Thommo rammed a bayonet into the rocky clay and tied a string to it. Thommo, the only one of us over thirty, and therefore responsible, was our Ringie, the supervisor of the Two-up ring. He attached a second bayonet to the other end of the string and, using the bayonets like a giant school compass, drew a perfect circle in the clay soil.
It was the 23rd May 1915, just months since I'd left Australia, to fight for my country and our King, George V, King of England and the British Empire.
We were perched on a small section of rock on a hill high above the Aegean sea, at a place called Gallipoli. Sheltered from the Turks above by an overhanging rock ledge, Thommo had declared this an ideal place in which to have a bit of fun before, as he said, we went "up'n over that little hill and then non-stop to Constantinople."
Thommo had managed to find a small, flat bit of wood to use as the kip. He'd pulled it off a beam holding up one of the few wooden shelters available for the officers. He'd also managed to find some sandbags he'd lugged up from below to make comfortable seats for us while we waited to be sent to our likely doom over the top of the cliff.
We called Two-up the "Fair Game" then. You might think it was a simple-minded game created by our convict ancestors and the poor Irish settlers, but Two-up has a code of conduct stricter than the Queensberry boxing rules. Once Thommo had placed the two pennies on the kip, no one could touch them until they'd been flipped correctly, landed inside the dirt circle, and a winner declared. Our Ringie had already carefully checked the pennies to make sure they hadn't been filed down, although he'd had those same pennies in his pocket since we left Egypt. Two-up pennies must be highly polished on the "heads" side, in this case, the magnificent head of George V, and left dirty and dark on the "tails" side, so the winner is known instantly when they land.
"Come in Spinner!" Thommo screamed at the top of his lungs, signifying he was ready for the Spinner to toss the coins.
"Jesus Thommo, could you keep it down?" Stretch said in a stage-whisper. "You may as well send up a flare to let Johnny Turk know exactly where we are."
"She'll be right mate, they'll think it's a battle cry and waste their ammo shooting at the rocks over our heads."
Stretch was our Spinner. In true Australian tradition, his nickname reflected his physique. At 6ft 6", Stretch had been a spin bowler for his local cricket team, so Thommo figured that qualified him to toss two pennies at least 10 foot into the air and make sure they whirled like a spinster at a country dance. It was a miracle Stretch was still alive. His head and shoulders, towering above us, should have been a magnet for the bullets of the eagle-eyed Turks, yet he had defied the statistics by not only surviving the beach landing, but a full three weeks on the cliffs.
"All right, Gentlemen," Thommo said, "As we are under certain time constraints due to our obligation to go over that cliff and have Johnny Turk take pot shots at us, we have new rules unique to the situation in which we find ourselves. Bets on odds will be permitted. The winner will be the first to make the correct call, and if no one makes a correct call, we will carry on until someone does. If you make an incorrect call you're out. Agreed?"
We all nodded. There was only three of us to play. We'd also agreed on the winner's prize. We were positioned halfway up the cliff, with the Turks lying in their trenches just beyond the top. The route upwards was a hand-over-hand mountain goat track which could take only one man. The prize was going first.
With no disrespect to my fellow competitors, I suspected they were true amateurs at the game. I'd seen them play before and both of them were clearly of the view that good tactics involved only betting on tails. In fact, there is a 50% chance that the pennies would fall on odds, being one head and one tail, 25% on both tails, and 25% on both heads.
"Heads," I called. For possibly the first time in their lives, both Mick and Stan called "odds".
Stretch flung the pennies from his kip. The coins gyrated in the air, the polished heads of King George catching the sunlight and glinting like a lighthouse beacon. A bullet screamed past and hit one King George full on, sending him spiralling downwards towards the Aegean.
"Excuse me Gentlemen, while I confer with my Spinner." After muttering for a bit with Stretch, Thommo asked if anyone had a spare penny.
I had a couple of Two-up coins in my pocket. I handed one over.
"She'll do," said Thommo. I called heads again, Stan and Mick called odds, and the coins were flung into the air, although not quite so high as the previous throw.
This time, it all seemed much more real to me. The coins floated down in slow motion, and once they hit the ground, they rolled endlessly around on their edges before coming to rest. Two shiny, goateed images of King George V blinked up at me.
"And we have a winner!" cried Thommo, letting me know from the firmness of his hand on my shoulder and the regret in his eyes, that no outcome could have been a good one.
I was slinging my rifle over my shoulder when the head of a messenger poked up from a rock below us.
"Pass it on. Message from headquarters. Both sides have agreed to a short ceasefire to bury their dead. You'll be given details soon, but until then, it's business as usual.
Business as usual, so I climbed slowly up the cliff face, plastered against the rocks like a gecko, and tried as best I could to blend in behind bushes and stony outcrops. Occasionally, a sniper's bullet peppered chips off the surrounding rocks, but I emerged unscathed at the top.
The first waves of our boys to go over the top had taken up a position just past the top of the ridge, and had already dug rough trenches in which they lay. The Turks had taken up their positions on higher ground a short distance away, complete with their vicious machine gun nests, waiting for us to show our faces. I didn't suppose anyone on our side had been able to carry one of our machine guns up the goat track.
As soon as I reached flat ground, I flung myself into the nearest foxhole, occupied by two other soldiers, Johnno and Max. The No Man's land between us and the Turks was a stinking swamp of bloated, maggot-infested corpses. Laying where they fell, the bodies of the soldiers of the British Empire were melded with those of the enemy. Embracing each other in death, the soldiers' clothing was now a uniform shade of dark brown from blood, decaying flesh, and putrid mud. It was difficult to tell whether a body was Turkish, English, German, Australian or New Zealander.
My new friends in the foxhole had been on the ridge for two days and two nights. They had news of the ceasefire. From up high, they'd seen a Turkish officer being led blind-folded on a donkey along the beach, to where our officers were waiting, and had been told a one day armistice had been negotiated to bury the dead.
Johnno had made his pack into a pillow and laid his head on it, his feet resting on a smooth rock. He'd fashioned a dirty rag into a kerchief, tied over his nose to help against the stench.
"We only have to avoid getting shot for one more night, boys," Johnno said, "and then tomorrow the sun will shine, the details will remove those stinking corpses, and we'll have a peaceful rest for nine hours before Hell opens its gates again and the Devil puts out the Welcome mat."
At nightfall, I curled up into a ball and slept fitfully. I dreamt of the going-away party my parents had thrown me when I was about to be deployed.
My mother had organised a farewell afternoon tea, with all friends, relatives and neighbours invited. I had never been out of the country, so it was a celebration of the glorious event of my deployment to the exotic Middle East. Even my old history teacher, Miss Busselton, came. Tucking into my mother's famous sponge cake with raspberry jam, she decided to give me some advice.
"Watch out for those Ottoman Turks, my Jack. They've had centuries of practice and are some of the most ferocious warriors the world has known. They have managed to overcome every invader. First, they threw out the Romans, then the Crusaders, then the Mongol hordes-"
My mother stood up, frowning.
"So sorry, Doris, I think Jack is probably needing to get some rest before his trip."
As she ushered Doris out, my father came over and put his hand on my shoulder. "Pay no attention, Jack. The war will probably be over before you even land. The papers say the Turks are running out of ammunition and are disorganised. They're basically just a bunch of misguided goat-herders, with the Germans leading them astray."
The sun woke us the next morning at dawn, when we slowly ate our chow, dreading a call to advance on the enemy line. Perhaps due to lack of time, it never came. At 7.30 am, the ceasefire began, and men from both sides started to emerge from their trenches and converge on No Man's land.
Australian officers were sharing their chocolate with German and Turkish officers. We stretched our legs and wandered over No Man's land, hoping we might learn what sort of terrain we might be faced with in the coming days.
A Turk walked towards me. He was clean-shaven, unlike his compatriots, who mostly wore full beards. He was just a boy, his face fresh with youth. Like many of the Turkish infantry, he wore a pointy woollen cap, with a heavy buttoned jacket, and a leather bandolier criss-crossing his chest. His trousers were tucked into soft, knee-length leather boots. Most of the Australians were in loose shirts, with the sleeves rolled up, and broad-brimmed hats to protect us from the sun.
The young man held his right hand over his heart, said something in his strange language, and inclined his head towards me. "Mehmet," he said.
I guessed that was his name. Or maybe it meant "Hello". Or perhaps he had been saying "May you die a thousand deaths by a thousand cuts, you dishonourable infidel."
I didn't know if it was the right thing to do, but I held out my hand and he took it in both his and roughly shook it up and down.
"Jack. From Australia."
"Smoke, Jack?" He offered a Turkish cigarette.
"You speak English!"
"No, just few words." We both sat down and enjoyed the excellent, pungent tobacco in companiable silence.
"You from around here, Mehmet?"
"No, long long way. They make us come." He gestured to the German officers in charge.
"Me too, English make us come." We both laughed.
"Both same, maybe," he said.
I rummaged in my pockets to find something to give in return for the cigarette, and found a ration biscuit. He took it when I held it out and scoffed it down. He was hungry. Perhaps he'd only come over hoping I had some food. He stayed though, after he'd eaten, with no indication he wanted to leave.
"Many days here Jack?"
"No, just arrived. You?"
"Yes, many days, nights. We see you, in water, then coming up mountain. Crazy we say, but brave soldiers."
"You a good shot, Mehmet?" I gestured as though shooting a rifle.
"Yes, since boy I shoot deer, rabbit, anything, for family to eat. No good shoot no eat."
"Remind me to steer clear of you then." I don't know if he understood, but we both laughed again.
I thought of the city boys I'd met on the ship over, who had recently been enlisted. Young boys who, if you'd made them cut off the head of a chicken and gut it for the Sunday roast, would probably throw up. They weren't ready to stick a bayonet in a charging Turk and disembowel him.
I took a worn photo out of my breast pocket and showed it to him.
"My wife, my baby."
"Very beautiful," he said.
Mehmet held up ten fingers and then eight to show he was only eighteen. "Soon, maybe, if I can go home."
He reached under his coat jacket and pulled out a curved knife. I instantly flinched, but he sliced off one of his coat buttons and gave it to me. "Soldier like these, for remember."
We had been told not to cut off our buttons. I pulled the coin out of my pocket.
He looked at it with amazement. "Don't worry, Mehmet, it's not worth much, just for playing Two-up." He didn't understand, but gave me a broad smile and pressed it to his lips and then forehead before tucking it in his jacket.
An officer yelled something in his direction, motioning him to return to his position. Perhaps he thought we were discussing secret battle tactics. I didn't think either of us had a clue about what the next tactics in this battle might be.
I held out my hand, but he clasped me in an embrace, and then he was gone.
At 5.00 pm the ceasefire finished. Red flares exploded and bled their brilliant colour into the sky. The Turks' deafening cannon resumed their barrage against the ships waiting below. Their machine guns started up their death rattle. When a body did not absorb the bullets, they hit the rocky ground, creating billowing dust clouds with sharp fragments of rock. Snipers raised their heads, just long enough to pick of one by one, and with uncanny timing and accuracy, our soldiers who had also raised their heads from their trenches and prepared to fire, but not always fast enough.
Even so late in the day, the order came to advance. Crouching, I had run less than a couple of yards into No Man's land when I saw Mehmet's unmistakable smooth face. He was running far from the Turks' trenches. I saw him far to my left, raising his rifle towards me, and then I felt a sting to the back of my left calf, and I went down. I got up again, dragging my left leg. I could see Mehmet had changed direction and was running to my far right, aiming his rifle at me again. Another sting, this time to my right leg, and I stayed down.
Soldiers ran by me, firing at will. Mehmet was exposed, far from the trenches. It was only seconds before I saw him fly backwards and then he was down.
The pain in my legs came and went in dizzying waves, sometimes excruciating, sometimes, if only for seconds, stopping as though it were withdrawing to gain strength for an even greater assault. I crawled on my belly back to my foxhole and tumbled in. I could feel my boots fill with blood. There were some men still fighting with bad wounds, but my legs refused to hold me up.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, then felt the hand of a medic, shaking me.
"Where are you shot?"
"Both calves, I think. I can't walk."
He cut off sections of my trousers and inspected the wounds.
"Looks like a bullet went straight through one leg, but the other's still in there. Your fight ends here Matie. We'll get you down to the hospital ship. Lucky, seems you got shot by the only Turk who can't aim."
A lifetime has gone by since then, and I try not to think of that terrible war. The only mementoes I want to keep from that time are the deeply puckered scars in each of my calves, and a button from a Turkish soldier's jacket.
My little granddaughter, when first seeing my bare legs at the beach, asked me "Why are there dents in your legs, Grandpa?"
"A present from a brave soldier called Mehmet. He did it to save my life."
"We should write him a thankyou letter then," she said.
"Tell you what, when we get home, you write him that letter for me, and we'll post it together. We'll send it all the way to the other side of the world, to Turkey, Mehmet's country."