April 25, a day Australians and New Zealanders know as ANZAC Day, is commemorated annually around the world by people of those two small nations. It commemorates the events of 1915, when Australian and New Zealand soldiers, fighting under the British Flag, were landed in Turkey at a place called Gallipoli to attack the Ottomans. The landing was a significant defeat for the British-led forces, but is viewed by Australians and New Zealanders as something of a baptism by fire for the two then very small nations. Australia lost more than 8700 troops in the engagement, and New Zealand more than 2700.
Today ANZAC Day has come to be understood as an opportunity to give thanks to and remember those who have perished, and equally those who have survived, while fighting in wars for Australia and New Zealand since their nationhood.
As you would know from the earlier posting in this blog, ‘Remains of War’, Australians and New Zealanders during the first world war fought in the Mesopotamian theatre of operations, and specifically in the context of Iran, in what was then the Northern Persian theatre. To briefly recap the earlier article, many highly decorated Australians and New Zealanders were recruited from other theatres in Europe and the Middle East, to form the first ever special forces group, ‘Dunsterforce’ (named after the force’s leader, Lord Dunsterville). This force of around 1000 troops operated in the areas of modern Iran, Iraq, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It was a small force but strongly armed with a high ratio of machine gun units, afforded extraordinary levels of motorised transport to traverse the vast distances they were expected to cover, and with highly trained communications experts.
Lord Dunsterville(far left) and staff of Dunsterforce (Source: Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of WWI: The Campaign in Armenia)
Surprisingly, they were not so much directly engaged by the German and Ottoman enemies, but perhaps are best understood as contributing greatly to the allied victory in WW1 by drawing massive and inordinate numbers of enemy troops away from other theatres, becoming indirectly responsible in many ways for the eventual defeat of the Ottomans, and thus to defeating the Germans. It is an interesting angle to this story, made more poignant on ANZAC Day, that this little-heard-of Dunsterforce – many of whom also fought in Gallipoli some three years earlier – contributed greatly to achieving the strategic objective of the Gallipoli campaign: knocking the Ottomans out of the war. It happened that this force of 1000 was so perturbing for the Ottomans who, in particular, desperately needed the oil and cotton routes to the east that the ports of Baku and Enzeli brought, that in 1918 they diverted a massive 40,000 troops from other operations to oust Dunsterforce.
Dunsterforce (in this case, soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment’s 7th (Service) Battalion, which coincidentally also landed in Gallipoli and was evacuated, saw service in Egypt, and then Northern Persia, and many of whom ended up lying in Tehran War Cemetery) marching on the road to Baku (Source: Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of WWI: The Campaign in Armenia)
Sadly, and unfittingly for hardened war heroes from other campaigns, a large number of Dunsterforce members perished from disease, and many not long before the war’s end. Based in the strategic high ground of Hamadan (the ancient city of Ecbatana) in western Iran, the Australians and New Zealanders buried in Tehran perished from the likes of cholera and malaria while in base. Buried initially in Hamadan, their graves were moved to Tehran much later as part of a larger process of aggregating Commonwealth War Graves from around the region.
And so, in the dawn twilight (ANZAC services are held at dawn, marking the timing of the initial landing at Gallipoli) of 25 April, 2014, the New Zealand Ambassador, H.E. Mr Eamonn O’Shaughnessy, hosted a service in the Tehran War Cemetery, located at the southern edge of the British residential compound at Gholhak in north Tehran.
Tehran War Cemetery, Gholhak, Tehran, Iran
A small – around 30 – invitation-only and poppy-wearing crowd gathered in the beautifully-kept cemetery for the ANZAC Day service that included wreath-laying by the Ambassadors of New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, and France, a recital of the ever-haunting Last Post, and the equally reviving Reveille. The ceremony included a tribute and reading by the Ambassador of Turkey of the famously magnanimous – and always heart-warming – words of the first Prime Minister of Turkey (and former Ottoman soldier) Mustafa Kemal Ataturk:
“Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives.
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well.”
The sun was well over the red-brick wall by the end of the ceremony and while the parrots, which seemed almost to assemble purposely around the cemetery, squawked in the trees of the British compound, attendees roamed through the war graves, looking at the quite remarkable collection of soldiers, mostly from Britain but also including troops from India, South Africa, Russia, and Poland.
The graves of the three Australian diggers, Tehran War Cemetery
For those interested, the programme for the ceremony can be downloaded here, with thanks to the Embassy of New Zealand in Tehran for the file: ANZAC Day Programme
The memorial at Tehran War Cemetery. From L to R: the author (Mr Brian Iselin); New Zealand’s Ambassador to Iran HE Mr Eamonn O’Shaughnessy; Australia’s Ambassador to Iran, HE Mr Paul Foley.
The ceremony was followed by a breakfast at the Residence of the New Zealand Ambassador in Niavaran, north Tehran, featuring a really fine spread of hot and cold foods including fine Australian Angus Beef sausages brought in by the New Zealand Embassy’s Number Two, Mr Ben Steele, from the Australian and New Zealand butcher in nearby Dubai.
There are only a few Australians and New Zealanders living in Iran these days, but it seemed like the vast majority were in attendance, including a UN (Kiwi) staffer who traveled down from the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad.
The commemoration was small but, for remembering those who are fallen and buried in far-away lands, poignant for those gathered. The breakfast set in the gardens of the Residence was convivial and beautifully conceived.
And what ANZAC commemoration would be complete without the famous ANZAC biscuits? On this occasion exceptional quality hand-made by the wife of New Zealand’s Ambassador, Ms Sameera Mazhar.
ANZAC Biscuits in the morning sun, made by the wife of the New Zealand Ambassador.
The five ANZACs who lie in their graves in Iran, mostly unvisited and seldom remembered, must have been warmed by the thoughtfulness of those who made this ANZAC Dawn Service in Iran something to remember.