A day at Gallipoli
It was all just so fucking futile.
Over 100,000 dead. Hundreds of thousands more wounded. Those somehow spared by machine guns and artillery were taken by dysentery, dehydration and hypothermia. For eight long months waves of soldiers followed orders, climbed up out trenches and died. An entire Turkish regiment, the 57th, followed their orders to the letter.
And for what?
For the Turks, at least, there was a reason. They were defending their homeland from foreign invaders. Rightly or wrongly, men have died for their nations since before such things existed. For the New Zealanders, Australians, British, French, Indians and everyone else thousands of miles from home, though? Why, exactly, was their life blood coursing into the barren dirt? Why were mothers crying for the sons – some as young as 14 – they would never see again?
Australians and New Zealanders commemorate the Gallipoli landing with a public holiday every year. Crowds gather in the pre-dawn darkness on ANZAC Day to share a collective memory. The failed campaign supposedly defined both nations, the moment they shook off British colonialism and forged their own identities, or so the story goes.
In recent years visiting the battlefields has become a rite of passage. Instead of scrambling up rugged cliff faces under heavy fire as their grandfathers did though, young Aussies and Kiwis have a beer with lunch and then climb into minivans. The intended landing site, once bombarded by heavy artillery, is now a pleasant beach resort. The biggest risk to your health is getting burnt feet on the sand.
What do the locals think of the commercialisation of this piece of land? How do they reconcile the thousands of flip-flops that walk in the dirt where their ancestors died?
It was hard to tell. Our guide, although knowledgeable, seemed mostly indifferent to the death and destruction he spoke of. Perhaps it’s hard to muster up much enthusiasm when you tell the same story every day.
When we stopped at ANZAC Cove, however, it wasn’t the commentary that mattered. Even though there is now a road past it, a retaining wall beside it, this tiny stretch of pebble-filled sand tells a story of its own. One look at the barren cliff face that the infantry had to scale – with all of their gear – was enough.
It wasn’t even where the Allied troops were supposed to land but, due to reasons that are still debated, the supposedly easy advance up the ridgeline became a hand-over-hand climb under fire up the steep cliffs. By the afternoon the soldiers had taken the high ground and all but decimated the small enemy force, but due to a lack of clear orders they retreated back to the beach. A small mistake – one of many that meant the campaign ended in months rather than hours, with half a million casualties and an undignified retreat.
I’m a New Zealander. Nearly 3000 of my countrymen died at Gallipoli. I know that I’m supposed to feel outraged, and I guess I do, but mostly what I feel is sadness. Along this narrow peninsula lie those from Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, but also those from Sydney, Bombay, Paris, London … and Constantinople. Much is made of the Allied losses, but the Turkish lost many more men, in both percentage and absolute terms, than any other nation.
And for what? After eight months the invaders withdrew, leaving only bodies and scorched earth behind. In a place that would probably never have given the tactical advantage they desired, the Allied commanders finally realised what they should have known when night fell on April 25th, 1915.
This was a campaign they were never going to win.
And yet, despite the bloodshed, those on the front line held their opponents in high regard. A famous speech by Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey and officer at Gallipoli, is engraved at Anzac Cove. It is one of the most beautiful, magnanimous pieces of writing I can imagine coming from the hell of those trenches.
"Those heroes who 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 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."
I choked up reading that monument, standing there in that place, before turning on my heel and walking away.
There was nothing left to think. There was nothing left to say.
It was all just so fucking futile.
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