Ancient Battlefields of Turkey

This is a Turkish memorial, with a statue of Kemal Mustafa, who later became known as Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish nation.

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.

At the beach, where so many Aussie boys got no further.

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.

These two Australian boys never made it off the beach.

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.

The remnants of an Aussie trench. It was only about ten meters from a Turkish trench.

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.”

Izzet was a wonderful guide.

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.

One can get a sense of what a great man Ataturk was by reading his words about Gallipoli. He was a Turkish commander there, and was primarily responsible for the Turkish victory.

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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9 thoughts on “Ancient Battlefields of Turkey”

  1. To find the grave of my grandfather at Hill 60 at Gallipoli was the object of a weekend visit from Istanbul.We had booked through a tour operator there but a few days from departure from Sydney,I contacted them top confirm they would take us to Hill 60 and they said they do not go to that part of the peninsular on their tours.I cancelled right away and, luckily,in that weekend’s newspaper’s travel section was a letter from a person who had booked with directly in Istanbul so I emailed them and was told a private tour company could take us to Hill 60 at no extra cost.A coffee break half way after 2 1/2 hours allowed us to stretch our legs. On the final part of the 5 hour journey,a tape was played outlining the history of the Dardenelles-Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Upon arrival at the Maydos waterside restaurant we were given lunch on the terrace wirth a wonderful view across the Dardenelles then we were off to the Brighton Beach site (one beach south of Anzac Cove and we were shown large maps of the area nd our guide explained the topography and battles shown on the map and the sites we would be visiting that afternoon.After the rather complete and highly interesting afternoon tour which included a visit to the local museum, we were taken back to restaurant and boarded a cruiser for the short crossing of the Dardenelles to Cannakale.. This in itself was a bonus as one could view the Gallipoli peninsular and grasp the view which eluded so many in rthe 1915 campaign when only a few Australian soldiers reached the peaks and saw the Dardenelles which we were now crossing,only to be beaten back by the Turks under the leadership of Attaturk later reforming President of Turkey. A driver and a guide took us north to Hill 60 to find my grandfather’s grave. Through some wheat fields and onto a low knoll and here we were- the first persons to ever visit his grave, front row extreme right hand end. Only 44 graves, some 930 all buried in common grave, the action was made up of left-overs from various regiments, Aussies,New Zealanders, British in this, the last main battle of the campaign.They were all wiped out in 2 days. An Australian flag, some gum leaves and a red poppy we left on the grave stone- it is a lonely place,sad and gut wrenching when one sees the absolute wastage in human lives-Back to Istanbul on the coach with memories and a feeling that we had, at least fulfilled one of life’s ambitions!

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  2. Nice article. I have to say though that I think you portray quite an inaccurate vision of what really happened. You don’t mention British being involed, all aussie’s and kiwi’s. There were a lot of Indians and, believe it or not, British. Even France and Russia were involved in it. I think it’s disrespectful not to mention the other lives lost as if they didn’t exist.

    I’m going to visit my great grandfather’s grave on hill ten next summer as it’s something my father always wanted to do but never ended up being able to. I think it’s going to be very poignant and gut wrenching. I’ll be the first of my family ever to have been.

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    • Well, I did say Commonwealth soldiers, and I mentioned the Brits a few times, but yes, we mostly saw the Aussie and Kiwi graves and memorials because that’s the part of the peninsula we toured. But, you probably know that the British sent the Aussies into the Nek as a diversionary attack to keep the Turks busy while the Brits made a landing (unopposed) further up the peninsula. A senseless and unnecessary slaughter by all accounts. Even when the ease of the landing was apparent, the British commanders nevertheless ordered the Aussies to persist in the pointless attack. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Nek

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      • Fair point made, sorry it took so long for me to respond! Point I guess I was trying to make, not very eloquently, was that it tends to be the common man that gets shat on in war whoever they happen to be. Doesn’t really matter who. The old men on their desks are far removed from the realities of war. Most of WW1 was senseless slaughter. It does seem even more of a cruel irony that people that weren’t even British were being sent to their death by the British elite. Very sad.

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      • In actual fact the diversion was to keep Turkish troops from re-enforcing Chunuk Bair which was being assaulted by the British and NZ froops. It is also interesting that the charge at the Neck could have easily been stopped after the massacre of the first wave but two Australian Officers declined to do so Also of note is that 80 members of the Cheshire Regt also went over the top with the Light Horse but just as the British have been airbrushed out of the taking of Chunuk Bair the Cheshires who died at the Nek appear to have been also been forgotten. I think omitting 80 Cheshire Regt fatalities, in a battle costing the Light horse 234 fatalities in total is quite an insult The same applies to the British who died taking Chunuk Bair, My Grandfather was one of the few to survive on Chunuk Bair with the NZ Wellington Battalion taking all the credit, They were all brave men but I get sick of the ignorance of the facts. More French soldiers died at Gallipoli than Australian and they too are often airbrushed out of the picture.

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  3. The infuriating stupidity (callousness) of the commanders during World War I was brought home to us by a visit to Belgium in the Ypres area (Passchendaele). There too, countless Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives and unexploded ordnance is still left by the side of the road by farmers to be collected by the bomb disposal squad. A half a world away, on a visit to Perth, Australia, many trees in beautiful King’s Park are dedicated by the families of Perth families who lost their young sons during World War I — some at Gallipoli. To this day, I cannot hear Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings without imagining the scene in Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli, where this music plays as the troops are rowed across to the Bay to their deaths.

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    • Terrific movie, and another one that does such a good job with the horror and futility of war. As Wilfred Owen wrote:

      If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
      Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
      Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
      Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
      My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
      To children ardent for some desperate glory,
      The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
      Pro patria mori.

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