Once landed safely in Istanbul, we were met by, Taner, the friend of our friends.
Taner’s job was to drive us the 350 kilometres from the gridlock of Istanbul to the tranquil beauty of the Gallipoli Peninsula. The journey took us all of four hours and we arrived at night fall in the port town of Eceabat, on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
It was here that we slept for the night in the unlikely named Crowded House Hotel. (Yes, they served Vegemite for breakfast and, yes, I spread some across my toast.)
I woke that morning, 20 October 2011, with a sense of anticipation. The legend of Gallipoli has been with me since I was a child. Today, I was going to visit the battlefield.
Attack on the Dardanelles
Whilst I knew that Turkey was a German ally in World War I and I knew that the attack on Gallipoli was part of a plan to knock Turkey out of the War, I did not fully understand either the strategic objective or the tactics until our guide explained them to us.
The strategic importance of Turkey to the Germans was that a hostile Turkey prevented Britain and its allies from providing supplies to Germany’s enemy to the East, Russia.
Had Turkey been neutral, the British navy would have been able to supply its ally through the Black Sea. In the reality, the only thing preventing the British navy from entering the Black Sea were Turkish mines and gunboats in the Dardanelle Straights.
The objective of the Gallipoli campaign was to drive the Turks off the Peninsula so that the mines could be cleared and the gunboats either destroyed or driven way. The British were confident that once its navy could safely traverse the Dardanelle Straights, Constantinople – as Istanbul then was – would fall and the passage to the Black Sea would be opened.
On 25 April 1915, Anzac Troops landed at three adjacent points, North Beach, Ari Burnu and a small beach which is now known as Anzac Cove. History records that they landed at the wrong place due to navigational difficulties on a moonless night and a strong tide. The plan, however, was to cut straight across the Peninsula and cut off Turkish troops to the south so that they had nowhere to run when attacked by British troops who landed at Cape Helles on the same morning as the Anzacs with the intention of heading north towards the Anzac position.
The Peninsula is not very wide. It took us no more than 15 minutes to drive across on the morning of our visit. A small garrison of Turkish troops above Anzac Cove, however, managed to convince the Anzacs that they were merely the visible thin edge of a hidden wedge of troops and so our boys dug in. The history books show that they never made it much further. The distance between Anzac Cove and the monument, high above, at Lone Pine is a little over one kilometre. This is how far the Anzacs progressed in the nine month campaign at Gallipoli.
Our first stop on our tour of Gallipoli was at a place called Brighton Beach, the intended landing place on 25 April 1915.
What is striking about Brighton Beach is that that the beach is relatively wide and the land behind is relatively flat. An invading army would have had no difficulty physically traversing the landscape. By contrast, Anzac Cove leads to a cliff face which I am surprised anybody could negotiate.
As pointed out by our guide, however, Brighton Beach was heavily defended. The Turks knew that the Allies were intending to invade and Brighton Beach was an obvious choice of landing place. Our guide suggested that had the Anzacs landed, as intended, at Brighton Beach, it is likely that they would have been wiped out that first morning.
It is for this reason that some historians theorise that the landing at Anzac Cove was, in fact, deliberate and not a mistake as conventional historical wisdom would have us believe.
The graveyard at Ari Burnu – the small headland separating North Beach from Anzac Cove – remains a sombre place.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done a wonderful job of creating a peaceful resting place for troops who fell in the early hours of 25 April 1915. Short rows of white gravestones stand silently facing the Aegean Sea, surrounded by well manicured green grass. A large tree provides shade to those who remain at rest.
Adjacent to the graveyard stands a very large stone monument, with the following words inscribed:
“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 Johnnies 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.”
These words were written by the first President of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934. Ataturk was a Colonel of the Turkish army at Gallipoli and is famed both in legend and in song by the Turks in much the same way as Washington might be in the United States.
I have read Ataturk’s profound words before and always found them moving. Standing adjacent to Anzac Cove, however, looking over the tranquil gravesite at Ari Burnu, I found them overwhelming.
I am sure Huckleberry B noticed that I was rather quiet as we walked among the gravestones, reading the names and the accompanying tributes from family and friends. She may have even heard the occasional sniffle above the sound of gentle waves slapping against the shore.
The largest monument at Gallipoli, paying tribute to the Anzacs, is at Lone Pine where, on 6 August 1915, the Anzacs succeeded in securing the Turkish trenches. Fighting continued for four days. Some 7,000 men died in hand-to-hand and bayonet-to-bayonet combat. The Anzacs, however, prevailed and the former Turkish trenches at Lone Pine were held until the evacuation in early 1916.
The Lone Pine battlefield is about the size of a football field. It is now covered with gravestones commemorating the brave dead who fell. An immense monument stands where the Turkish trenches once had been.
Most notably, a single pine-tree still stands at Lone Pine. We were told that the tree is, effectively, the grandson of the original. Some Anzacs sent seeds from the original tree at Lone Pine to relatives in Australia who successfully grew a new tree in Sydney. Seeds from that tree were returned to Gallipoli so that there would always be a single pine tree standing among the grave stone at Lone Pine.
So far in this narrative, I have tried to avoid any reference to the movie, Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson and written by David Williamson. Huck B and I were, after all, visiting a battlefield, not a movie set.
(I hope you have noticed that I have also avoided expressions, so often associated with Gallipoli, such as `baptism of fire’, `birthplace of a nation’ and `Anzac spirit forged in the heat of a faraway battlefield’.)
At this point, however, I should pause to note that the battlefield I am about to describe, at the Nek, is where the attack depicted at the end of the movie took place; where four waves of Anzacs charged across `no-man’s land’ only to be slaughtered by Turkish machine guns.
The purpose of the assault was to occupy Turkish forces whilst the British troops landed at nearby Suvla Bay. The plan was to use artillery fire to drive the Turks from their trenches and attack before they had returned. As represented in the movie, the artillery fire ended early and the Turks had returned to their positions – and set up four machine guns posts – before the first wave of Anzacs charged to their deaths. Also as portrayed in the movie, the third and fourth waves continued, despite the carnage, because some thought that they had seen Anzac marker flags in the enemy trenches.
Our guide, however, was very keen to impress upon us that one aspect of the movie was false. Any impression the movie gave that the evil looking commander who ordered the attack to continue, despite it being `cold-blooded murder’, was English is incorrect. The historical figure who gave that order was, in fact, an Australian.
There are two things which struck me as I stood at the memorial at the Nek.
Firstly, if the Anzacs had either the time or the inclination to look to their left, they would have noticed that the Nek battlefield commanded an extraordinarily beautiful view of the northern part of the Peninsula. The battleground is perched above a sharp escarpment. Standing in the middle of `no man’s land’, looking North beyond the cliff face, I could see a large salt lake and horseshoe crescent of Suvla Bay in middle distance. It was a wonderful view.
Secondly, the battlefield at the Nek is very small; only the size of two adjacent tennis courts. On the day of the battle, the Anzacs were required to run the distance from one base-line to the other. Most made it less than half the distance. It must have been a hellish scene.
I lagged behind after Huckleberry B and our companions left for the car. I had noticed that the monuments at each end of the Nek had been constructed in such a way as to resemble the side of a trench at their rear. Walking along the back of the monument, on the Anzac side, I paused and, standing on tip-toes, poked my head over the top; giving myself a view similar to the one the Anzacs would have had before they climbed from the safety of their trench to dash towards the Turkish machine gun fire. I could not, of course, imagine the full horror of the scene. But I saw enough in my mind’s eye to know that it must have been truly harrowing.
Much has been made of the camaraderie shared by the Allied and Turkish troops at the Gallipoli, despite the bloodshed and the death.
Our guide took us to a place called `Johnston’s Jolly.’
At this point, not far from Lone Pine, the remains of the Allied and Turkish trenches can still be seen in places. Now, almost 100 years after the battle, the trenches are not very deep and would only protect one’s legs up to the waist (at best). What is striking, however, is how close the trenches are to one another. A narrow bitumen road now runs between and the road occupies the whole of `no-man’s land’ at some points.
As legend would have it, it was here that the closeness of the trenches most resembled the closeness of the enemy combatants. One story our guide told us was that the Anzacs would, from time to time, throw cans of bully beef to the Turks in the hope that fresh meat would be thrown back in return. Given their `home-ground advantage’, the Turks were better supplied than the Allies. For some time the Turks obliged and accepted the sub-standard bully beef in exchange for better produce. However, after a time, the Turks, too, became sick of the bully beef and, when offered to them, started throwing it back!
There is another monument at Gallipoli which depicts the humanity shared by the Anzac and Turkish troops. It depicts a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac back across `no-man’s land’ to the safety of the Anzac trenches. We were told that the monument portrays an actual event when fighting was briefly halted so that a Turk – under the protection of a white flag – could venture into `no-man’s land’ and answer the wretched cries for assistance from a fallen Anzac.
I will never forget the four hours we spent at Gallipoli.
What occurred there, almost a century ago, is so much a part of the Australian psyche that it did feel like something of a homecoming.
One thought that remained with me, on the long journey back to Istanbul, however, was that the events at Gallipoli in 1915 are very much a part of the Turkish psyche as well. I had never before truly appreciated how important the site is to the Turkish people. Whilst there are wonderful tributes to the Anzacs at Lone Pine, the Nek and at Anzac Cove, there are many more monuments which immortalise Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his men. On the day of our visit, we saw a multitude of Turkish pilgrims enjoying the memorials.
Perhaps the Turkish reverence should not have been surprising. After all, at Gallipoli, the Turks successfully repelled an invading force. It is right that they should celebrate their victory.
It is also right that we should commemorate our defeat. The character of a man – and of his countrymen – is not tested, after all, when adherence to shared values is easy. The test comes when the adherence to values such as honour and courage comes at a cost.
On the way back to Istanbul, we paused for a wonderful lunch at Gelibelu.
Taner inspected the fish at two restaurants before deciding that the first were superior. He did a good job. The fish we each ate were superb.
Over three hours later, we were back in grid-locked Istanbul where we would stay for one night before flying to Venice.
Two events in Istanbul are worthy of further mention.
Firstly, for the first time in our travelling lives, we received a wake-up call one hour before the agreed time. It’s a good thing we noticed that it was 5am and not 6am before one of us had started having a shower. It’s also a good thing that the wake-up call was placed one hour early and not one hour late!
Secondly, the taxi driver who took us to the airport also deserves special mention. At the outset, he had to be woken from the slumber he was enjoying at the head of the taxi-rank. Perhaps he should have asked for a wake-up call too! Then he charged an extra five Turkish Lire for having the temerity to place some of our luggage on the front seat of his taxi! The nerve!
In any event, after Istanbul we cast our eyes ahead to seven days on the Seabourn Spirit, as she travels along the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea. We expect a more leisurely pace than our last week in Jordan and Turkey. We are looking forward to it.