On 24th May 1915, both sides lay down their arms in order to bury their dead. By then, thousands of dead men lay unattended beneath the hot Turkish sun. There was no safe opportunity to bury them.
Standing amidst the quagmire of rotting flesh and black bloated forms bursting the seams of tired and dusty uniforms, William pulled his handkerchief soaked in antiseptic up over his nose. Death was everywhere; there was no escaping it. It clung to summer’s breath with a stench that fiercely invaded the orifices of his being. It clouded his vision and ate away his mind like an acid bath. He knew he could never escape the hollow gaze of several thousand dead men. Many of them had been laying in the sun since the day of the first landing on April 25th. The least the living could do was to give them a semblance of dignity. “How ironic,” William thought to himself. “That death has brought unity to both sides of this God forsaken war.”
William’s unshaven face wore the strains of the drudgery that had become his life since arriving on the Peninsula four days before. Slowly lifting his hat with one hand, he urged his other through his short brown hair that was slicked down by layers of dirt, sweat and blood. Replacing his hat on his head, he wound his long thin fingers around the shovel handle and began to dig the earth that would soon cover up the tragedy that has transpired. As he witnessed the placement of bodies and body parts in the gruesome grave, he felt the tears well behind his eyes. His military discipline kept them in check, stemming the flow. He could not afford to drop his guard, to let his own weaknesses show. He needed his strengths in order to survive.
Since he scrambled ashore four days before, the earth has barely stopped shaking and pounding from exploding shells. The air has been clouded with dust, clods of earth, flying bullets and pieces of shrapnel mixed with human flesh and blood. The turquoise waters of Anzac Cove that lured them ashore were a ruse, for this was no paradise. They lived like rats in holes dug out of ridges and hills which they shared with the dead. And sleep, what is sleep? “Surely, this is hell?” he has repeated beneath his breath like a mantra, over and over, trying to find some justification for the daily slaughter of good men.
As he continued to shift layers of Turkish soil, he caught sight of something white in the corner of his eye. Sensing someone standing beside him, he glanced sideways to be greeted by a hand holding a crumpled cigarette packet.
“You…cigarette?” A young Turkish soldier asked William in heavily accented English.
“No, I don’t smoke.” William replied, shaking his head.
“But thank you.” He tipped his hat to show his gratitude.
“I wish…luck,” the young soldier placed the crumpled cigarette packet back into his pocket and offered William his empty hand.
As he shook the Turkish soldier’s hand, William stared into his brown eyes for a brief moment, trying to grasp his offer of friendship. That tiny fragment of time felt like a ray of light reaching out of the darkness. They released their grip and the young man turned and walked away.
“Perhaps, there really is a God.” Commented a young Australian man who stood beside William, shovelling soil into the pit at a seemingly superhuman pace.
“And, you’ve had doubts?” William enquired.
“How can one not, Sir” the young man snapped back with a look that needed no reply.
“Indeed,” William said beneath his breath and continued to work the soil whilst listening to the conversations around him; the accented English; the swapping of souvenirs and photos.
“Perhaps you’re right, trooper,” he spoke. “Is God trying to tell us something today?”
The young trooper stopped shovelling and straightened his back as he replied, “I hope the powers-that-be are listening, Sir.”
William felt an uneasy mixture of gratitude and guilt toward the enemy. How can they treat us with kindness when it is we who have invaded their land? Today is so surreal. Is it just a dream?
His thoughts were interrupted by a high pitched whistle, followed by a cacophony of shouting in both Turkish and English. “Back to the trenches men!” William heard amidst the chaos of thudding leather boots and clanking of shovels and picks colliding with each other in the mad scramble back over the parapet to their former positions of defence. The feint glimmer of hope that had peered out of no man’s land began to fade into oblivion. At 17.00 the crack of gunfire ended the armistice; the earth once more began to feverishly quake; the clear blue sky clouded over with whooshing bullets, flying shrapnel and angry fists of earth.