You can learn a lot on a Battlefield

Written by  Kat Mackintosh

Too pragmatic to try fortune telling, I look to the past to find out about myself and my family. Maybe in the lives of the people who had my name before me will I find clues to how and why I came to be here. For that reason I trawl compulsively though microfish files, service lists and imposing memorials looking for my Dad’s great uncle’s name amongst those who served in World War One.

Almost a figure of lore, in my head Albert (Bert) was like Mark Lee in Gallipoli, young and lively, raring to go. But that is just how he has been described to me, as were, I imagine, so many others who were cut down in their prime, last seen by families leaving the Sydney docks bound for the fighting in Europe. Passing down through the generations a hero, I imagine Bert to be not dissimilar to me at 20, over confident, excited about the possibilities of the future and not really sure what he’s doing with his life. The story goes that he joined up with three of the boys who grew up on the same street as him after finishing school two years earlier and going to work on a banana farm up the coast - which he didn’t enjoy - and which is probably why he joined up. Next thing you know he’s trained up and on a boat for Egypt then Gallipoli.

Lots of men died in the campaign for the Dardanelles, but there is still something quite special to an Australian about having a relative at Gallipoli. It’s supposedly the battle that proved our national mettle and is spoken about annually in hushed tones, a story to sum up all the other stories of the first and second world wars. Even if you’ve had no family blood mixed into the soil of the Turkish peninsular it’s still a place for a young Australian to pilgrimage, but for me visiting the site was somehow a way of honouring Bert and his story. It’s virtually impossible to find out anything about particular soldiers unless they were mentioned in dispatches but you can find out a lot about what it was like on those narrow beaches and on those cliffs from the Australian War Memorial; and I did, but it wasn’t until I stood on those cliffs looking over the ocean in the bright sunshine in a huge Commonwealth War Cemetery that I really considered what it may have been like for him to die there.

Travel is about expanding my horizons and getting some perspective on the world, and this trip opened my eyes to an experience almost impossible to imagine these days. It’s easy to accept the story of war when you’re sitting in a classroom, but the reality is a little bit more difficult to swallow until you put yourself on the spot, in one of these cemeteries next to a gravesite bearing the same name as your own.

Great Battlefields

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