Gallipoli: the final resting place ...

Almost 100 years on it is hard to imagine the carnage that ensued in this peaceful, Turkish seaside resort. Only the graves bear testament

Almost 100 years on it is hard to imagine the carnage that ensued in this peaceful, Turkish seaside resort. Only the graves bear testament. Video: Peter Murtagh

 

There’s a sign on a hill flanking the Turkish coastal city of Canakkale which one really only notices by looking back as the ferry crosses the Dardanelles to Kilitbahir on the Gallipoli peninsula. In loud white letters on a red background, the sign reads: “18 Mart 1915”.

The journey over the Dardanelles is at the narrowest part of the strait between the Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara and, ultimately, the Black Sea. It takes about 15 minutes. And as the ferry nears Kilitbahir, another sign gradually hoves into view.

This one is much more detailed and shows the silhouette figure of a soldier, rifle in one hand, leaning forward, advancing in battle, his other arm seeming to gesture to his comrades behind to “come on!”

A large slogan has been planted on the hillside beside the soldier.

“Any idea what that says?” I ask Gizem, a 22-year-old food science undergraduate from Ankara who is leaning on the ferry rail beside me.

“Mmmm,” she begins, searching for the words. “It says ‘Passenger, stop here and walk this place and understand’. Something like that.”

I ask her what that means.

“This is where it all ended and where it all began,” she says, without explaining what “it” is. “It’s very important for us [TURKS].”

Gallipoli is seared into the Turkish consciousness just as much, if not more, as it is into the minds of Australians and New Zealanders. March 18th, 1915, was the date on which Turkish forces stymied the combined might of the British and French navies, preventing them, by mines in the sea and bombardment by shoreline batteries, from rushing the narrow stretch of sea between Canakkale and Kilitbahir (see panel).

What happened in Gallipoli was a nation-forging victory for modern Turkey as the Ottoman Empire staggered towards dissolution in 1923-1924. For Australia and New Zealand, a generation of whose young men were blooded to no useful effect, Gallipoli was likewise a defining moment, one that gave them a sense of nationhood and separateness from Britain not crystallised until the tragedy engulfed their nations.

For the British and the French, Gallipoli was but a moment in a much larger saga – a defeat on the way to ultimate victory, an outcome which ensured the war in Turkey never assumed in their collective memory the significance it did in others.

And what of the Irish? The small cemetery that backs onto what the British christened V Beach at Seddülbahir at Cape Helles, the southmost tip of the peninsula, tells part of their story.

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Confused and chaotic

There are 696 bodies interred here, only 216 of whom have been identified for sure. Most died on April 25th, or a day or two after, when soldiers with the British 29th Division scrambled on to the 250-metre beach at about 6.30am following softening up bombardment by the Royal Navy.

From the beginning, the landings were confused and chaotic. The beach and area behind it were eerily silent after the bombardment. As they approached, some of the lighters ran aground, forcing men to jump out early, some of them to sink under the weight of their kit and drown.

Invading soldiers who got to the beach were met with unrelenting fire from Turks who had four Maxim machine guns, each capable of firing about 300 bullets a minute. Soldiers landing on the beach were cut down in droves. Contemporary accounts describe the sea turning bright red.

The same scene unfolded simultaneously up the coast at Anzac Cove, witnessed by the renowned British war reporter Ellis Ashmead-Bertlett.

“We steamed in close to the shore,” he wrote of his landing with Anzac troops, “under what appeared to be a kind of hailstorm caused by bullets striking the sea . . . The beach was piled with ammunition and stores, hastily dumped from the lighters [landing craft], among which lay the dead and wounded . . . it was impossible to distinguish between the living and the dead in the darkness.”

Stepping from the pebbles and sand through a squeaky wooden gate into V Beach Cemetery, there are four neat rows of memorial tablets nearest to the sea. Further up the rectangular plot as it stretches back from the beach, there are several more rows, plus some other tablets placed seemingly at random, and a large expanse of grass rolling up to the impressive but simple altar-like Stone of Remembrance with cross behind, the white, oolitic limestone gleaming bright in the sun when I was there last August.

“Their Name Liveth For Evermore”, it says. It was a memorial sentiment offered by the poet Rudyard Kipling who borrowed it from Ecclesiasticus 44:14: “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.”

The first three memorial tablets I notice through the gate have an Irish connection – Private William Holtom, Lance Corp Edmund David Hook and Pte Michael Howard, are all from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Pte Holtom died on April 25th. He was from Coventry. Lance Corp Hook was from Chatham in Surrey and was aged 23. He died on the 27th, the same day as 26-year-old Michael Howard, the son of James and Margaret Howard of Whitefriar Street in Dublin.

Walking further through the cemetery, one notices many of the graves have a further line from Ecclesiasticus 44, from line 13: “and their glory shall not be blotted out”.

But more than that, one notices that almost all the stone memorial tablets, some 90 per cent by my reckoning, are to members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers or the Royal Munster Fusiliers. I count only 29 that are not Irish or of an Irish regiment.

Separated by shrubs of sage, rosemary and thyme, familiarity jumps off the face of almost every memorial stone: Aitkin, Barry, Dillon, Doolin, Branagan, Butler, and Byrne; Callaghan, Collins, Coulter, Danagher, Deegan, Dempsey, Doyle, Duffy, and Dunne . . . on down through the alphabet, all the way down to Redmond, Reilly, Richards, Ryan, Scanlon, Scully, Sullivan, Thompson, Webb and Wilson.

This small cemetery, below which today children play and splash about in the water, is in effect an Irish graveyard in a faraway place. * * * Most of the western and southern end of the Gallipoli peninsula where the fighting occurred 99 years ago is today a huge national park, a place where military triumph, defeat and tragedy are memorialised. Because little has changed here since the end of the Gallipoli campaign in January 1916, nature has blossomed in what in many respects is a preserved battlefield, a peaceful sylvan setting of pine trees, wild shrubs, herbs and bird song.

Walking along what the British and Anzac forces christened Brighton Beach, the pines run down almost to the water’s edge. Turkish families holiday in tents and caravans parked among the trees. Along the narrow beach, a few toppled-over concrete gun emplacements are all that suggest what once went on here.

Back from the beach, the land rises steeply through a series of angular, rocky ravines and gullies, somewhat more overgrown today than they were during the war, when thorny shrubs and herbs – mostly sage, thyme and rosemary – predominated. The steep gravelly slope becomes the Sari Bair mountain range, peaking at about 300m above the sea.

On April 25th, 1915, when 16,000 troops landed at Anzac Cove, the next along from Brighton Beach, there were only about 160 Turkish soldiers in the mountains above, but they were reinforced speedily by about 8,000 more. The Anzacs fought their way up through ravines and gullies, to which they gave names such as Shrapnel Valley, Malone’s Gully, Walker’s Ridge and Rhododendron Spur, until they came to the lip of a ridge, a mountain spine running roughly north/south and close to a strategically advantageous Turkish position at Chunuk Bair, one of three high points in the Sari Bair range.

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Vast graveyard

The Allied assault was checked but at a heavy price. Both sides lost about 2,000 men in the initial fighting which became a stalemate within days, lasting until a renewed Allied offensive in early August.

A well-surfaced road rides the ridge today. At the start of the incline, a sign tells passers-by: “You are now entering the area which is reserved forever as a resting place for soldiers who fell in the first World War.” The entire mountain ridge is regarded, seemingly, as a vast graveyard.

The road threads its way through the middle of what used to be No Man’s Land, Anzac soldiers dug in on the side facing the sea, the Turks on the land side – peering at each other across a divide at times not much more than 15m or 20m in width. You can walk among the pines and shrubs, and will frequently come across trench systems, still pretty much as they were in 1915.

The main Anzac cemetery is further up the ridge at a spot the soldiers christened Lone Pine. The single tree that stood there in 1915 was blown to smithereens in the battle but two Australian soldiers retrieved cones and today, at least 5,000 trees descended from them are found across Australia.

The single tree standing at Lone Pine today is not directly descended from the original but was planted in 1920s as a memorial to the thousands of Anzacs who died there. The cemetery contains the bodies of 1,167 soldiers, of whom 504 are unidentified. On a wall outside a squat limestone obelisk memorial, there are the names of 3,268 Australian soldiers and 456 New Zealanders who have no known grave, and the 900 Australians and 252 New Zealanders who were buried at sea.

The Anzac relatives who come to this place throughout the year (not just on Anzac Day, April 25th) fall into two broad categories – retirees and the young – and for most, the visit appears to be a profound experience. Inside the obelisk, there are ledgers in which visitors can write their thoughts, many of them variations of the simple “Thank you for all you did for Australia”, mixed with expressions of sadness and hopes for peace.

Some are deeper, more lyrical, however. Jane, a woman probably in her 20s who was inside when I visited, wrote this: “Run dear son, for evil lies here. But if you cannot run, let in the light, the love.”

Further along the ridge, there is a substantial bell-tower-style memorial to the Turks who fell. At a crucial moment in the Anzac assault, they heard their commander, Lieut Col Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, tell them: “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die! In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places.”

And fight and die they did, in their thousands, just like the British and Anzac forces.

At the top of the ridge stands Chunuk Bair. In early August 1915, after four months of trench-bound stalemate and skirmishing, the British and Anzac forces launched a determined effort to push forward. In the ensuing battle, some 12,000 died on either side, though precise and agreed numbers are impossible to obtain.

On Chunuk Bair there is an obelisk memorial to the New Zealand forces that held it for two days from August 8th, 1915, before being driven off by a ferocious counter attack. Beside the obelisk stands a monumental statue of Atatürk which tells the story of how his fob watch was struck by shrapnel, saving his life, and how he gave it as a present to the German officer assisting him, Lieut-Gen Otto Liman von Sanders.

Atatürk and the German well understood the critical importance of holding the ridge: taking it would have allowed the Allied invaders flood across the rest of the peninsula, knocking out the batteries on one whole side of the Dardanelles, and opening the straits, leading to the almost certain fall of Canakkale and the bombardment of Istanbul.

Chunuk Bair was also crucial in that from it, the Turks had an uninterrupted view of most of the western coast of Gallipoli, from Anzac Cove to Suvla Bay where on August 6th British forces, including the 10th (Irish) Division, landed and opened a third front of attack, simultaneous to the assault on the ridge – and with disastrous consequences for them.

From Churuk Bair on a hot August day in 2014, one looks down on Suvla Bay and its salt lake, on the fertile plain behind it, patchwork fields of grain and sunflowers, and on across to the 150m ridge, Kiretch Tepe Sirt. * * * Today, the sandy scrublands behind Suvla beach are alive with tortoises and hoopees. A gentle onshore breeze dulls the intense mid-summer heat.

A century ago, British and Irish troops, many in the 10th (Irish) Division, which included regiments such as the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Munsters and Dublins, the Leinster Regiment and the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, brought war here when they landed on C Beach, just south of Sulva Bay and Nibrunesi Point, and at the north end of A Beach on the shore of the bay itself.

They captured some raised ground – Lala Baba hill, Hill 10, Chocolate Hill and the lower slopes of Kiretch Tepe Sirt – in the first few days of assault, but little after.

Walking the beaches, the fields and hills in the searing heat of August 2014, the contemporary 1915 descriptions of chaos – of machine guns and snipers and grenades, of lethal shrapnel bombs exploding overhead, of the groaning of the wounded, waiting, hoping a stretcher-bearer would rescue them, of flies feasting on rotting corpses, of survivors crushing fists-full of wild thyme to smother the stench of the dead, and of the squaddies parched for want of water – all the descriptions on the pages of long forgotten letters and dusty memoirs become real and vivid.

But for all that, almost 100 years on, it really is impossible to imagine truly the carnage that unfolded in this seaside, agricultural setting from August 6th until stalemate about nine days later.

Many of the wounded died in bush fires. The reporter Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, from a vantage point on the hill of Lala Baba, described such a scene: “I watched the flames approaching and the crawling figures disappear amidst dense clouds of black smoke. When the fire passed on, little mounds of scorched khaki alone marked the spot where another mismanaged soldier of the King had returned to mother earth.”

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All was lost

The Allied forces, mostly British and Irish, never got more than a kilometre or two inland, such was the tenacity of the defending Turks. The elderly, incompetent and inexperienced commander of the British forces, Lieut Gen Sir Frederick Stopford, was completely outsmarted by Atatürk and was relieved of his command on August 15th. But by then it was too late; all was lost from the Allied point of view. Stalemate ensued and, with no significant improvement in the position of the Allied forces at Cape Helles, Sari Bair ridge or at Suvla Bay, from August on, a complete withdrawal from Gallipoli took place between December and January 1916.

There were no Allied fatalities during the withdrawal – the only wholly successful manoeuvre of the ill-fated campaign.

A Turkish memorial claims that 19,850 British soldiers died at Sulva (what the Turks call the Battle of Anafartala, after the name of the plain behind the beach) and that 8,155 Turks died as well.

Other sources suggest the British lost 18,000 at Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove combined and that the Turks lost 38,000 between the two places.

Overall, agreed definitive numbers are unavailable, it appears that both sides – British, French and Anzacs on one side, Turks on the other – lost about 100,000 men each and at least double that number were wounded on each side. Many died of dysentry or succumbed elsewhere, Alexandria in Egypt for instance, of wounds sustained at Gallipoli.

 

‘Sons lying in our bosom’

In 1934, Atatürk displayed considerable magnanimity, not to say humanity, in written comments directed at the relatives of dead Anzac soldiers. His words are inscribed on a large monument standing beside one of the prettiest cemeteries on the peninsula, Ari Burnu, a small grassy place bathed in dappled sunlight with the waters of Anzac Cove lapping against it.

Referring to those who attacked his country as heroes, he wrote to still grieving Australian and New Zealand mothers, saying their sons would rest in peace.

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours,” he wrote. “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away 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.”

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