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Nursing our diggers to ceremony at Gallipoli

Marianne Cummins at Alice Springs War Memorial 2018.
Marianne Cummins at Alice Springs War Memorial 2018. Glenn Morrison

NOT far from Anzac Cove, where a dawn service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1915 Gallipoli landing was about to begin, three buses came to a halt in the darkness at a Turkish roadblock.

The buses carried 58 Australian World War I veterans, who had flown on a dedicated Qantas 747 from their homes to a remote national park on the Gallipoli Peninsula, some five hours drive from Istanbul.

To a man, they had been awake and out of bed since 2am, having stayed the night before at nearby Gelibolu, a 45-minute drive away.

The youngest of the vets was 89. In fact, one fellow had been present the day Australian carrier Qantas first got its wings. Others had never flown.

On Anzac Day 1990 the oldest was celebrating a birthday, his 103rd.

Travelling with the veterans was a highly trained contingent of specialist nurses, doctors and Australian Defence Force escorts, as well as about 23 war widows and 12 junior members of Legacy.

But with the service about to begin, the buses remained shy of their destination.

"They were supposed to let the buses through,” says RN Marianne Cummins, who had been aboard one of the buses charged with ensuring the ageing veterans' good health while travelling what was always going to be a tough trip for them, physically and mentally.

"There was some confusion among the Turks, who thought we were tourists, when actually we were the main act.”

Military dignitaries and politicians, including then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, were already waiting in darkness at the Cove for the start of an event that had been 18 months in the making.

Anzac Day commemorates the night of April 25, 1915, when assault troops, mostly from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, were landed at the Cove as part of an amphibious invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

For the 1990 anniversary, three Australian warships stood offshore in the Aegean Sea, despatched as part of efforts to raise the profile of the Anzacs.

But the "main act” was late, and everyone on the buses had gone quiet, some were starting to panic.

About 20 minutes later the buses were finally waved through, only to discover at the Cove a steep dirt track still to negotiate on foot, with 58 old men and no time to waste.

"We had a nurse and an escort from the ADF on each side of a veteran,” says Marianne.

"So there were no accidents.

"They were almost linked arm in arm, walking fast down this old dirt track before dawn. I remember it being rocky, and really dark.”

As he hurried along in the dark, nonagenarian veteran Ernie Guest was stopped by a journalist.

A "funny fellow” and a Queenslander at enlistment, Ernie had joined the 75th anniversary contingent from NSW.

"The journalist asked him something really stupid,” Marianne recalls, "like 'how do you feel about war?'

"Ernie looked fair in the camera, very seriously, and said: 'War is stupid'.

"And that's how they all felt. Although they had done it, it was supposedly the war to end all wars.

"He was so matter of fact, almost angry, that someone would ask the question.”

Now 63, Marianne Cummins works in outback Alice Springs co-ordinating chronic disease care.

The role is but one moment in an impressive nursing career spanning more than four decades, including stints as clinical nurse consultant, in leading roles on industry boards and nursing Australia's aboriginal elderly.

Marianne started nursing at 17 in Sydney, worked in a brain injury rehab unit then in 1982, after her daughter was born, took charge of the psycho-geriatric ward at Lidcombe Hospital.

A mum-of-two and grandmother of three more, Marianne has worked in gerontology ever since.

But she remembers the vets in her care, and the race to reach the 75th anniversary at Anzac Cove, like it was yesterday.

"We made it, only just, but we did; all scrambling into our seats when the dawn came.

"We thought we were going to miss it.”

A year prior to Anzac Cove, Marianne was nurse manager of the newly opened geriatric assessment and rehab unit for the Department of Veteran Affairs Hospital at Concord, Sydney.

Veterans had to apply to make the trip to Gallipoli and were required to pass stringent health checks, so their files were sent to geriatric physicians at the DVA hospital, who scrutinised the records in consultation with a specialist nurse like Marianne.

"I said to my staff there should be gerontological nurses on the trip. These old fellows were, well, old, so I and a couple of others applied.”

Over the next 12 months, Marianne and her colleagues came to know the veterans and war widows well, establishing a "family group” to support each other on the trip.

"I didn't know much (about the war) before I went and what I eventually did know came from talking with the veterans.

"Some were very willing to tell you about it, some weren't, (and they) had their own private grief.

"Only a few had ever travelled, let alone gone to Gallipoli; some had been back, not very many: actually, there wasn't that many of them left.”

Marianne liked to think of the men as her grandfathers.

Grandfathers like Jack Hazlitt, a runner at Gallipoli in 1915, and who died in 1993.

"Jack was a giant of a man,” Marianne recalls. "Extraordinary.

"Then there was Tom Hutchinson, very quiet and gentle, a thinking sort of fellow. And George Abrahams. There were others, all characters, and it was their character that really intrigued you.

"I've met a lot of old people in my time, but I've never met any like them. They were different, I think, because of what they endured they were very philosophical.”

From Gallipoli, Marianne went on to help other vets return to sites of conflict across the globe, including the Borneo Death Marches, the Western Front of WW1, and WW2's El Alamein in Egypt.

"I've done most of the battlefields across the world,” says Marianne, "Singapore to Changi, the Thai Burma railway, and the opening of the Australian memorial in London.

"People used to die when they went on these trips.”

Marianne's travels with Australia's war veterans lasted more than a decade, including caring for our last Gallipoli veteran Alexander "Alec” Campbell, during a milestone Anzac ceremony in Canberra. After the Gallipoli commemoration, Marianne and her friends reflected on their journey with the old diggers, an historic - and for the men, arduous - pilgrimage during which, incredibly, none of the elderly people under their medical supervision had died.

"I think it was our fabulous care,” Marianne laughs. "No, a part of it was the pre-assessments, and about being sensible.

"One fellow had a fall the night we were due to fly out to Singapore and Gallipoli.

"By the time we reached Singapore, the man's foot was the size of a watermelon.

"He didn't tell anybody, but he made it to the Dawn Service.”

Topics:  alice springs gallipoli heartbeat heartbeat column world war 1 world war i