What is Gallipoli?

World War I is ancient history. It passed from living memory with the death of the last veteran this year.

It’s not a “good” war like the Second World War, a war that begins so neatly with a single bad guy who had to be stopped.

There were no real bad guys in World War I.

No good guys, either.

Just a bunch of poor bloody infantry, fighting and dying.

Yet we still remember it.

And at Gallipoli, on Turkey’s Aegean Coast, Australians, Kiwis and Turks, most of them so young that even their grandfathers were born long after the war, come in their hundreds and thousands.

What is Gallipoli? A homage to the pointlessness, the utter futility of war, a place where boys as young as fourteen walked in good order into the machine guns in honour of a cause not one of them fully understood, in defence of a land almost all of them had never visited.

The pretext for World War I was the defence of Belgium, a Serbian assassin in Belgrade, the Balkan Wars… take your pick.

Its real purpose? The Ottoman Empire was falling apart and other imperialists were fighting over the best bits of the carcass.

Standing there, I wonder how today’s wars will look in a hundred years.

Wars over terrorists who never hid in the places where civilians and some soldiers are dying now, over WMD that were never found, uranium never sought, oil pursued in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”.

The Oil Wars?

The Opium Wars were called the Anglo-Chinese wars at the time…

What is Gallipoli? A tourist destination, like Auschwitz or S-21. A stop on the backpacker bucketlist for travelling Australians and Kiwis, kids who ask whether the (Muslim) Turks stopped fighting at Christmas to exchange presents with the opposition.

Turkey sits on the boundary between Asia and Europe, and Gallipoli is at the head of the channel that divides Asia and Europe, connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It was Winston Churchill’s big idea to capture first Gallipoli, then Istanbul, and open a way to Russia, to strengthen their fight against the Germans on the Eastern Front.

One problem? It was never going to work.

The planners had the geography wrong. The high point that tens of thousands of men died trying to reach would not allow control of the channel.

They could never, ever have won. Which didn’t, of course, stop them trying. And dying.

What is Gallipoli? A vicious place. Beautiful, but savage.

The scrub scratches your legs even through jeans. The same scrub that teenage boys had to fight through, running up rocky ravines into the machine guns, because they couldn’t crawl.

There is no water. The wounded died sometimes of dehydration, sometimes of slow blood loss, and once, when machine guns set the scrub on fire, burnt to death where they lay.

Opposing sides lay mired in trenches, often as little as a hundred metres away, sometimes even less. Not much remains of the trenches. But there’s enough.

In Europe, officers in the trenches often agreed an informal truce with their opposite numbers, arranged times to drop some token shells or exchange some shots so their superiors thought they were fighting, but basically fought as little as they could.

Here, there was very little of that. Although Islam requires that bodies are buried as soon as possible, optimally within a day, Allied commanders allowed Turkish bodies to rot to spread disease and demoralisation.

There are many war graves for the Commonwealth soldiers. Only one for the Turks.

What is Gallipoli? A killing ground.

Commanders on both sides had no compunction about asking their men to die. In one single battle for one ugly outcrop, Atatürk sent 23 separate waves of men along a ridge into the machine guns, most of them running over the bodies of their comrades. At least 6000 died.

There’s a repetition to the gravestones.

Private… Aged 19.

Private… Aged 17.

Private… Aged 18.

Optimistic kids who had signed up, perhaps to fight for King and country, perhaps to see a little bit of the world outside their shores.

The youngest Australian soldier there was fourteen.

Young enough, close enough to Zac’s own age, eleven, to make him blench, and flinch a little, and look scared.

They must have been terrified, these kids.

What is Gallipoli? A place of patriotism. A turning point for three nations.

For Turks, it marks a starting point of modern Turkey. At Gallipoli soldiers stopped fighting for the sultan and an empire, and gave their lives in defense of Turkey, the idea of Turkey, their homeland, a place that would soon become a nation.

Atatürk, saviour of Gallipoli, would become the founder of modern, secular, liberal Turkey: his statue stands tall here.

For Australians and New Zealanders, it was a turning point, too. The moment when the descendants of folk exported from Britain ceased to think of Britain as home, of the Empire as somewhere they belonged, of King and country as a cause worth dying for…

Which is why, bizarrely, these two competing nations, countries that love a winner, countries where winning matters, where sport is sacrosanct, commemorate the same lost battle every year.

And why so many of them still come here. To look at the pretty beach where thousands of ANZAC forces landed with heavy guns and a couple of hundred Turkish soldiers armed only with rifles fought until all but eight of them were dead and commemorate (of course) the heroism of their side, not the other.

And, if you come here, do think not just about Gallipoli, the sons and fathers who fought and died there, but the pointless wars we fight today, and how they’ll seem a century from now.

If you’re looking for a guide for Gallipoli, Kenan Çelik is a retired academic who knows the history and minutiae of the campaign in incredible detail.

8 Responses

  1. Natalie says:

    I think this is one of the best articles you have ever written. Your words are really moving.

  2. Rachel says:

    Great article about a terribly emotive subject. Even though it was WW2, I got exactly the same feeling at Kanchanaburi – the futility of fighting a war so far removed from it’s original cause. We also couldn’t find a single grave for a man older than 30. I think some descendants of the Kiwis and Aussies that fought in WW1 feel affinity to the Mother Land through Gallipoli though, and also the African conflicts of WW2. Americans feel it for Korea and, in some instances, Vietnam, UK forces feel it in Afganistan – the sense of standing up for yourself, your heritage, and ultimatly your principles, no matter what, is something to strongly identify with, that it’s important to win the war, even if you lose the battle.

    • Theodora says:

      The whole Asian theatre of World War II is extremely complicated, not least because, here, they were also fighting for empires (cf the roots of the Vietnam conflict in the WWII theatre) — but, yes, those men were so, so far from home… But, you’re right, it also stirs a strange patriotism, a pride in the bravery of the ancestors, a very tribal feeling. We didn’t get to Kanchanaburi. One day…

  3. Amanda says:

    I just wrote about Gallipoli this week, too, and what it was like visiting as an American. Gallipoli is not a battle we learn about here in history class, so I was glad to learn more about it, even if what I learned was sad.

    • Theodora says:

      We don’t either, as Britons: in so far as we cover World War 1, our focus is very much on the Western Front. We do it more as part of English Literature, and it was great to rediscover some of the war poetry with Zac this time around…

  4. Wow… this post gave me goosebumps… Thanks for sharing this.