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Period Piece | Gallipoli Peninsula

The first view I had of the Dardanelles, the narrow waterway that separates the mass of Asia Minor from Turkey’s thin sliver in Europe, the Gallipoli peninsula, was in the middle of the night and in the middle of a storm.

photoWe had arrived at Eceabat, a sleepy town on the eastern edge of the peninsula, after a 6-hour drive from Istanbul, still drenched after having been caught in the heavy downpour. Our bus dropped us off in front of the ferry terminal, before driving on board the vehicle and passenger ferry service that runs all day and all night, to be carried across the waters to Asia. The waters were dark and choppy, and I lingered briefly to watch the ferry bob from side to side, its lights fading slowly as it made its way to the other continent. In the morning, the hotel room’s window offered a brilliant panorama of the strait, the swelling waters now a shade of turquoise carrying on north all the way to Istanbul and beyond that, the Black Sea.

photoThe strait has always been coveted by rulers and empires, and many of the legends of the region are set there, but today it is largely remembered for its (comparatively) recent history as the object of one of the most bitterly fought and tragic battles of World War I (WWI). Winston Churchill, then the UK’s first lord of the admiralty, aimed to secure a sea route to Russia and take control of the capital of the Ottoman empire. Churchill had such little faith in the military abilities of the Turks that he was convinced the strait could be taken through naval bombardment alone. When that naval campaign failed, an amphibious army operation was launched. On 25 April 1915, British, Australian, New Zealander, Indian, and French troops landed at various locations on Gallipoli, attempting to capture the peninsula and secure the strait.

The element of surprise was long gone; the Turks were prepared with reinforcements, and what was supposed to have been a quick campaign lasted nine months. By the time the Allies withdrew in defeat in early January 1916, the two sides had suffered roughly half a million combined casualties in what is today seen as a wasteful and bitterly sad campaign.

photoToday the peninsula is dotted with cemeteries and memorials, and has become a place of pilgrimage not just for Turks to commemorate their victory, but also for Australians and New Zealanders. Gallipoli was the first major battle for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) and was central to the formation of a national consciousness in both countries, which till then saw themselves only as British dominions. Gallipoli was central in establishing courage, larrikinism and mateship as defining Anzac characteristics, very different from those that defined the British.

Most of the English language tours of the peninsula focus on the western areas where the Anzacs fought the Ottoman army. Keen to see more than what the organized tours offered, and to explore the area at our own pace, we hired a taxi for the day and decided to first head west towards Anzac Cove (where mostly Anzac troops landed) and later south to see the sites near Cape Helles (where British and French troops landed).

A picture-perfect battleground

We drove across the breadth of the peninsula through heavy pine forest and it was only as we descended from the hills towards Anzac Cove that we caught our first sight of the Aegean Sea. The previous night’s rain had stirred up the sand, and the water progressed in colour from cappuccino froth near the shore to a rich turquoise further out, creating a view one would expect in a tourist brochure advertising unspoiled beaches.

photoThe memoirs of soldiers who fought here almost always mention the clear Aegean waters and the sandy beaches where they swam and skinny-dipped, these little pleasures offering a respite from the unending shelling and wretched conditions of war. Even with this foreknowledge, I was stunned when I saw the actual vista. A few metres ahead we spotted a wonderfully preserved pillbox by the side of the road; a solid concrete sight that hinted at the more bloody history which accompanied the scenic beauty. Scrambling up the hill and into the concrete structure, ankle-deep in muddy slush, I looked through a tiny keyhole-like cut-out in the wall that afforded a dramatic visa of the coastline.

Unlike the Turks, who knew every contour of the peninsula, the Allied powers had only such knowledge of the landscape as could be gained from the open sea. There were only a few spots on the peninsula where landings were possible. The Ottoman military had turned most open beaches into jungles of barbed-wire entanglements that extended into the sea. Pillboxes like the ones we had seen hid machine guns to target the enemy. The landings were scheduled at the darkest hour of the night, just before dawn, and almost all were botched in some way.

At Anzac Cove, the soldiers descended from their rowing boats more than a mile north of their intended destination. Standing on the narrow strip of beach where they landed, all I could see immediately in front of me were the impossibly steep rising cliffs that the soldiers were faced with and had to start climbing the minute they made landfall, enduring numerous casualties along the way. The beaches themselves became the main Allied base. In the narrow strips of sand between the sea and Turkish defences, stacks of rations and ammunition jostled for space with dressing stations for the wounded.

photoThe beachfronts are littered with cemeteries, the dates on the gravestones revealing that buried there are casualties not only from the first wave of landings, but also soldiers killed later in the campaign. The garden-like cemeteries are unbearably beautiful, and as unbearably disturbing. Overlooking the water, the neat rows of memorial stones and flowers project a sense of peacefulness that obscures the fact that they are essentially mass graves.

There is also an overpowering literary irony on display. “Their Name Liveth For Evermore", says the Stone of Remembrance at each location, the phrase hand-picked by Rudyard Kipling, who himself lost his only son in the war. And yet as Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “‘Their name liveth for evermore’ the Gateway claims./Was ever an immolation so belied/As these intolerably nameless names?"

Almost as if to prove the point, in one corner of a cemetery I noticed memorial stones for three Indian soldiers, drivers with the 22nd Mule Corps. A large number of Indian troops, both combatant and auxiliary, served at Gallipoli. The Gurkhas played an important role in the combat itself—later in the day I spotted Gurkha memorials—and the Indian Mule Corps were in charge of the transport of rations, arms and ammunitions, even the dead and wounded. Almost 1,500 Indians died here. The fact that these soldiers lay here, largely forgotten, buried in a far corner of a distant country, with no memorial services or flowers on their grave, made me deeply sad.

The bloody ridge

From Anzac Cove we made our way uphill by car, climbing the steep incline the Allied soldiers had had to climb while fighting, on foot. The Turkish troops were positioned at a height and the Allies fought many bloody battles in an attempt to occupy these vantage points.

photoAs we drove uphill, our driver explained that the area is called Kanlısırt in Turkish—bloody ridge. It is not just the ridge, he continued, this entire area is soaked in blood. One of the many legends about the Turkish flag, and its brilliant red, dates back to Gallipoli. It is said that the flag symbolizes the scene of one of the battlefields which had become so coloured with the red blood of the Turkish soldiers that the crescent moon could be seen reflected on the battlefield.

In Turkish historiography, the victory at Gallipoli is seen as the first step in the path of independence. Gallipoli and Turkish independence are connected by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), the founder of the Turkish republic and its first president. Lieutenant-Colonel Kemal led the successful counter-attack against the invading Anzac troops on the morning of 25 April 1915, famously ordering the 57th Infantry Regiment not to fight, but to die. Every soldier of the regiment was either killed in action or wounded. Today, in a sign of respect, there is no 57th regiment in the Turkish army. The words are immortalized on a large plaque near Kanlısırt. A roster lists all the soldiers who died here. A few have memorial stones. While taking in the names on the memorial stones, I see a man stopping in front of every fallen soldier, offering a quiet prayer.

photoThe area around Kanlısırt is also marked by remnants of trenches. For the four years of WWI, most soldiers lived a subterranean life in the trenches on almost every front, and Gallipoli was no different. “Dig, dig, dig until you are safe," wrote Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, to his troops. Some of the trenches are well-preserved; others which must have been 7-8ft deep are now, after almost a hundred years, gentle and shallow depressions that could easily pass off as natural rather than man-made. Standing in one of the deep trenches, I could see little except the mud around me and the sky above, still pregnant with rain clouds. I understood, then, why for WWI soldiers the sky was all-important. Historian Paul Fussell wrote, “It was the sight of the sky, almost alone, that had the power to persuade a man that he was not already lost in a common grave."

Cape Helles

Exhausted by the tour of the battlefields, our brains crammed with regiment, infantry and combat details, we decided to break for lunch before heading to see the southern battlefields. Our driver took us to a small village, Alçıtepe, and over a lunch of soup and meatballs told us that the village is also home to a personal museum dedicated to the memory of the war.

The museum was set up by Salim Mutlu, an immigrant from Romania who moved to Gallipoli soon after the republic was established. Mutlu was so fascinated by the history of the campaign that he began collecting artefacts of the war and converted a part of his house into a museum. The small museum displays a vast collection of objects—shrapnel, bullets, guns, barbed wire, coins, buttons, and personal stories of some of the soldiers who fought here—all of which made me understand the war better. They are also a reminder of the scale at which the Great War left behind markers of its savagery. In Gallipoli, farmers still discover unexploded mines or bullets or shrapnel in their fields.

The landscape around Cape Helles is flat, dominated by olive groves and golden fields punctuated by blood-red poppies. The cemeteries here are far apart— some set among fields, others by the sea—and almost completely deserted, this loneliness only adding to their poignancy. Most tourists do not come so far south.

We visited the French cemetery (4,700 French soldiers died during the campaign), so very different in style from the British ones. Here there are wrought-iron crosses rather than memorial stones. The names on the plaques are often surprising, and only illustrate how much of a role colonial troops played in the war: Ali Dou, Maleye Bey, Noudougou Oudougou, all mort pour la France.

We ended our tour of the peninsula in the late evening at the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial, which commemorates the service of the 253,000 Ottoman troops who fought here. The 137ft-high memorial is visible from the Asian shore and during passage through the strait. Within the grounds, the name and origin of each soldier is engraved on glass memorials. Some came from the farthest realms of the empire—Serbia, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Iraq, Azerbaijan. A sculpture commemorates not just the Turkish sacrifice but that of the enemy as well.

If there is one pleasing theme that runs through the memorialization of war in Gallipoli it is the celebration of the humanity of all those who fought here and the absolute respect accorded to the enemy. “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours," wrote Atatürk in a tribute to the enemy soldiers, “you the mothers who sent their sons from faraway 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."

Watch and read

‘Gallipoli’ (1981): Peter Weir’s film tells the story of Gallipoli through the lens of the friendship between two young Australian soldiers. The film marked Mel Gibson’s movie debut, and is an extremely poignant recreation of the era, capturing both the youthful enthusiasm for the war as well as the tragedy of the campaign itself.

‘Gallipoli’ (2005): This documentary by Turkish film-maker Tolga Örnek is narrated by both sides—the Turks and the British and Anzacs. Through the use of surviving diaries, letters and photographs, it recreates the hardships and suffering faced by both sides during the campaign.

‘Gallipoli’ by Peter Hart: Published last year, this is an excellent new account of the campaign. Hart is an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum and also leads tours around the peninsula. The book benefits from the first-hand accounts of the war he uses at length as well as his knowledge of the area itself.

‘Gallipoli—The Ottoman Campaign’ by Edward J. Erickson: Erickson uses the official Turkish history and memoirs and published accounts of the Turkish soldiers who fought in the campaign to tell the story of the Ottoman campaign.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

Also See | Trip Planner/Gallipoli (PDF)

PDF by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

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