On a hot, cloudless afternoon our bus stops on a wild stretch of Turkey’s coastline. A storybook shepherd pauses, allowing us to pass, his flock clustered behind him. Apart from a mild wind rustling through the pines, this acreage above the Dardanelles Strait seems empty, silent. It’s hard to believe that this is Gallipoli, site of one of World War I’s bloodiest battles.
Half a million soldiers fell here between April 1915 and January 1916. Though losses were massive – including an entire Turkish regiment – the Turks were successful in defending their homeland. As for the young colonists from the far reaches of the then-British Empire, after being “nailed on the beach,” in the words of Ikud, our guide – a mere 90 metres below these cliffs, the last troops from Australia and New Zealand withdrew from their trenches under cover of night in January, 1916.
Soon after the war, however, grieving Aussies and Kiwis began visiting the beaches, fields and trenches where their sons and countrymen had fallen. Eventually, Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk, the charismatic Gallipoli leader and legendary father of the 1923 Turkish Republic, penned a moving letter to the Anzacs – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. His warm greeting is today inscribed in stone above Anzac Cove:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying on the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side. You, the mothers, who sent them from far away, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now sleeping in our bosom and are at peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.”
Ikud tells us that the French, however, who lost some 5,000 men at Gallipoli, tend not to visit. “They say they have other things to talk about.” But Gallipoli became a transformative event for both Turks and Anzacs. The Aussies and Kiwis among us are visibly moved by seeing the places their troops nicknamed Lone Pine and Johnston’s Jolly. As David, a traveller from Sydney, explains, “Every Australian child grows up knowing these names.”
Down Under, they love their nicknames. “Tall? We call you ‘shorty’. Red hair? We call you ‘blue.’” The Turkish defenders were called “Johnny Turk.” That’s part of the legend. But no nicknames could make these unforgiving hills seem familiar to a youthful army that soon dug into trenches – which we see at a later stop – while plagued by heat, flies, dysentery – and the stench of their comrades’ bodies.
For Canadians, Gallipoli may conjure memories of the 1981 Peter Weir film starring a fresh-faced Mel Gibson. English majors – I am one – might find themselves suddenly quoting out loud snatches of TS Eliot’s dedication to his French friend in The Wasteland –“mort aux Dardanelles” – inadvertently startling a Romanian tourist who’s never heard of Eliot.
But just as it’s said that our Canadian identity was forged at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and the Somme, so Australians and New Zealanders consider that their national souls were forged right here, on this thin line between Europe and Asia Minor.
We walk past row upon row of neatly-kept headstones marking lives that ended at 17 and 20: a separate wall of names is brightened with red poppies. In Kabatepe War Museum we read letters and view history up-close – notably a bullet-pierced Turkish skull. Curiously, the same men who wrote home from “hell” voiced their respect for the “clean-fighting” Turkish soldier, leaving behind personal mementos such as watches, clothing, letters, as well as food rations for the enemy when they slipped away that winter night.
During some of the worst fighting – Aug. 12, 1915 – Second Lieutenant Stewart Fawkes wrote home that he suddenly “came round again.” Looking up, he “saw many Turks around me with kind and tender looks. In the Turkish trench that I was previously trying to subjugate, they gave me water and food, and brought me to a first aid place, carrying me on their shoulders. I am really thankful for this magnanimous…humane treatment.” Such was Aussie/Kiwi respect for the Turks that they refused the issue of gas masks because they didn’t believe “Johnny Turk” would use gas against them.
About a month into battle, a ceasefire was called so the dead could be buried. Our guide tells stories about soldiers offering chocolates and sweets to one another while trying to communicate in sign language. “Why are you invading us?” asked the amazed Turks when they discovered their enemies came from Australia and New Zealand. Why indeed. In Ikud’s words, “Churchill had blundered.” That April day proved a disaster for the British Empire. In today’s ANZAC Day’s parades, the only foreign flag flown belongs to the Republic of Turkey.
The First Lord of the Admiralty’s plan seemed feasible: wrest control of the vital Dardanelles Strait in a naval battle, thereby securing supply routes to Russia and hastening the war’s end and the fall of the tottering Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe.” Instead, the British, French, and colonists from Newfoundland and the Anzacs – those soldiers whose graves are at our feet, “just boys wanting an adventure, a trip,” says one Australian – encountered an implacable foe.
Anzac Day forever marks April 25, 1915, when troops landed on these shores, losing 2,000 men to gain 900 yards. “Getting ashore was not hard,” wrote one soldier. “Hanging on, up on that ridge, for eight months, that was hard.” Their stories live on. As many as 15,000 visitors have attended dawn Anzac Day services on this meticulously kept national park, welcomed by those whose forefathers fought them a lifetime ago.