Anzac Day is the national memorial day in Australia and New Zealand for all the war dead of those countries. The day was originally named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who fought proudly in WWI and were colloquially known as Anzacs. Not all memorial ceremonies take place within Australian or New Zealand. Lone Pine, in Gallipoli, was the site of an annual commemoration with multiple services, that commemorated fallen Australians – until today.
On February 12 of this year, the federal government announced that the Lone Pine service would no longer be conducted due to concerns about the safety of visitors on the rough, high terrain. Dating back to 1915 somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 men were injured or killed in the August 6 battle at this location during the Gallipoli campaign.
The Australian government’s decision to axe Anzac Day ceremonies at Lone Pine, in modern-day Turkey, has been described as “sacrilege” to veterans and an emotional blow to war widows. Opposition leader Bill Shorten criticized the motion, declaring it would outrage all Australians.
The official statement explained that the service would cease because of health and safety concerns for visitors partaking in the commemoration service. Visitors linger onsite for extended periods of time (some visitors even walk up to Lone Pine, a six-hour hike), there is potential for extreme weather, and it is an exposed location on rough terrain.
In November, Minister for Veterans Affairs Stuart Robert announced the review of the Lone Pine service. Coincidentally, Robert was recently sacked by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for breaking ministerial protocol during a recent trip to China. The announcement of the termination of his term was made on the same day as the announcement about the scrapping of the Lone Pine service.
The immediate reaction of many was to attack the initiative as a “nanny state” measure. Initially, the Returned and Services League said it would only agree to the cancelation of the service if conducting it posed left visitors exposed to the risk of a terrorist attack. Opposition leader Bill Shorten was highly critical that the news was released under the cover of Minister Robert’s dismissal. He called it a disgrace.
Shorten declared that Lone Pine marks a hugely important event in Australia’s history. It is important to commemorate the sacrifice of all the men who lost their lives. He himself took a trip last year to Turkey to honor the 100th anniversary ceremony of the Gallipoli campaign at Lone Pine and described the scene as personally significant. With two family members buried in Lone Pine, the service touched home. Their names are on the memorial plaque at the site.
The reasons for canceling the service seem shady at best. Shorten said it would be understandable and justifiable to terminate for safety reasons. However, if it is being done to cut costs then it is simply disgraceful. He is adamant that the modern-day government should not stop Australians from celebrating the great sacrifices of the many thousands of young Australian men who died in Gallipoli, particularly in the Lone Pine conflict.
“We must never stop honoring them and their sacrifice,” he said. “This would threaten the solemn promise we make…. It would be contrary to the whole spirit of Lest We Forget.”
Meg Green, spokesperson for the War Widows’ Guild of Australia, said the decision was unsettling. She reluctantly admitted that the ceremony did get rather hot and crowded, especially for visitors taking the long walk up to Lone Pine from the dawn service at Anzac Cove, though she noted that the event organizers always have medical teams standing by. “When I was there,” Green said, “it was exceedingly hot and there was nowhere to take off your thermal layers, which you need for the dawn service. Facilities are fairly poor. The road in and out is quite difficult.”
However, despite these issues, Green feels the service should carry on throughout the international commemorative services to mark the 100-year anniversary of World War I, which will end in 2018. She believes Australians will indeed be disappointed if the Lone Pine service is canceled. The hope is that veteran groups similar to hers could change the government’s decision.
Foreigners and many young Australian backpackers alike travel through Europe and camp at Lone Pine. They arrive on the eve of Anzac Day and stick around until late in the day. There is not much opportunity to escape from the sweltering heat due to little shade; there are large crowds and it is challenging to get in and out of the area.
Lone Pine was a battle that resulted in a rare win for the Anzacs, and it has become one of Australia’s most sacred sites.
Ion Idriess, an author and a war veteran, was a light-horseman at Lone Pine in September 1915. He describes the harsh odor as being awful. Turks and Australians lay buried and half-buried at the bottom of the trenches with flies swarming over the dead bodies.
A Mr. Flanagan expressed his opinion on the importance of keeping the service going. He described the sentiment of wanting the younger generation to have the opportunity to keep this tradition alive and well. “It is not just for the older people,” he said. But for now the government has rendered its decision.
The controversy over the cancelled ceremony will no doubt continue for sometime.