Gallipoli – A WWI Tragedy Revisited
It’s the third day of the Adventures Abroad tour of western Turkey and we are headed out from Istanbul after seeing some of the most interesting sites in that city including Hagia Sophia which I described in the last post. Today we are headed for two more of the most important sites in the country, Gallipoli and Troy. Our guide Yasemin Reis advises that this will be one of two long days on the tour, but assures us that it will be worth the extra time it takes to arrive at our hotel in Canakkale. So please join us as we travel through the ancient lands westerners called Thrace and the Turks Rumeli or Land of the Romans.
Here is a map of our route today. The first marker is the Gallipoli Peninsula and the second is the ancient ruins of Troy.
The roads in Turkey are very good and once outside the inner core of Istanbul traffic moved very well. Still it seemed like hours before we finally left the last of the thousands of new apartment complexes that have sprung up like the proverbial mushrooms behind us and were in the open countryside. There were occasional glimpses of the Sea of Marmara and once again I was impressed by the amount of forested areas we passed through. Turkey has done a much better job of preserving these than most of its neighbours.
By around noon we arrived at the celebrated fishing port of Gelibolu which is the Turkish version of Gallipoli. We stopped for lunch at a small cove alive with activity that is the oldest part of the small city.
Gelibolu was the home town of famous navigator and cartographer Piri Reis who produced some of the earliest and for the times amazingly accurate maps of the known world. His map of 1513 was one of the first to include the New World and his 1528 update depicted the North American coast from Greenland to Cuba and Central America. This is a monument to him that fittingly overlooks the sea.
In terms of choices for lunch, if you were into seafood there were a number of species to choose from at the Gelibolu Balik restaurant which is one of a number on the waterfront. While bream and sea bass are widely farmed in Turkey and appear on pretty well all seafood menus, it is less common to be able to sample some of the wild caught species like some of these.
From Gelibolu you can see a construction under way that is going to have a dramatic effect on life in this part of Turkey. At Gelibolu and numerous other places along the Dardanelles which is the narrow strait that connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, there are ferries operating that are the only way to get from European Turkey to Asiatic Turkey between here and Istanbul. All that will change with the opening of the Canakkale 1915 bridge which is scheduled to open in March, 2022 and will be the longest suspension bridge in the world. When it does open, the days of the Gelibolu ferry service are probably numbered. BTW the number 1915 is a reference to the year 1915 and the battles fought at Gallipoli in that year that many Turks still consider to be their finest hour.
This is not the first effort at building a bridge across the Dardanelles which in ancient times was called the Hellespont. Way back in 482 BC Xerxes, king of the Persians, had a pontoon bridge constructed to take his massive army across to Thrace on his way to attack Greece. Before the army could get across a storm blew up and destroyed it. Never one to take a defeat lying down, Xerxes had the bridge builders decapitated and the Hellespont whipped for its failure to respect his wishes.
Xerxes should have respected the Hellespont’s omen as after he did get his troops across by lashing his ships together, they went on to ultimate defeat at the naval battle of Salamis and the land battle of Plataea and the Persian kingdom went into decline. Alexander the Great took his army across the Hellespont in 334 BC and avenged the attacks on Greece by totally destroying the Persian empire. There’s a lot of ancient history and Greek myths that took place in this area, but now let’s turn our attention to something that happened here just over a century ago.
The Gallipoli Campaign
When most North Americans think of WWI they quite naturally focus on the terrible trench warfare that took place on the Western Front where many of their forebears might have fought, including my grandfather and his brother. Then they might have an inkling of the even worse toll in lives taken on the Eastern Front or maybe even between the Austria-Hungarians and the Italians in the eastern Alps where Ernest Hemingway served as an ambulance driver. However, Lawrence of Arabia aside, few will know much about the campaigns that took place in the Middle East and along the Russo-Turkish border. However, if you ask a person from Australia or New Zealand about WWI the first word that will pop out of their mouths is ‘Gallipoli’. That same word is also likely to be uttered by a Canadian from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador which in 1915 was a separate country.
The story of Gallipoli was popularized in 1981 in the excellent movie of the same name by Australian director Peter Weir although it has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies. This was the film that propelled a young Mel Gibson to fame.
Here is a Cole’s notes version of the Gallipoli Campaign, however, if you are taking this trip I suggest getting a more comprehensive view from this Wikipedia article so that you can get a better appreciation of what you will be seeing on your visit there.
By 1915 the Western Front was in a stalemate and the Triple Alliance was putting a lot of pressure on Russia in the Eastern Front. From 1568 to 1915 the Russians and the Ottomans fought no less than a dozen wars with the Russians, like a pack of jackals, constantly nipping away at the Ottoman Empire. Tsar Nicholas I first used the term ‘The sick man of Europe’ to describe the rapidly deteriorating state of the Ottoman Empire, so it was somewhat surprising that the Ottomans were more than holding their own against the Russians in the Caucasus during WWI. It was the need to assist Russia and maybe knock the Ottomans out of the war that led Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to devise a plan that was to derail his career for some time and leave him with the somewhat undeserved blame for the disaster that Gallipoli became.
The original plan called for the British and French fleets to blast their way through the Dardanelles and set up the capture of Istanbul. The Ottomans had a lot of fortifications on both sides of the strait, plus they had heavily mined the waters. The naval attack was the first of the many debacles that marked the Gallipoli Campaign. Two British and one French battleship were sunk and three others put out of commission. The minefields seemed to be impenetrable. It was only then that a decision was made to switch to a land operation and this was not Churchill’s doing. If the Allies had licked their wounds and left it would have been embarrassing, but the losses then stood at only about 700 killed. However, the hubris of thinking that Allied forces were innately superior to those of the Ottomans led to the fateful decision to land a huge number of forces and storm the peninsula by force.
Here is a map of the Gallipoli Campaign.
As you can see there were two simultaneous landings on April 25, one at the very tip of the peninsula and one at Anzac Cove. A third landing on August 6, brought the total number of Allied troops to over 300,000. Facing them were 255,000 well dug in Ottoman forces along with some German commanders. Long story short, as you can see from the map the British never made it far down the tip of the peninsula and the Anzacs barely even got off the shoreline. By the time a decision to evacuate was made, over 56,000 Allied troops and an equal number of Ottoman soldiers were dead. Well over another 100,000 on both sides were wounded and approximately another 25,000 simply went missing, most never to be seen again. It was yet another example of why WWI is considered by many to be the epitome of the stupidity of war.
OK, our bus is pulling up to the the first stop so let’s see for ourselves why the Gallipoli Campaign was doomed from the outset.
Visiting Gallipoli Today
In 1973 the area where the fighting took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula was designated as a National Historic Park and a system of roads, some one way, were created to link the important sites. These include 31 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, a number of British and Anzac monuments and over 50 Turkish cemeteries and monuments. Obviously we can only visit a few of these, but there is also one very new and special monument that is not on the itinerary, but I’m going to do my best to see that we get there.
Our first stop is at Ari Burnu Cemetery where 252 Commonwealth soldiers are interred of whom 211 have identifiable graves. At the entrance to the cemetery is this ennobling quote from Kemal Ataturk who earned his reputation at Gallipoli of which I will have more to write later. This is not my first visit to Gallipoli and I have a very clear recollection of the dignity and respect that the Turkish government displayed towards those whose mission it was to destroy the Turks. There is absolutely no sense of gloating or superiority and the tone is very well set by this monument.
This is the cemetery with the Cross of Remembrance in the background.
As with so many Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries I have visited in many countries, Ari Burnu has a beautiful and tranquil location on the shores of the Aegean Sea that belies the horrific events that actually took place here. They are always immaculately maintained with a wide variety of flowers. Here is our Adventures Abroad group paying their respects to the young men that lie here so far away from their homelands.
What makes the cemeteries at Gallipoli quite distinct from the WWI ones in western Europe is that the grave markers are not the standard standing headstone with a semi-circular top, but rather what are called pedestal markers with a plaque attached to each one. The reason for this is that the Turkish government has not granted permission to use the traditional headstones. Why this is I don’t know, but it really doesn’t detract from the solemn beauty of this spot.
Let’s have a closer look at one. This is the headstone of Private Patrick Morgan who had the terrible misfortune to have the service # 666. He is listed as dying of wounds, but when and where on Gallipoli they were inflicted is impossible to know. It was only in 1918 and 1919 that the ANZACs were able to return to Gallipoli and oversee the proper identification and burial of many of their dead. In some cases like this one it was only a best guess that Private Morgan’s remains were buried somewhere in Ari Burnu.
In the background is Anzac cove where the Australians and New Zealanders landed on April 25, 1915. That day is a national holiday in both countries. By walking just a bit further up the road you get a better look.
And I swear when I was here ten years ago that same fishing boat was in the same spot.
Returning to the bus we are now going to check out some of the important monuments at Gallipoli. This is where you take a one-way circular route that rises very steeply to the top of the ridges where the Turks were dug in. The first stop is at another very poignant monument and probably the one most people might be familiar with if they know anything about Gallipoli.
This is the Respect to Mehmetçik Monument which is based on a true incident where a Turkish soldier waved a white flag and carried a wounded Australian soldier back to his comrades. It’s one of the best war related statues I have ever seen.
This is the New Zealand Monument and it is here that you can truly understand how insane this campaign was and at the same time appreciate if not understand the incredible bravery of those who followed orders that should never have been given.
The monument marks the farthest point of advance made by any of the Commonwealth forces during the Gallipoli Campaign. If you walk out and take a look back down to Anzac Cove you can see just how far they had to climb to reach the Turkish lines.
When they got to the top they found the Turks dug in at tranches like these and were simply mowed down by machine gun fire.
Next you come to this monumental statue of Mustafa Kemal whose troops faced the brunt of the initial ANZAC assault. He became famous for this command in the face of the oncoming enemy, “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.” Needless to say he did not die and was credited with being the one who stopped the ANZAC assault and forced them to remain on the beaches of Anzac Cove where they would be holed up for eight months. Mustafa Kemal went on to be the founder of the Republic of Turkey taking the name Ataturk which means ‘Father of the Turks’.
Further along at the highest point of the Dardanelle Peninsula you look down upon Salt Lake and Suvla Bay which is where we are headed next for an unscheduled stop.
Newfoundlanders at Gallipoli
On September 20, 1915 1,076 men of the Newfoundland Regiment landed at Suvla Bay to see their first action of WWI. They came under immediate fire and within days started suffering their first fatalities. The Regiment won fame for its capture of an important Turkish sniper position that was renamed Caribou Hill. They were among the very last groups to be evacuated and suffered a final fatality only a day before embarkation. All told 44 of the Regiment were killed and over half were wounded or became seriously ill. After spending two months in Egypt to recover they were sent to the Somme where the slaughter would begin in earnest.
On previous visits to WWI battle sites on the Western Front both on my own and with my friends at Liberation Tours I have visited places where the Newfoundlanders fought and died in disproportionate numbers, notably Beaumont Hamel which I wrote about in this post. At five of these sites in France and Belgium a bronze caribou has been erected on what has become known as the Trail of the Caribou. There is also one in Bowring Park in St. John’s. Here is the one from Beaumont Hamel.
In doing some research in preparation for the visit to Gallipoli on this tour I learned that in 2021 a sixth caribou statue had been erected at Gallipoli thus completing the Trail of the Caribou. However, due to Covid nobody could actually attend the ceremony in Turkey which is still on hold. That meant that possibly our group might very well be the first with Canadians to set foot on the grounds where the statue was erected. I learned that it was beside the Hill 10 Cemetery not far from Suvla Bay and asked our guide Yasemin Reis if we could please make a detour to this very important site. Although she was not aware of the existence of this monument, she was immediately receptive and we set out for Suvla Bay with only a general idea of where Hill 10 Cemetery was. As an aside, and I brought this up on the trip to Malta when I wanted to see Calypso’s Cave on Gozo, Adventures Abroad is very flexible when it comes to requests like the one I was making.
We needn’t have worried about finding Hill 10 Cemetery because we could spot the caribou from a mile away. Isn’t it magnificent?
On the other side of the small parking lot is Hill 10 Cemetery where 699 bodies are interred of which 552 have been identified. Yasemin did not rush us and I was able to find a number of grave sites of interest. In each of my posts on cemeteries, and you’ll find a lot on this website, I like to highlight a few of the people buried in them. Let’s start with this marker.
Able Seaman Frank Moat of the H.M.S. Agamemnon is listed as having been killed in action on August 10, 1915 although I can find no record of an engagement by the Agamemnon on that date. It did participate in the bombardment of the Dardanelles in February 1915 and received some damage at that time, enough to require a refit at Malta in the summer of 1915. I chose this grave because of the fact that later today we will visit Troy where the Agamemnon for whom the ship is named, led the Greek forces in the Trojan War. BTW the surrender of the Ottomans on October 1, 1918 took place on the Agamemnon.
This is the headstone of Private William Frank Hardy, son of George and Elizabeth Hardy of St. John’s. He was the second Newfoundlander killed at Gallipoli. This is what he looked life in life. Anyone with a Service Number under 501 was later to be referred to as the ‘First Five Hundred’ and then ‘The Blue Puttees’ for the unusual leggings they were outfitted with. One of the ferries running between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port aux Basques, Newfoundland is named The Blue Puttees in honour of this group who were eventually decimated at Beaumont Hamel. Sadly, Frank Hardy’s war lasted just three days after he first saw action.
Next is Private Samuel Hiscock, son of Thomas and Esther Hiscock of Carbonear who was killed in action when shot in the chest on the same day that the Newfoundlanders took Caribou Hill.
This is Private Michael John Blyde, another of the Blue Puttees, a son of Michael John and Mary Blyde of St. John’s.
This is his obituary which is hard to read, but contains an incredible coincidence. This man’s grandfather fought in the Crimean War and after 21 years of service emigrated to Newfoundland. The coincidence or twist of fate is that in all likelihood his grandfather was encamped near the very spot where Michael was to die some 61 years after Gallipoli and in particular the Anzac Cove area was the encampment site for the British army in that war.
Visiting these cemeteries takes an emotion toll and there’s only so many young men’s graves whose lives were thrown away needlessly that one can bear to look at. Nevertheless it is a duty we owe them and I thank Yasemin and Adventures Abroad for letting us pay our respects.
In the next post we’ll visit the site of another war, one that was fought so long ago that some think it is a myth. Join us as we cross the Dardenelles and tread the remains of ancient Troy.