My great-grandfather was at Gallipoli. Gallipoli was an attempt to get a land pathway into Europe which British troops could follow, and attack the Germans closer to Germany than the stagnant lands created by trench warfare.
The road through Turkey would be opened by non-British troops, mainly New Zealanders and Australians, whose deaths in a futile and poorly planned operation wouldn’t be making headlines in England. There was a beach selected for this task, and naturally the British navy sailed straight past it and dumped the “colonial” troops into a beach where conditions would be intolerable if you lived, and where the Turks could sit up in the hills safely pouring lead onto the poor bastards on the beachhead.
Anyway, my great-grandfather was stuck on the killing beach. He did what you do under the circumstances. You try to go forward, you try to kill people wearing the other clothing style, you try to keep your head down and stay alive, and sometimes you do crazy brave things because the men you’re with are doing them too.
He came back from the meat-grinder alive but fucked. He couldn’t re-settle, he couldn’t be with his family, and he spent the rest of his life, except his last two years, trying to drink himself to death. Unluckily for him, the Mortimers have weird genes, and though he spent nearly eighty years consuming pretty much nothing but gin when he could afford it and sherry when times were worse, smoking when he could and sleeping rough, he lived until his late nineties.
In the last eighteen month of his life, when he was ninety-six, he became the live-in handyman at a block of apartments in Nelson, chopping wood (I told you we’re genetically weird), fixing fuses and hinges and water piping for the young couples living around him. He was proud of himself for the first time since 1915.
He died in the 1990s. Someone managed to locate his family and contacted my father, who wasn’t actually a relation except by marriage, and he went down and cleared up .
Anyway, my great-grandfather wouldn’t talk about Gallipoli, or Chunuk Bair. There wasn’t much to say. Except one thing. He said he was on the slopes with a donkey carrying water. The donkey got hit smack in the stomach by a cannon shell. It whipped its head around in time to see the middle of its body gone and its hind legs falling. Then the front of the donkey fell too, head facing my great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather used to say that the expression on the donkey’s face, when it realised it was fucked (grotesquely destroyed, if you prefer), was something he’d never forget as long as he lived.
I never met my great-grandfather. The only time I ever saw him was when I was nine. I was at a family wedding that he, pointedly, hadn’t been invited to. He turned up drunk, with a drunk friend, and got turned away. I missed that, but saw him later at a kid’s play area with a helter skelter. He and his friend decided to walk up the spiral of the slide, and come down the ladder.
It took them a long time but they made it, with assorted family members standing a distance away making disgusted comments. I knew nothing, understood nothing, but I did feel a kind of sympathy with him. Not “that poor man”. More like, “that’s odd but kind of cool”.
It was my mother who told me the only thing he’d ever said about his experience at Gallipoli. So I don’t know how he told that story: was it a parable about the way the New Zealand and Australian men were treated when the British decided to throw their lives onto a choppingboard? I don’t know: but my guess is that, yeah, it was that, but above all, he thought it was funny.
The people in my country have the blackest sense of humour I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. Throw in having lived through Gallipoli, and I’d say my great-grandfather would have had get a sense of humour so dark it had infinite gravity.
Anyway, I’ve never given a fuck about ANZAC Day. Nor, I understand, did he.
When I see it being used by politicians to defend more stupid military deployments, for the sake of someone else’s empire, I get really, deeply disgusted and angry. And it’s nearly impossible to make me angry.
So, I think the poor sods in the army, navy or air force who get sent where their country tells them to go deserve sympathy, and most importantly they deserve real help while they’re alive.
But fuck ANZAC Day. It was bullshit in the first place, and it’s now been securely seized by right-wing, race-baiting arseholes. Fuck them, fuck the politicians, fuck the snivelling scumlicking bullies in the Murdoch press, fuck all that bullshit. Fuck, as I said, ANZAC Day.
I remember the mess it made of my great-grandfather, sometimes, in bugle-free private, and I remember that poor bloody donkey.
This is an excellent story, Jaime. I enjoyed reading very much. Thank you for telling it.