“When we return…”

A short story by Steve Williams

They met on a bus taking them on the eight hour journey from Istanbul to Gallipoli. Two young students from the Southern Hemisphere, taking a rites of passage trip to the ANZAC Dawn Service in April, 2005. By chance, both were medical students. He was training to be a Dentist, of Maori descent and a giant of a man who would not have looked out of place in the All Blacks rugby team. She wanted to be a Paediatric specialist, a petit red head of Scottish origin with a quick mind, and some would say a quicker temper.

When they reached Gallipoli, or Gelibolu as the Turks call it, the atmosphere on the bus change from one of high spirits to one of realisation. Realisation they had reached their journey’s end, or had they? For many from New Zealand and Australia, this was the beginning of the rest of lives – finding the soul of their country, formed like their hosts Turkey on the shore and hills of a parched peninsular, miles from home.

Back in 1915 young men had come to Gallipoli to do their duty for King, Country and Empire; as the historians eventually put it – “from the far reaches of the earth”. Over 44,000 lost their lives and remained, in a corner of this foreign field – many in unmarked graves. It was to this corner that 23 year old James Waitara and 22 year old Megan Lee came on a warm, Spring day. When they got off the bus at the Visitor Centre at Gaba Tepe, they set off with their back-packs for the short walk up the coast road to Anzac Cove, ready for the dawn service to commemorate ANZAC Day in the morning.

When the sun came up, over 10,000 fellow pilgrims (for that’s what they were) stood in silence – an eerie silence, like it was in 1915. As the service ended they decided to walk up to Chunuk Bair to the New Zealand memorial and then down Pine Ridge to the Lone Pine, where so many of their countrymen had lost their lives. Why, both would eventually ask themselves? After eight months of pointless fighting the Commonwealth troops left, leaving their fallen comrades behind. Their evacuation (some say retreat) was the only success of a fateful campaign that was designed to open up the Dardenelles and the Bosphurus, to supply beleaguered Russia via the Black Sea. A total of 392,000 troops from both side were killed or wounded in the campaign.

But Megan and James were not thinking of that as they read what few headstones were visible in Walker’s Ridge cemetery at The Nek, high above the distinctive Sphink like landmark on the shoulder of Pine Ridge. She cried as she read one of just 16 headstones out of the 92 men that were known to be buried under the ground they walked on. The stone of 23 year old Australian, Trooper Harold Rush simply read “His last words Goodbye Cobber God bless you”. They eventually left The Nek, holding hands – two humble and more wiser ‘youngsters’.

Lone Pine Cemetery
Lone Pine Cemetery

At Lone Pine Cemetery there were far more headstones, for the ANZAC troops had managed to capture and hold the trenches here. Just as they were leaving Megan gathered up a few sprigs of rosemary, growing wild in the trenches, for she remembered that rosemary was the plant of remembrance. From his rucksack James got out a small note book and said “what shall we write”. You write something and I will as well, Megan replied. Both set about writing – he in Maori and she in English. After a few minutes they compared what they had wrote. For him it was a ‘Waiata’ or Maori chant he had learnt as a boy… “Po atarau, E moea iho nei, E harere ana ko, Ki pamamao, Haere ra, Ka kohi mai ano, Kit te tau e tangi atu nei”. Hers, she had heard only last year, read… “Now is the hour when we must say goodbye. Soon we’ll be sailing far across the seas. When we’re away we will remember you, when we return we will find you waiting here”. His face suddenly went pale, broken only by a tearful half-smile. “What is it?” she asked. “Do you know what ‘Po atarau, E moea iho nei’ means in English”, he replied? “It means ‘Now is the hour when we must say goodbye. Soon we’ll be sailing far…”. They hugged each other and laid the small sprig of rosemary by the solitary pine tree in the cemetery, before setting off down Pine Ridge for the return to Istanbul and home.

A year later in Auckland, James proposed to Megan on ANZAC Day. “Yes” she said, “but on one condition. When our children are older, they are to go to Gallipoli and lay a sprig of rosemary at Lone Pine”.

© Steve Williams 2008 – all rights reserved.

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On 25th April, 1915 Walker’s Ridge was the command post of Brigadier-General Walker, then commanding the New Zealand Infantry Brigade. It was held by a mixed force until 27th April, when the New Zealanders took it over. Later, a Turkish attempt to take the ridge on 30th June was repulsed by the 8th and 9th Australian Light Horse. The cemetery was made during the occupation and consists of two plots separated by 18 metres of ground, through which a trench ran. There are now 92 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 16 of the burials are unidentified and special memorials commemorate 26 soldiers known or believed to be buried in the cemetery.

Harold Rush's Memorial Stone at Lone Pine Cemetery
Harold Rush's marker stone at The Nek Cemetery

23 year old Harold Rush was born at Witnesham, Ipswich, England. He was the son of Robert and Amy Rush of Bradford St. George, Bury St. Edmund’s. He served in the 10th Battalion of the Australian Light Horse, a Cavalry regiment that was being used as infantry on Gallipoli. He was killed in action on the 7th August 1915 defending the position, close to the Nek on Pine Ridge. He is buried, virtually where he fell.

Further up Pine Ridge at Chunuk Bair there is a statue to Lt. Colonel Mustafa Kemel, the leader of the Turkish Army on Gallipoli during WW1. He went on to form modern Turkey becoming its first President and known as “Ataturk” – ‘Father of Turkey’. Next to this statue is the New Zealand memorial, which simply says…. “From the uttermost ends of the earth”.

For a talk on Gallipoli, visit my talks page.