front including Fromelles, at El Alamein and Tobruk, Kokoda, New Guinea and across the Pacific.
Korea and Vietnam will be acknowledged too.
“These centenaries will educate all of us to understand sacrifices made to give us the lives and opportunities that we currently enjoy,” Rann says.
“One of the pluses of the next four years of commemorations is that there’ll be a greater understanding of the depth of Australian sacrifice.”
Some 8700 Australians died during the eight-month Gallipoli campaign while more than 2700 New Zealanders were killed. It’s estimated up to 87,000 Turks lost their lives.