Gallipoli diary that came full circle

23 Apr, 2015 07:37 AM
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Steve Kendall and Robert Gibson (right).
I spent hours and hours digitally restoring the pictures and also typing up the diaries
Steve Kendall and Robert Gibson (right).

ALMOST 100 years after his grandfather penned his wartime diaries at Gallipoli, Robert Gibson made an emotional pilgrimage to Anzac Cove in a bid to return the historic memoir to its rightful place.

His journey to Turkey late last year was a poignant one for Robert Gibson, who works as a sub-editor for Stock & Land and has spent the past eight years painstakingly transcribing and publishing the words of a man he never got to meet in real life: his grandfather Gerald Gibson.

"When I returned to Anzac Cove I really felt as though I had completed a full circle," Mr Gibson said.

Even retelling the story, the emotion is clear in his voice.

He reveals that finding out his about his grandfather's written account of his time at war, publishing his diaries and later making the pilgrimage back to Gallipoli has changed him deeply.

Now that the words are published - immortalised forever on paper - Mr Gibson knows the diary will play its own role in the narrative of one of Australia's most iconic moments in wartime history: the 1915 landing at Gallipoli.

Finding the diaries

Although it's been almost a century since Lieutenant Gerald Gibson made his World War I voyage to Turkey, his handwritten memories were passed down to each family generation - and remained in Mr Gibson's cupboard until 2004.

"These two diaries - one from Egypt and one from Gallipoli - had been in my family since my grandfather served in WWI," he said.

Hidden away, the fragile documents were gradually deteriorating, and Mr Gibson admitted he'd never even read the words on the pages - or realised their power.

His colleague at the time, Steve Kendall, who also worked at the paper, was a military historian - and Mr Gibson happened to mention in passing conversation one day that he had inherited his grandfather's WWI diaries.

What happened next marked the starting point in a decade-long journey for the duo, who would later go on to publish the historic document.

Mr Kendall's immediate response was that the diaries needed to be published - that they were far too important to remain in a cupboard, forever unread.

Preservation and restoration

Mr Kendall's advice was to preserve the artefacts before they faded any further.

Mr Gibson agreed and it quickly became a family - and even community - effort to complete that process.

His four siblings and mother Margot Gibson all contributed.

"My mother had some pictures in her garage," he said.

"There were actually 250 images taken in Egypt and at Anzac Cove."

The photographs added another component to the words but they were also in poor condition.

"I spent hours and hours digitally restoring the pictures and also typing up the diaries," he said.

The actual restoration process of the words and photos took about one year, and in that time more and more valuable possessions were being brought forward by the Gibson family, including Lieutenant Gibson's pips, buttons from his uniform and the kit-box he took to war.

Finding out about Gerald

As Mr Gibson transcribed the diaries, his grandfather's character slowly came to light.

"His writing was stoic and matter-of-fact," he said.

This is best described by Lieutenant Gibson's account of "a mailman being blown up" on Anzac Cove beach, which he writes caused "the letters to fly through the air like confetti".

In the next sentence, he mentions his elation at receiving fresh bread from Lemnos.

Mr Gibson said the lack of emotion in this passage revealed much about what it would have been like to be there at time.

"He could not show emotion because it would have been seen as weakness," he said.

Through the restoration of the photos and the words, he said he had been able to get to know a relative he never actually met.

"I think I know him and I understand what sort of person he was.

"I feel as close to him as any relative I have ever met."

Another layer to the story

Mr Kendall was also an integral part of the arduous process.

He spent countless hours researching many of the characters mentioned in the diaries and his "mini-biographies" would later be printed in the margins of the book, adding another layer of significance to the memoir.

Mr Gibson said this particular addition led to other people uncovering their own family ties to WWI.

"When I was transcribing the diary from Egypt, where my grandfather prepared for Gallipoli, it was revealed he took his car there from Australia," he said.

At the time the Australian army was in its infancy and limited resources meant some personnel took their own possessions to boost resources.

One of Lieutenant Gibson's key tasks was transporting supplies to soldiers so a car was essential to his job.

"The diary mentions a Private Isaacson, who also took his car across to Egypt," Mr Gibson said.

"And when Steve began putting together the biographies for the book, he found out Private Isaacson was the father of Peter Isaacson, who was the proprietor of 60 mastheads, 10 of which I worked on for 20 years."

Mr Gibson also unknowingly went to school with Private Isaacson's grandson.

"My school friend's grandfather met my own grandfather in Egypt," he said.

Peter Isaacson would also contribute to Mr Gibson's journey by helping to officially launch the first edition of the book at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne in 2012.

"So this is not just a book about my grandfather; it might also be the key to someone else starting their own journey," he said.

The full circle

Mr Gibson always knew he must complete his grandfather's journey, and his own, by returning the published diaries to Gallipoli.

Although he contemplated going for the 2015 centenary of the event in April, he opted to embark on a more personal pilgrimage prior to the 100-year celebrations.

That trip took place in September last year, and he said it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"Through a contact at The Age, Tony Wright, I was able to meet up with 'TJ' Ilhami Gezici, a tour guide at the Gallipoli Battlefield National Park," Mr Gibson said.

After the tour he was arranged a meeting with the general co-ordinator of the new Gallipoli Kabatepe Museum's Canakkale Epic Promotion Centre, Mufit Ates.

"He was able to accept a copy of the book that I had carried with me to Gallipoli," he said.

It was an extremely emotional moment for Mr Gibson.

"TJ" acted as interpreter as he read aloud an inscription in the book, which said: "With reverence I symbolically return the words of my grandfather Lieutenant Gerald Gibson, LHB (Light Horse Brigade) Train, fifth ASC, New Zealand and Australian Division), published in this book, to the sacred ground where he wrote them almost 100 years ago. Lest we forget the brave soldiers of the Turkish, New Zealand and Australian armies."

Mr Ates' response was to say that a library had just been established at the museum and Gerald Gibson's published diary, Gallipoli Eyewitness, was the first donation to its collection.

The moment signified the circle had been completed.

It was the conclusion of an almost-10-year project with the help of family and friends of digitising, restoring and delivering back to their origin the diaries and photographs of Mr Gibson's grandfather.

His final experience at Gallipoli was standing on the same soil his grandfather had stood on a century earlier.

He was even able to replicate one of the pictures included in the diary.

"On my 60th birthday, I stood at exactly the same point Gerald did 100 years ago."

The final chapter

On his return from Gallipoli, Mr Gibson added the final chapter to the book: the story of his own journey to Anzac Cove.

He knew his words were also important to the story.

And with the help of another Stock & Land colleague, Rosalea Ryan, they produced the centenary edition of Gallipoli Eyewitness.

When asked how he felt about the accomplished project, Mr Gibson said he realised the diaries had far wider implications than his own family history.

"I feel I have been a conduit in a historic contribution on the foreign soil of Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula to the modern Australian narrative."

StockLand
Louise Preece

Louise Preece

is a journalist for Stock & Land

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