FROM GALLIPOLI TO HELLFIRE PASS: What you need to know about travelling for Anzac Day

April 11, 2019

Australians are prolific travellers.

We travel far and wide for all kinds of reasons, holidays, business, weddings, significant birthdays and special occasions. In recent years heading O.S. for Christmas has become a ‘thing’, with the lure of a dusting of snow, eggnog, winter woollies and an open fire hard to resist. In truth, we really don’t need too much of an excuse to grab the passport, throw a few things together the trusty suitcase or backpack, and take off.

Dawn service at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. Photo courtesy of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours.

There’s one occasion that has, for the vast majority of us, always been a very local affair, Anzac Day. Save for waking well before sunrise and heading to the nearest dawn service on that special day, it wasn’t really connected to a desire to travel. Having said that, there’s one obvious exception—Gallipoli.

For a few generations now, Australians have made their way to that peninsula by the Dardanelles in Turkey, to commemorate the first Anzacs, to walk the ground and perhaps understand what those frightful days in 1915 might have been like. Of course, they can never really know but being there, reading the accounts and feeling that earth beneath your feet is a haunting, touching and humbling experience.
For the longest while, Gallipoli stood more or less alone as the sole beacon for Australian travellers on Anzac Day. As Anzac Day dawn service numbers swelled at Gallipoli, it wasn’t until 2000 that the large, purpose-built Anzac Commemorative Site was constructed to accommodate the crowds. The site has space for some 10,000 people—a clear indication of just how popular Gallipoli’s dawn service has become.

But, according to Mat McLachlan—founder of ATAS accredited Sydney, NSW-based travel agency Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours, that’s changing.

Military Cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux. Image: Nigel Aspdin via Wikimedia Commons

“For the last several decades, Australians have attended dawn services at Gallipoli. But the idea of popular tourism to other battlefield sites for Anzac Day is relatively new”, says Mat. McLachlan notes that the next most popular Anzac dawn service location is Villers-Bretonneux in northern France. Tellingly, the dawn service has only been held there since 2008.

“It’s interesting that both Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux have a historical connection to the 25th of April. Many Aussies and Kiwis will know that was the date that the Anzac forces landed at Gallipoli in 1915. Coincidentally, it’s also recognised as the anniversary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. So there’s a historic link to that date in both those places, and dawn services make perfect sense”, says Mat.

For the last decade or so, travellers really had two choices for Anzac Day: Gallipoli or Villers-Bretonneux. But what Mat has noticed even more recently, is Anzac Day dawn services occurring in places where there’s no historic connection to the 25th of April, simply because it’s Australia’s national day of commemoration.
Mat points to the opening up of Villers-Bretonneux for Anzac Day as pivotal in changing the way Australians felt about travelling for Anzac Day.

Australians at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo by Charles Atkins courtesy of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours.

“Some may have felt, incorrectly really, that Gallipoli was just too difficult to get to. But the proximity of Villers-Bretonneux to Paris made it accessible for older, perhaps less-adventurous travellers who could visit with all the creature comforts of an organised tour and attend an Anzac Day commemoration. It planted the idea that you can travel overseas to commemorate Anzac Day in other places”, says Mat.

That shift in thinking has changed the game significantly for Australian travellers. “It’s like travelling for Christmas, in that this was something we always had at home with family. Weddings, too. But in recent years, people have started thinking about heading overseas to celebrate them, and now it’s just exploded”, says Mat.

Bomana War Cemetery, Kokoda. Image courtesy of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours

This shift in traveller perception, now has people asking themselves, “Where should we go for ANZAC Day?”

For tour operators like Mat, this has driven a broadening of product range and touring options. “We’re doing an Anzac Day tour this year, for example, to Hellfire Pass in Thailand on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway for the first time. We’ll be participating in the dawn service there. We’re also working on a tour to Vietnam specifically for Anzac Day in 2020 for the first time. And, of course, it’s a popular day to be on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea”, Mat explains.

Hellfire Pass Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s clear that Australians are combining two great loves: our love of travel; and our love of remembering the Anzacs. We’re also getting more adventurous about where we want to go to walk the sacred ground where Australians fell in battle.

So how can Australians find out where Anzac dawn service commemorations are being held? Information about official, Australian government supported dawn service commemorations can be found on the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) website.

“These will be proper, well-organised events”, says Mat. “In addition to that, you also find locally organised commemorations in places like Kokoda or Hellfire Pass which, I think, are good in their own way because they’re with local people. These can be very relaxed without some of the formality of official events, and not as heavily attended”, he adds.

These days, just about every battlefield with an Australian connection will host some form of Anzac Day commemoration. Mat makes the point that this is an important consideration for anyone planning a battlefield visit.

“If you really want to go to a place like Gallipoli, I would say only go on Anzac Day if being there for that dawn service is your primary motivation for going. With more and more people attending Anzac Day commemorative services, these sacred places can get really crowded. It’s important to think about what you want to do on that battlefield. If you want to explore in peaceful reflection and connect with the place, then you’ll enjoy it more on any other day of the year”, says Mat.

Mat McLachlan founder of ATAS-accredited travel agency Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours (Sydney NSW)

If you’re planning a battlefield visit of any kind, a great starting point is to speak with an ATAS-accredited travel agent or tour company like Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours. They will be able to piece together to perfect journey to suit your budget, travel style and goals.

Mat McLachlan is a leading war historian, TV presenter, author, battlefield guide and founder of the ATAS-accredited Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours. A journalist by profession, Mat was a writer and corporate magazine editor for 15 years before pursuing his passion for history as a full-time career.

Your ATAS travel agent can help ensure you are 100% ready to head off on your Anzac Day battlefield experience, but here are a few travel warnings and useful tips to keep in mind.

ATAS travel agents recommend that Australia passport holders register for travel alerts before they travel.

ATAS accredited travel agents, experience you can trust.

Looking for more insights from ATAS-accredited travel agents?  Check out these top tips from a Greece travel expert, learn more about travelling as a student, and everything you need to know about kids flying solo.


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