GALLANTRY AT GALLIPOLI
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Our small group of Canadians are on a boat crossing the Dardanelles from the town of Canakkale to the Gallipoli peninsula. We putter past massive grey walls of the fort guarding the old town and at dockside we board our private bus. The dawn sky is washed flamingo pink as we drive past green hillsides and groves of pine and olive trees.
It is hard to imagine that almost a century ago, in April 1915, this placid countryside was a maelstrom of whining bullets and booming gunfire, the soil blood-soaked and the slopes littered with the broken bodies of more than 130,780 soldiers - Turks, French, Gurkhas, British, Newfoundlanders, Australians and New Zealanders.
Churchill's plan was to push a passage through to the Ottoman Empire's capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in order to open supply lines to Russia through the Black Sea. It was a tragic miscalculation. A series of tactical blunders, the hellish terrain up steep scrubby hillsides, the blazing heat, freezing winter gales, dysentery, exhaustion and ferocious resistance from the Turks, drove the ANZAC forces to abandon Gallipoli to the triumphant Ottoman army in December 1915.
Despite the starkness of Allied defeat, Gallipoli was more than just a series of military battles. Bitter enemies though they were on the field, there was respect by both armies for the soldier on the other side of no man's land. The Turks fought fiercely, but they were not without compassion; the Allies responded with courage and tenacity. In a rare display of war-time camaraderie, it was duty first, glory in the face of defeat and generosity in the eye of victory.
[1. Turkish soldier with wounded Australian]
A moving memorial to this spirit of brotherhood in the midst of battle, is a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian. The story goes that an ANZAC soldier was shot as he left his trench, and lay wounded and defenseless. A tense standoff ensued. Then a Turkish soldier emerged from a trench, his rifle, with a white rag tied to the muzzle, held high above his head. The guns went silent on both sides. The Turk lifted the wounded soldier, and carried him to the safety of his comrades.
There were other generosities too. Gifts chucked across no-man's land during periods of ceasefire: sweets and dates from the Turks, packets of tobacco and tins of bully beef from the Allies.
[2. Ari Burnu cemetery]
The Ari Burnu cemetery, our second stop, overlooks the Aegean Sea, its trimmed green lawns punctuated by rows of small tombstones. It is quiet here this morning, with only the sound of the wind and the distant lap of waves against the shore. Twenty-year old Australian Private Frank Hubert Evans' epitaph reads, "They Never Fail Who Die In A Great Cause" which is an irony for this was a senseless, futile campaign that accomplished nothing.
The most poignant monument of all is the large stone monolith inscribed with army officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's message to the mothers of the fallen soldiers:
Those heroes that shed their blood
By the time we get to Chanuk Bair, a knoll at the top of a cliff overlooking Suvla Bay, the sun is above the horizon and Ataturk's towering statue measures its length in shadow across the ground. The Commander faces the memorial to the New Zealand regiments, as though in tribute to the brave men who were slaughtered in one of the most brutal engagements of the entire campaign.
I feel a shiver down my spine as I look at the Turkish trenches along the lip of the ridge where the Ottomans were poised to fire at almost point blank range. It was sheer madness-the New Zealanders, Australians and British soldiers mowed down as they emerged over the edge of the cliff into a fusillade of bullets.
Although this was one of Ataturk's most decisive victories, he himself was shot in the chest, but fortuitously the shrapnel only smashed the watch in his pocket, leaving him virtually unscathed. A war hero, and popular political figure after the end of World War I, he went on to become the first President of the new Republic of Turkey.
No military units, from what was Canada back then, made it to the Dardanelles.. However, in September 1915, the Newfoundland Regiment arrived at Suvla Bay although by then Gallipoli was all but a lost cause. Despite winter storms, short supplies of food and medicines, the 1076 members of the Regiment valiantly held the defence line against the Turks until December 20th when orders arrived to withdraw from the Peninsula. The surviving 170 Newfoundlanders were among the last to leave the Dardenelles.
IF YOU GO:
Gallipoli remains in the consciousness of both the Turks and the Allied forces of ANZAC, and Remembrance Day services held each year on ANZAC Day, April 25th, draw hundreds of visitors.
Preparations are already under way for Centenary ceremonies in 2015. See http://www.onthegotours.com/Anzac-Day/Anzac-Day-Gallipoli-2015-100th-Anniversary
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts, unless otherwise stated.
1. Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian Photo: Edward Haliburn
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