Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We Will Remember Them

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now living 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 your 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.”
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1934

At 6.30am on Saturday morning Alix and I boarded the tour coach bound for Gelibolu Peninsula, the place we call ‘Gallipoli’. The trip from Istanbul to Gallipoli is around four and a half hours, and ours was one of dozens of coaches headed for Anzac Cove. It was nice to be amongst Australians again after so many months of travel, to make new friends amongst the easy familiarity of shared language and perspective.

All along the journey to Anzac Cove we would receive historical information from our guide, a Turkish bloke whose name, incidentally, was Oz. He gave speeches and played DVDs on the coach TV and we learnt about the conflict that happened here 96 years ago from both an Australian and a Turkish point of view as the landscape near which the confict took place whizzed by outside.

As we approached the peninsula, the road snaked its way along the banks of the Dardanelles, a long, narrow strait that connects the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara and onwards to Istanbul. In 1915 the British Navy attempted to force its way up the Dardanelles strait to attack the capital of the Ottoman Turk Empire, Istanbul.

The Dardanelles Strait, just 1.2 km wide in places

Looking out the coach window at the Dardanelles, it seemed like insanity that the British would attempt this. The strait is narrow. A strong swimmer could swim across it. A warship would have nowhere to maneouvre, it would present its broad side to every coastal gun along the hills just inland from the beaches, and the British didn't bother to send their best, or even their second best ships. They thought that when the British Navy showed up the Turks would surrender, or run away. That fat bloke with the cigars, Winston Churchill, was calling the shots. He obviously didn't know the Turks very well.

The Turks had plenty of coastal guns, shiny new Krupp 35cm howitzers recently bought from the Germans, the purchase of which was part of the reason the Turks were caught up in the war in the first place. They were rapid-firing weapons that could toss a high-explosive shell weighing 276kg up to 7 kilometres at a target. The British naval assault was broken, twice, by the Turks before the British decided to have a third go at it, but this time they would land an army of 50,000 men to support the naval assault instead of going it alone. The army would be landed on the western side of the Dardanelles, at several locations on the Gallipoli Peninsula that our tour coach was now approaching, Anzac Cove being one of them.

We arrived at the Gallipoli memorial area way too early to enter. Tour operators had been told the site would open at 2pm, but it was now closed until 6pm. Something to do with the movements of Australian dignitaries, we were informed.

To kill the time, we had a BBQ at a pre-arranged place on the banks of the Dardanelles. We ate chicken, sausages and meatballs served with salad and bread, drank beer and played cards and two-up to kill the time until we could go inside the site. I waved my beer around and waxed lyrical at a nice Aussie bloke named David about how stupid I thought the whole naval-approach-up-a-very-narrow-strait idea was. The sun was high and warm but very soon it would go down and the cold and wind would kick into high gear for the rest of a long night of waiting for the dawn.

Turkish köfte meatballs on the BBQ

Clockwise from bottom left: Alix, Mia, Simon (x2), Liz

After the BBQ, we trekked to Anzac Cove to settle in for a night on the bleachers. Wrapped up in five layers of thermals and Gore-Tex and cocooned in sleeping bags, we enjoyed the hospitality of a Turkish, Australian and NZ special event. Different historical presentations played all through the night as we drifted in and out of sleep. I half-dreamed, half-imagined what it would be like to be in this same dark, cold, windy place freezing in thin, dirty clothes, most likely wracked with dysentery, expecting to be killed very soon, then doing it over and over again every night, maybe for months.

Anzac Cove

A crowd gathered to await the dawn

Warding against the cold, Alix shrouds her head in a black pashmina and attempts to cover every centimetre of exposed skin. I told her she looked like one of those ring-wraiths in the Lord of the Rings movies

The Dawn Service came and went too quickly, my frozen mind struggled to process the information I was given. As the sun came up and we all thawed out we trekked uphill to the location of the Australian mid-morning memorial service at Lone Pine.

Anzac Cove beach, just after dawn service

As we walked the ground, passing cemeteries at the various staging posts that represented ground the ANZACs captured in the long 8-month campaign, I found myself frequently off-balance with emotions. I looked at the hills we were walking up and wondered how in the world the men who fought here found the motivation to continue to climb up the inclines under fire from higher ground. It looked so hopeless, so broken, an impossible idea. Looking uphill and imagining that struggle was to imagine devastation. In contrast, turning around and looking downhill, the view was spectacular, exhilirating. The graves of the dead quietly complimented the natural beauty of this barren place. My emotions turned around along with my gaze.

Looking up from the beach, towards the rocky outcrop the ANZACs, having trained in Egypt, dubbed 'The Sphinx'

A column of visitors crawls up Artillery Road to Shell Green Cemetery

One of the very large number of gravestones in several cemeteries

We arrived at Lone Pine cemetery and memorial site. The area is about as big as a tennis court, one pine tree in its centre. The original lone pine tree was destroyed in the fighting, the one that stands in the memorial site now was planted in the 1920’s.

Lone Pine Cemetery

The RAAF band and on the right, a Turkish Army honour guard

Mounting of the Catafalque Party

Laying of wreaths

Below the ground at Lone Pine are the buried bodies of around 9000 men who died fighting there over the campaign, in a system of trenches in this tiny area. The area was so confined that sometimes even bayonets could not be used and men killed each other with their bare hands in the dirt and mud. One of the men commemorated there is my great grand-uncle, Edwin Cheal. I am not a religious person, but Lone Pine Cemetery is as close as I had ever felt to being in a place that is sacred.

After Lone Pine we continued to climb up to Chunuk Bair, the main objective of the ANZAC assault and the highest point on the peninsula that Allied forces ever reached. Finally I felt there was a position in this area where, if you owned it, you might feel safe. It had commanding views down the valleys on either side, beautiful to look at. New Zealand forces captured Chunuk Bair from the Turks in a heroic assault that cost 880 New Zealander lives. They held Chunuk Bair for just two days. Many Turks died taking Chunuk Bair back from the New Zealanders, who were virtually wiped out in the Turkish counterattack.

Valley view from Chunuk Bair

Being at Gallipoli was unlike anything I had experienced, or expect to experience again. It is hard to explain how powerfully but subtly different it is to attending a memorial in Australia. At home, the celebrations seem to be about honouring our own dead. But here, you are acutely aware of being on foreign soil.

The Turkish 57th Regiment memorial service. The 57th Regiment was the only Turkish formation holding the peninsula against attack on the 25th April. It was all but obliterated in the fighting that followed.

A Turkish band unit in traditional Ottoman dress

April 25th is just another day for most Turks, it’s not a significant day for them. People in Istanbul are dimly aware of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Some Turks think Australians come here to mourn their dead relatives or to apologize to the Turkish people for their ancestors having invaded Turkey so long ago, or some other such sentiment.

Maybe there is a little of those things, but these are cooked ideas, and the truth is raw. We come to Gallipoli to remember. We remember the bravery, courage, honour and sacrifice of men who were thrust by fate into a war characterised by great futility and yet fought with honour and resolve. When we make this pilgrimage, it is impressed upon us that these virtues existed in equal measure on both sides of the battles that were fought here. The adversaries grew to honour and respect each other as well as themselves while they suffered equally in circumstances of incredible hardship.

After the war ended, these enemies chose to extend the respect they formed for each other in war to join in friendship and reconciliation, to favour peace over hate and revenge. So it is bravery, honour, duty and sacrifice itself, and the higher purpose of these virtues is love, that we remember on 25th April each year.

Lest We Forget.

Private Edwin Harold Cheal, 3rd Battalion AIF, died of wounds 30th April, 1915. Rest in peace, digger Cheal.


  1. I can really relate to that strange feeling when a place has such a bloody history yet visually presents as a place of beauty. I felt the same way when I visited Port Arthur in Tasmania. Historically the setting of such hardship and brutality for convicts, in more recent times the site of a shooting that made an indelible mark on Australia's modern history....yet to look around at the lush green grounds, the grand old trees, the stunning rose gardens and amazing views out to gave such a bittersweet sensation. You almost felt guilty to admire the beauty in a place that signified such horror. :-) Lainey

  2. Thank you for sharing. Jase (not to be confused with Jace)

  3. Don't know why but "The Dardanelles" sounds so evocative of times past, history, amazing. But Gallipoli only makes me think of war. So thanks for the post.

  4. Hi Alix and Jace, this is Natalia from the Teach International training. I've just discovered your travel blog, had no idea you did such great writing and documenting. What an amazing trip! I'll keep reading backwards and will add you to my roll. Travelling in Israel myself now, I was in Turkey last year, spent a month there.
    Have a happy stay in the land of baklava!
    love, n

  5. Recently discovered that my Grandad, a cabinetmaker from Belfast, fought at Gallipoli. His military record shows he volunteered and left home in Nov 1914 and returned in early 1919. He was a changed man, no wonder. I just completed a great book about the campaign which catalogued the litany of errors and arrogance which characterised the military command. One day I'd love to visit the peninsula as you did, your narrative was very heartfelt and moving and I had never read Mustafa Kemal's words before - beautiful and generous of spirit. In our busy, but comfortable lives we must never forget.

  6. beautiful pictures. We expect to turkey again...