Mates, spies and silence

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This article is a follow up to Brian Matthew’s previous column.

The military police were waiting for us in Gallipoli and they were not happy. Approaching in darkness, when we rolled to a stop we were immediately surrounded by uniformed figures. A group of men playing cards outside a café watched this drama unfold and one shouted something which made them all laugh. The military police, however, did not laugh.

Anzac cove (Warren Smart/Flickr)

We were taken to a sparsely furnished office lit by a large, naked globe hanging on a fly-papered flex. Years later I would remember that scene when watching Edward Woodward in the TV series, Callan. A man in uniform sat behind a desk at the end furthest from the door. Several rows of coloured decorations and medals queued up across his left breast — we would later refer to him in anecdote as ‘the Colonel’. He motioned us to sit. Three other officers lounged somewhere in the background. Smoke from their cigarettes curled round the light and flattened out under the ceiling like overcast. If all this sounds like a scene from a thriller, that’s what we thought too, and — briefly — we were amused. The police, however, were not amused and our satiric impulses lasted about thirty seconds.

French, it turned out, was the only bridge between us. With some difficulty, we jointly recounted the events of the afternoon — the van running out of petrol, our jaunt to the village on the tractor, and so on. The Colonel, still clearly skeptical, asked to see our jerry can. He shook it, smelt it, and handed it to the other three like Exhibit A in court.

With the inspection of the jerry can, something in the atmosphere changed. Our interrogator visibly relaxed, lit another cigarette. It was as if he was concluding that we were either brilliantly duplicitous and therefore very dangerous spies, or we were as incompetent as we looked. Suddenly he smiled. We must be hungry after our trip? We were.

‘Suivez-moi,’ and we all trooped across the square and down an alleyway to a restaurant. It was closed but the Colonel knocked several times at the door. ‘Mon ami,’ he explained — and sure enough, the proprietor emerged, greeted the Colonel with great enthusiasm and welcomed us all. Straight away he began cooking meat and rice and provided each of us with a large glass of raki. Protocol dictated that this should be drunk in one draft. The colourless, pungent liquid cauterised its way down the throat, producing as it went tears, gasps and an almost undeniable urge to bring it back up. Soon, however, our interrogation turned into a rollicking party. Some hours later we sank gratefully on to the straw-stuffed palliasses in a pension arranged for us by the Colonel and were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

The next morning, in a bleak, whippy wind under a thick gunmetal sky, we followed the Colonel’s official car to a roughly scraped space near the beach at Anzac Cove.

 

'To speak seemed somehow out of order, anything approaching flippancy a gross misjudgment of the place and its atmosphere.'

 

Out in the bay, jagged shards and rusting, irregular crenellations of metal stuck out of the flat lapping water where some vessel had ended its active service. And, in the sand of the beach where we walked, metal everywhere: .303 shells; a bullet hole-ridden Australian water bottle, metal in every random handful of sand, lumps and jags and slivers and twists, legacies of the hard rain that had begun to fall across the peninsula on 25 April forty-six years before and left it nine months later whipped, shredded, shrapnelled, broken and silent. The rhythmic lap lap of the quiet water did not break this silence: it simply became a part of it.  

The cold wind rifled through the scrub on those bone-threaded and blood-soaked hillsides and the sea shifted endlessly on its rattling pebbles, but in the end it was the silence that invited our imaginations. To speak seemed somehow out of order, anything approaching flippancy a gross misjudgment of the place and its atmosphere.

The Colonel and his men were respectfully distanced, but we were never out of their sight. It was not an atmosphere in which you felt you could ask to look around more widely. Unlike contemporary Gallipoli, there were no signs, no paths, few visible graves.

But, anyway, we were not permitted to explore on that day in 1961. There was only Anzac Cove — the grey, wreckage-reefed water, the cold light, the rattling pebbles; no life on the shore. Like so many of the doomed soldiers who landed at dawn on 25 April 1915, we would get no further than the beach.

Later that morning, we farewelled the Colonel and set off to retrace our route of the previous day. Beneath darkening low clouds and in total silence, we reached the boom gate where two new guards waved us through with scarcely a glance. Down the straight road we clattered, still in silence. In a distant field, a tractor stitched line after line into the thick brown earth; close by, olive trees gave off their peculiar glistening light.

‘And then’ — as first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon recalled it — ‘then the rain began, the jolly old rain’.

 

 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Anzac cove (Warren Smart/Flickr)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, borders, Turkey, Gallipoli, Middle East

 

 

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Brian that's a stunning piece of writing. Simply breathtaking. I wrote this piece years ago and sincerely hope Eureka editors can keep the line and stanza format or it wont make sense. The musical version is available on youtube and spotify. IT’S A HEAVY LOAD Lyrics by Frank Armstrong. WHERE DID YOU LAND ON THAT WINDSWEPT POINT? WHERE DID YOU FALL IN YOUR KHAKI SLOUCH HAT? AS YOU RAN THE GAUNTLET OF TWELVE MACHINE GUNNERS, AS YOU CHOKED ON THE SALT OF THE SEA OF MAMARA, AS YOU STUMBLED AND CRAWLED UP THE MOUTH OF A GRAVEYARD, AS YOUR EARS RANG WITH THE RHETORIC OF ENGLAND, AND IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD AND IT’S A LOAD! IT’S A HEAVY LOAD - BEFORE YOU STAND TALL. .............. AND WHAT DID YOU FEEL IN THE BITTER COLD DAWN? OH WHAT DID YOU FEEL WHEN VALOUR LOST ITS SHINE? A SKY LANCED WITH WHISPERS AND SMOKE OF THE TRACER, A TRENCH LIKE A RIVER BUT THE WATER WAS BLOODY, TEN MATES WITH A PROBLEM AND DEATH THEIR COMPANION, THEIR BAYONETS STILL FIXED BUT THE STEEL WAS STILL SHINY, AND IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD AND IT’S A LOAD! IT’S A HEAVY LOAD - BEFORE YOU STAND TALL. ...................... AND WHERE IS YOUNG BILL IN HIS GP BOOTS NOW? WHERE SHALL I FIND HIM, PLEASE SIR TELL ME HOW? AND THE BRAVE ONES WHO DIED WITH NO ONE TO LISTEN, AND THE DRUMMERS WHO DRUMMED WHILE BLOOD WAS A DRIPPIN’, AND THE SHELL-SHOCKED WHO CRIED AND THOUGHT THEY WERE DREAMIN’, AND THE THIRSTY WHO THIRSTED THEIR THROATS WERE A SCREAMIN’, AND IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD AND IT’S A LOAD! IT’S A HEAVY LOAD - BEFORE YOU STAND TALL. ............. AND WHAT WILL YOU DO WHEN YOU STAND ON GOD’S MOUNTAIN? ROLL YOUR LAST SMOKE AND THINK BACK ON YOUTH’S FOUNTAIN? GUNS THAT SWEPT ALL THE SONS OF THAT GENERATION, TO THE SEA AND SAND OF AN OTTOMAN NATION, THERE WERE LIMBS AND ARMS THAT STRANGELY WERE MISSING, EYES THAT WERE OVER THE DESIRE OF YOUNG WOMEN, AND IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A LOAD AND IT’S A LOAD, IT’S A HEAVY LOAD - BEFORE YOU STAND TALL.


Francis Armstrong | 30 March 2021  

What a contrast your moment on the beach makes with the circus that is Gallipoli - Gellibolu - these days.


Paul Smith | 31 March 2021  

To turn away from the unlovely spectacle of the foam-flecked lips of parliamentarians to be sobered by such recollections new and old is a sobering preparation for Easter 2021. I was still in short pants when the next crop of recollections cames swiftly with the Burma Railway, Changi Prison and Harbin Unit 731.


Glen Phillips | 31 March 2021  

The Parable of the Colonel.


roy chen yee | 31 March 2021  

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