11 November 2015

Gallipoli Sunday

There is a place where, towards the end of every April, locals gather in the streets to watch military parades and remember the World War 1 horrors and heroism of Gallipoli. The occasion is not known as ‘ANZAC Day’ but is instead ‘Gallipoli Sunday’, and it takes place not in Australia but in the town of Bury, just north of Manchester, England. This is my birthplace.

It would be hard to find any place in Britain where Gallipoli is remembered as determinedly as it is in Bury. During World War 1 this Lancashire mill town (population 50,000 at the time) was home to the Lancashire Fusiliers regiment. This was one of the 84 British regiments that served at Gallipoli, and they lost nearly 2,000 men in the nine-month assault on the Dardanelles. Their landing spot at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915 later became known as 'Lancashire Landing', and it was during the landing on that day that six men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers earned Victoria Crosses - the famous 'six VCs before breakfast'.

Bury men (the 'Bury Bantams') reporting for duty early in the war.  Many were to die at Gallipoli.
Bury men (the 'Bury Bantams') reporting for duty early in the war. Many were to die at Gallipoli.

'The Lancashire Landing', Cape Helles, 1915.
'The Lancashire Landing', Cape Helles.

The effect on the town was profound. After cheering the Fusiliers off to war with romantic ideals, the town reeled as news of the unfolding catastrophe filtered back from the front. By the time the war finally ended three years later nearly 14,000 Fusiliers had lost their lives. Geoffrey Moorhouse’s brilliant book Hell’s Foundations: A social history of the town of Bury in the aftermath of Gallipoli details the profound repercussions the war had for the town, not only for those who lost family and friends, but also those who survived but were maimed physically and psychologically and could be seen on the streets of Bury in dwindling numbers for decades to come. The ‘broken families and broken men’ wanted to ‘forget the war and get on with life’, but decades later the town still marks every Gallipoli Sunday and, much like in Australia, disaster has metamorphosed into legend.

Fusiliers march to the parish church, Gallipoli Sunday, Bury, 23 April 1923.
Fusiliers march to the parish church, Gallipoli Sunday, Bury, 23 April 1923.

Gallipoli Sunday isn't as grand or frenzied as ANZAC Day, and Lancastrians have not mythologised the Fusiliers with idealised attributes, but the commemoration has dignity and reminds us that Gallipoli was an international disaster that left its mark on many countries, from India to Senegal to Canada to France and most of all on Turkey.

Gallipoli veterans Bob Spencer (Lancashire Fusiliers) and Benny Adams  (Manchester Regiment) march on the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, April 1990.
Gallipoli veterans Bob Spencer (Lancashire Fusiliers) and Benny Adams (Manchester Regiment) march on the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, April 1990.

I have only ever attended two ANZAC parades in Brisbane. For the first one I found a quiet spot and it was especially moving to see the World War 1 veterans up front and the bands of foreign service people from places like Vietnam and eastern Europe further back. I watched the entire event. However, I left my second and last Brisbane parade halfway through. This one I watched from a more densely-populated part of the route, where flag-draped spectators constantly yelled out 'Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi'. It felt more like a one-day cricket match instead of the solemn remembrance seen in Brisbane in decades past.

I only attend the smaller events now, where the flag capes and the chants are usually left at home. My youngest two children marched with cubs and scouts at local ANZAC services in Brisbane. My eldest two (including my eldest daughter who was also born in Bury) attended at the dawn service over in Gallipoli itself in 2014 and also visited the Lancashire Landing Cemetery there.

With my background, I can't help but see the events of Gallipoli and the rest of that war through an international context, and recoil from any nationalistic exploitation of that horrific carnage.