Gallipoli was the scene of the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors in pursuit of virtually unwinnable goals.
The campaign started with an attempt, masterminded by Winston Churchill, to break through the Dardanelles (the straits connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara) and capture Istanbul, thus gaining control of the access to Russia by the Black Sea. When this failed, the allies, primarily from the British Isles, France, New Zealand and Australia, tried to capture the region by means of a land invasion. This was even more disastrous and resulted in a humiliating retreat after many months of bloody fighting, entailing massive loss of life on both sides. The naval battle ended in mid-March 1915 and the land battle started in late April 1915. Our visit was in early April 2015, midway between those two milestones of a century ago.
Margaret and I had visited Gallipoli for the first time a few years ago so we were, to some extent, prepared for the scenes of past miseries. We knew that a copious supply of tissues would be needed.
The battle sites and the graveyards are spread over a vast area of some 300 square kilometres. There is also a modern visitors’ centre that has had a major overhaul since our last visit. This is where we started our visit today.
The centrepiece is a sound and vision experience depicting critical events of the campaign, with a large auditorium dedicated to each. The whole visit is stage managed and you are herded from room to room as the story unfolds. Not unexpectedly, this being Turkey, the events are depicted from a Turkish perspective. The general who led a large part of the Turkish campaign was to go on to even greater things. He was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It can be argued that his success at Gallipoli fired his resolve to overturn the Ottoman Empire and to establish a modern Turkey based on a powerful mixture of eastern and western cultures. Atatürk founded the new country in 1923, some eight years after his success at Gallipoli.
As historical audio-visual experiences go, the overall portrayal was very powerful but it did have a few rough edges and in parts was very over-simplistic. When we emerged from the last auditorium, we found ourselves in an area that was still under development. It looked as though this space will have more static exhibitions where there will be time to study things in more detail.
Leaving the visitors’ centre, our next stop was at the scene of the Anzac landings. It’s hard to credit that the Allied commanders believed that an assault from the sea to the base of cliffs, albeit a mixture of steep grass and rocks, with the Turks in control of the tops of the terrain, could ever result in victory. The battles went on for several months and resulted in the deaths of thousand of Anzac (and Turkish) troops and to the Allies’ eventual retreat back to sea. The story is well explained in a short paragraph written on a plaque at the Ari Burnu cemetery.
At 0430 on 25 April 1915, 36 rowing boats landed the first Australian soldiers around this point and at Anzac Cove. Immediately they climbed the 100 metre hill behind you (Plugge’s Plateau) and by 1000 hrs secured a front line (seen from the hill top road) from the Nek, Quinn’s Post, Lone Pine and to the south beyond Shell Green. 160 Turkish soldiers opposed the initial landing and by day’s end, assisted by 8,000 reinforcements, they contained the 16,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed. By evening each side had suffered 2,000 casualties and both were deadlocked along a front line that changed little until Allied evacuation on 20 December 1915.
There are many, many headstones commemorating the valour of the Anzacs and this is a specific visiting place for people from New Zealand and Australia every year. In preparation for an international event to commemorate the start of the land campaign, rows and rows of seats had been installed.
We walked amongst the headstones and gradually it dawned that these were really markers not headstones marking where actual bodies were buried. Some bodies had been identified and been taken back to their home countries. The rest had been buried, effectively in mass graves. The headstones each started with the words “believed to be buried in this cemetery”. Most had a Christian cross cut into the stone but some had Stars of David (for Jews) and some had nothing presumably symbolising that the casualty was a Humanist or had no religion. The cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The most touching aspect of all the individual memorials was the age range. There were men in their fifties which seemed to be too old, but, even more affecting, were the young men – boys really. Some were recorded as being as young as sixteen but we know, from Australian accounts of the campaign, that many were younger. They had lied about their ages to have a chance to leave the outback and travel the world. For too many it was to end in tragedy.
One of the Anzac Cove area graveyards is called Shrapnel Valley. A plaque written in Turkish, English, German and French explains the origin of the name.
Men and supplies moved down this valley to the Allied front line which stretched between Quinn’s Post and Johnson’s Jolly. Sheltered areas of the valley housed in terraced dugouts thousands of men, many of whom provided communications, medical and engineering support. One kilometre ahead, Monash Valley branches to the left, it had provided the only access to Quinn’s, Courtney’s and Steele’s Posts (these can be seen on the horizon of the distant ridge, they are now marked by white walled cemeteries). Dominating the length of Monash Valley was the Turkish held hill, Baby 700 (180 metres high) from which snipers fired constantly.
In other words, this was a death trap for the Allied troops. In many ways, this one inscription epitomises the whole futility of the Allied endeavour.
From the Turkish perspective, Gallipoli was a battle that had to be won. The survival of their country was at stake. General Atatürk, a general who led from the front, made one of military history’s great rallying cry to his troops. “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places.”
Years later, and near the end of his life, Atatürk dedicated a plaque to the Anzac soldiers. It reads :-
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 Johhnies 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.”
Leaving the Anzac Cove area we travelled up to the top of the hills which overlook the sea and where the Turkish troops had been positioned. Some of the original trenches have been restored making it relatively easy to understand the commanding and protected position that the Turks held. There were many Turkish visitors on the day of our visit and we decided not to walk round the cemeteries where their troops are buried. Having been there before we know that they are as touching as the Allied cemeteries.
We then headed to the southernmost tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, Cape Helles, where there are a number of significant monuments. Each monument bears the inscriptions of the thousands of troops, mostly British, who died at Gallipoli. One very touching story refers to the landing by the Lancashire Fusiliers on the 25th April. It goes down in the annals as the battle where six VCs were awarded for “gallantry before breakfast”, a reference to the fact that this was a dawn raid. We saw the inscription commemorating one of these men, Frank Edward Stubbs, who died on that day.
Of special interest to Margaret and myself as Scots, was a small plaque. Margaret’s mother had hailed from the Scottish Borders town of Hawick. The plaque said :-
From the town of Hawick, Scotland in memory of the officers and men belonging to that town who fell in Gallipoli in the Great War 1915″.
A small personal link really brings home the realities of war.
The largest monument at Seddülbahir, was one we only viewed from a distance. The memorial serves the dual function of being a Commonwealth battle memorial for the whole Gallipoli Campaign and a place of commemoration for the 20,885 Commonwealth servicemen who died there and have no known grave. The memorial takes the form of an obelisk and is over 30 metres high.
Also at Seddülbahir is the French Military cemetery which we did visit. The French took part in both the naval and the land campaigns. Some 27,000 French troops lost their lives, far more than were lost by the Anzacs (~10,000). The cemetery is immaculately maintained and contains thousands of iron crosses. The inscriptions are very simple. They have a roll number, the name of the dead soldier and the words “Mort pour La France” (Died for France). Many of the French who died were muslims from the French territories of North Africa. For their graves the cross is replaced with a single iron post.
Finally we visited the scene of the last battle of the Turkish naval blockade of the Dardanelles. The symbolic hero is one Corporal Seyit. He was one of a small number of soldiers who carried in their arms artillery shells weighing up to 215 kg to be fired by the massive guns that were used to bombard the Allied navy. In the patriotic words inscribed on a plaque beside a larger-than-life metal statue of Seyit carrying a shell, it says
“It was not the shell of any weight that Corporal Seyit lifted that day, it was a nation’s faith, resistance and determination to exist”.
A fitting end to our day at Gallipoli in the year of the 100th anniversary. Battlefields and War Graves are not high on my list of places to visit, but Gallipoli must be an exception. It tells you everything about war and the horrendous numbers who are killed and injured, mostly from the ranks, often in pursuit of unachievable goals. It is notable that whilst Ataturk led his troops from the front, the British General in charge, Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, as far as I can ascertain, never set foot on the peninsula. He commanded from a naval vessel off-shore.
By sheer coincidence this post is not only about a 100th anniversary, it is also the 100th entry in this travel blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading about the travels as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. There is one more to write about the trip that included this visit to Gallipoli. In a couple of weeks we’re off to the Catskill Mountains in New York State, then Montreal and Nova Scotia, they’re be plenty to write about I’m sure. Finally, I would just like to give a big thank you to John Fedorowycz, founder and editor in chief of KTLN (kalkan.turkishlocalnews.com), who asked me to write a blog of a trip we were about to make to Eastern Turkey back in 2010. “The Other Side of the Map” as I called it, worked so well that I was bitten by the blogging bug and have not looked back.