We’re about five hours into a seven-hour Turkish bus ride from Canakkale (near Gallipoli) to Selcuk (near Ephesus) so I’m being dry roasted by the bus’s heating system and a bit distracted by the ignored prohibition against cell phone use. Only three people are talking loudly now, so it’s actually better than before. And, it’s a bit bumpy as we wend our way around the road construction. So, I don’t know if this is going to work, but it’s too dark to read, and the bus interior reading lights don’t work, so I thought I’d try. The light of the computer screen, you know.
Kris and I are fresh off five days in Istanbul. Well, actually, we’re not that fresh since we had to leave Istanbul at 6:30 a.m. yesterday on a bus for Gallipoli, and we’re just not that good at going to bed early since we finished the Camino.
As you may know–and probably it’s probably all you know– Gallipoli was an Australian movie from the early 80s starring Mel Gibson. It was the fictionalized story of two Australian friends who bought the line of the English about how sweet and fitting it was to die for your country and so joined the Australian Army. And as usual the Aussie army ended up, like the Irish before them, doing the shit jobs in the British wars.
The non fictional part was the attack on the Gallipoli peninsula, by the Brits, supported by the Aussies and New Zealanders, near the beginning of World War I. The main idea was to knock the Turks off their own land which commanded the Dardanelles Strait so the British Navy could sail up the Dardanelles to the Bosphorus and shell Istanbul into submission. Then, according to the plan, the Brits could get into the Black Sea and supply their ally, Russia. Like a lot of British plans in a lot of wars, this one didn’t turn out so well.
Making a long story short, the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula involved about a million men on both sides. Half a million Turks fighting half a million mostly British Commonwealth soldiers. The battle lasted about eight months, about half a million men on both sides were killed or wounded. So now there are Australians, New Zealanders, and Turks buried all over the peninsula.
Many of them were blown to bits and are lying unidentified in mass graves, but there are some neat rows of tombstones in several old battle sites where you can read the names of the 20-year-old boys who came half way around the world to some place they’d never heard of and got killed on the first day of the battle, or on the assault at The Nek, or some other time before the Brits finally realized the plan was stupid and pulled out the men who hadn’t yet been killed.
So, this made a pretty good movie directed by Peter Weir, and Mel Gibson looked pretty good as a young Australian, which he was at the time. It wasn’t as anti-war as it should have been, but it wasn’t bad either.
Gallipoli today is a peaceful place. The Turks have declared the entire peninsula, more or less, a “Peace Park” and have prohibited building anything bigger than a farm house. Most of the area, which isn’t the manicured grave and memorial sites or the occasional olive orchard that had been there for hundred of years, is grown back into the rough vegetation that was there when the Allies landed.
It’s rough country, and full of ambush valleys flanked by steep hills that are marvelous places for gun emplacements. Up on those hills, too, are the remains of trenches and tunnels occupied by the Aussies and Kiwis and Turks. In some cases, the trenches are only meters apart. Our guide told us that the soldiers would sometimes throw smokes and chocolate to each other when they weren’t killing each other with machine guns.
One of these places was called The Nek, which is Turkish for a little low spot between two hills. That’s where the most famous part of the battle occurred. It’s the part, too, that’s the climax of the movie. The Brits shelled the Turkish positions for half an hour to drive them out of their trenches, but due to a timing error, the Aussies in the trenches just below the Turkish positions didn’t attack the empty trenches until seven minutes after the shelling stopped.
In that seven minutes, the Turks got back into position and mowed down four waves of Aussies as they came out of their trenches. Most of them made it no more than a few yards before they will killed. An observer who came upon the battlefield a few months afterwards remarked that the shallow graves of the thousands of fallen soldiers were “so white with bones it seemed as if there had been a recent snow.”
It was a sobering day–one of those days where the history is recent enough to still affect you and carry the weight of what happened a little back to our lodgings.
We spoke to a young Turkish man back at the hotel where we were staying about out visit. His job is to arrange tours for people like us, but particularly for the 10,000 or so Australians and New Zealanders who come to Gallipoli each year to see their forebears’ memorials. “Yes,” he said, when I remarked at how young most of the men were who had died. “In war, the old men talk and the young men die.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our guide, Izzet Yilderim, who was a remarkable student of the battle. He knew every date, every unit name, every commander and every disposition of troops. (If you should want to go to Gallipoli, email me and I will send you his contact information. Your visit will be ten times better with him than without.)
Izzet also had a real sense of the horror and irony of war. He took us to the place of the furthest advance of the Australian troops, at the top of the tallest point on the peninsula, where the troops got a brief glimpse of their objective–the Dardanelles. They lasted two days on that hill until the Turks counterattacked and drove them back. There were a lot of grave markers there.
We had not been encouraged by our Turkish acquaintances in Istanbul to make the trip to Gallipoli. There’s not much to see there, they said. Istanbul and places like Ephesus are much more interesting with much more to do and see.
That is true. There isn’t much to see at Gallipoli except the stark white grave stones and larger stark white stone memorials to both sides’ boys who were killed here. But, I’m more glad to have seen it than any of the art of Istanbul.
One footnote: our friends in Istanbul also said we could skip Troy, that site of another fairly famous war that isn’t that far from Gallipoli. (The Brits weren’t the first to try to dislodge the natives so they could control the Dardanelles.) In this case, our Istanbul friends were right. Not much is left of the Troy of Homer. A lot more of the Roman city built a millennium later is evident. The site can be seen in an hour easily, and unless you have a good guide (which we did) you don’t have much of an idea of what you are looking at. None of the art or treasure remains. It’s long ago carted off by looters masquerading as 19th century archeologists.
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