“Greater Love Hath No Man”
“An Anzac Grave For An Anzac Brave”
“God Took Our Norman It Was His Will. Forget Him No. We Never Will”
“He Sleeps Where Anzac Heroes Came To Die”
“His Glory Will Not Be Blotted Out”
These are among the many epitaphs to be found in the many Allied gravesites found across Gallipoli. One hundred years ago, a nearly nine month military campaign in modern Turkey took place on the Gallipoli peninsula during the First World War. Allied forces sought to take control of the Dardanelles and push on to Istanbul. Controlling this waterway would provide a secure link between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and ensure that Russia could be resupplied by its allies. The Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers and fiercely defended Gallipoli. Troops from Great Britain and its possessions and France participated in the offensive. Notably, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) played a significant role. On April 25, 1915, the Anzacs initiated the first landings at Gallipoli in an area now known as Anzac Cove. Fighting continued until the Allies withdrew in January 1916. The word most commonly used to describe the campaign, at least from an Allied perspective, is probably “disastrous”. Over 100,000 soldiers died between the two sides and the Allies never succeeded in opening a supply route to Russia.
Gallipoli holds significance for Turks as a military triumph against a large foreign force. Success came with much sacrifice. One Turkish commander leading troops opposing the Anzacs was a lieutenant colonel by the name of Mustafa Kemal. Mustafa Kemal demonstrated skill at Gallipoli and rose to prominence in its wake. He would later take on leadership in the Turkish War of Independence and serve as President of Turkey for 15 years. He is considered the founding father of the Turkish Republic as demonstrated by the honorific by which he is most widely known, Atatürk (Father of the Turks).
Another major figure in the campaign was Winston Churchill. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty during this time and proposed the Gallipoli landings. He was dismissed from his position and his reputation suffered following the campaign. Interestingly, the man who would succeed Churchill as prime minister in 1945, Clement Attlee, was a combatant at Gallipoli.
Even a brief glance at the landscape around the landing areas provides a sense of just how difficult the fighting must have been. Rugged hills and sheer cliffs would have made any assault extremely difficult. The terrain was a major factor inn the outcome of the battle.
The contributions of Anzacs to the campaign led to a rising sense of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand. Tombstones announce that men died for “empire” rather than “country”. The fighting in Gallipoli would lead to a changing understanding of what troops were fighting for. April 25 is recognized as Anzac Day in both countries and the event is typically commemorated by officials from those countries holding a ceremony near where the first Anzac troops landed.
I’m familiar with the scenery of an American battlefield cemetery. Neatly lined crosses and immaculate landscaping. The Commonwealth cemeteries at Gallipoli are different in the form of their tombstones and the individual epitaphs carved on them. There are several Commonwealth cemeteries across Gallipoli, but the largest and most significant of these that I saw was Lone Pine. This cemetery holds the Australian War Memorial. It is a high point overlooking much of the surrounding area. During the campaign intense fighting took place in the vicinity of the current cemetery.
There is a noticeable sense of respect between the opposing sides of the battle. I never sensed any animosity between Turks and visitors from Australia and the other countries that fought against them. The opposite, a mutual respect and recognition of humanity, is woven throughout the peninsula. Several monuments display this. On the walk from Brighton Beach to Lone Pine is a large statue of an Ottoman soldier carrying a wounded Anzac. This particular monument is seen on posters and other items throughout the area. It appears that this statue was inspired by actual events.
The sentiment is also expressed through words attributed to Atatürk:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying 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 their 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.
They show a national hero, one who contributed to Ottoman success at Gallipoli, embracing both sides and recognizing the universally painful costs of war. Though historically questionable, these still hold significance. Even if Atatürk did not say this, which is probably the case, the willingness for all parties to accept it fosters respect for the other.
To get to the northern (Anzac) battlefield sites and cemeteries of Gallipoli, I took a ferry from Çanakkale to Eceabat. From Eceabat it’s a short dolmuş (minibus) ride to Brighton Beach which lies a few kilometers south of the sites. The loud hum of cicadas was immediately noticeable as I went walked from the dolmuş drop-off point to the beach. The beach was a nice place to swim in the Aegean and relax. There are hammocks, picnic tables, and a snack stand in the area. In my typical clumsy fashion, I managed to fall out of a hammock and cause quite a scene while hitting my head.
For those wondering, the United States and the Ottoman Empire were never officially at war during World War I despite being in opposing blocs. Diplomatic relations were officially broken between the two in 1917, but there were no American-Ottoman hostilities.
While I have focused mostly on the campaign from a Commonwealth perspective in this post, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the French made significant contributions at Gallipoli and are often omitted from the narrative. I only visited the northern battle sites which focus on Anzac efforts, but French memorials and cemeteries exist further south.
PJ Harvey’s excellent album Let England Shake is partially inspired by the Gallipoli Campaign. I cannot count the number of times I have listened through this entire album. It’s poetic, touching, and musically complex. If you have not listened to it, or anything else by PJ Harvey for that matter, you should check it out.