We’ve all seen the film “Gallipoli,” starring Mel Gibson, which portrays the story of thousands of young Australian men running helplessly into gunfire. We as Australians still remember this day on the 25th of April each year with Anzac Day.
There’s not a whole lot to see at the actual sight of Gallipoli – part of me was hoping for a wall of photos or a rifle museum – but by simply standing on that very ground where thousands of young Australians lost their lives evokes reflection, emotion and discussion that will stay with Elisha and I forever. I’m sure those who have visited there will agree.
With little more than the dramatised movie to go on, I arrived rather ignorantly. So instead of blogging about what we did and saw, I might rather detail what I learnt, the context and the events of the war, and impart a little of our experience so that you’re not as naive as I was.
A few days prior to going, I asked myself “What exactly were the Australians doing there?” Miles from home, in a foreign country, Australians in Turkey seemed so removed from my preconception of a war that I thought occurred in Europe. So I dedicated some time to reading up on this. You’re probably better finding an appropriate source to read from which will describe it correctly but here goes my attempt, a lazy attempt to summarise Wikipedia that is:
The Ottomans (the Turkish empire that inhabited Turkey at the time) weren’t too different to us. They were brought into the war because of their affiliation with major players and, like us, lost a lot of men. Even though they had been an empire since 1299, but the time we entered the 20th century, they were considered the sick man of Europe. Political instability, military defeat and civil strife had weakened them for the past century.
There were two main agendas that led to the development of the Middle East Theatre. Firstly, Britain and France (forming the allies) sought to secure the Dardanelles straight, with the eventual aim to secure Constantinople (present day Istanbul.) By capturing the Dardenelles straight, they would then also create a sea route to the Russian Empire, another allied power.
Whilst this was happening, Germany (axis) formed the second development by bringing the Ottomans into the war. Britain had been building two ships for the Ottomans. However, when the Ottomans formed a secret alliance with Germany against the threat of Russia, the Britains requisitioned the battleships. Germany capitalised on this opportunity and provided two replacement ships to the Ottomans, gaining important influence. So whilst Britain and France were trying to create a link with Russia, the Ottomans opened the Dardenelles to allow the two German ships access to Constantinople. A German commander then ordered the passage closed. These two now Ottoman ships were then used to battle Russia. However, my understanding was Germany were using these ships even though they were carrying Ottoman flags, essentially forcing Russia to declare war on Turkey as a result.
I’m sure to have missed a lot of crucial information but hopefully that gives a general background to Gallipoli.
So back to the Anzacs. In Britain and France’s attempt to capture the Dardenelles, they needed to get battleships in. However, as the Ottomans were prepared to defend, the ships could not get in without a barrage from the Ottoman batteries and strategically placed mines. So the Naval campaign turned to a Land campaign so as to remove this threat and allow the naval battleships entry. Enter the Anzacs being trained in Cairo for France.
Sir Ian Hamilton was handed the task to command a 78,000 strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and eliminate the Ottoman mobile artillery. British and French contingents joined the Anzacs in Egypt whilst Hamilton finalised his plans to concentrate the force on the southern part of the Gallipoli peninsula at Cape Helles and Sedd el Bahr. The Allies initially discounted the fighting ability of the Ottoman soldiers. They were viewed as weak, perceptions galvanised by the recent Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. In some cases, information about them was gained from Egyptian travel guides.
However, the five weeks it took to establish this plan, in conjunction with bad weather that may have otherwise delayed the deployment, the Ottomans were given sufficient time to strengthen their position. Although the Ottomans were unsure where a landing might occur, they agreed holding the high ground was their best bet. The delay also allowed the Ottomans time to construct roads, assemble small boats for transportation between the narrows, wire beaches, construct improvised mines and to dig trenches. Of great importance, their leader, Mustafa Kemal, observed the beaches from his post in Boghali. This meant his commands would be based on realtime information.
There has been much said about the landing for the Anzacs. They had been trained for and planned to land on a flat beach with easy access to the peninsula where they could advance across and cut off the Ottomans. This was whilst the British and France landed further west at Helles. But either because of strong currents or strategical diversion, they instead landed a kilometre further north where the land was rugged and vertical and would require an arduous climb.
A common theme amongst the Allies attempts is the lack of communication. One story I found very interesting was above Y beach. Some of the divisions landed unopposed and were able to advance inland to a village defended by only a small number. But lacking direction, they abandoned the position and retreated back to the beach. Once the Ottomans were able to recover numbers to the position, the Allies never again made it to that spot. Hamilton was positioned back on a ship which meant he had to firstly receive information before he could send back instructions as to what to do. Kemal certainly had him covered in this regard.
Although the stakes were high for the British landing, the Anzacs were able to land where the Ottoman defenders were too few to defeat them, despite still sustaining many casualties. However, the Ottomans were out of ammunition not long afterwards and were left with nothing but bayonets and began to retreat. Sadly for the 57th regiment, Kemal ordered them to hold their positions and die so as to delay the Anzacs advancement so other soldiers could accumulate in numbers behind them. Every single member of that regiment died and, as a sign of respect, the Turkish Army no longer holds a 57th Regiment.
The beach landings were worse for some. Of 1,012 Dubliners, only one officer and 11 soldiers survived the campaign unscathed.
Even though the landing at Helles was going ok, the landing at Anzac was not and at one point Lieutenant Birdwood considered reembarkation of the Anzac troops. However, it was the Australian submarine AE2 which instigated his reconsideration. On the night before the landings, AE2, under the command of Stoker, succeeded in getting through the Straights. By 6am, as the landings were taking place, AE2 reached Chanak and torpedoed a Turkish gunboat whilst evading a destroyer. It then ran aground beneath a Turkish fort but the fort’s guns could not reach it and AE2 manoeuvred free. After refloating, it’s periscope was sighted by a Turkish battleship, which was firing over the peninsula at Allied landing sites. Realising the threat from the submarine, the battleship ceased fire and withdrew. AE2 advanced toward the Sea of Marmara and rested on the seabed for the next 13 hours. At 9pm, she resurfaced and sent a wireless report to the fleet. This gave Birdwood hope and the story was told amongst the Anzacs to build morale. Stoker was then ordered to run amok in the Sea of Marmara. However, with no enemies in sight, the AE2 simply cruised around giving the illusion that there were greater Allied numbers. 5 days later, she was fired at and the crew abandoned the ship and were captured. However, its success confirmed the straight could be penetrated and shortly afterwards, E14 entered and inflicted more casualties to the Ottoman Navy.
Lots of fighting ensued. Depleted numbers were replenished by reserves in Egypt for the Allies and from Constantinople for the Turks. I’m going to skip forward about 8 months here. Like most wars, this was a complex arena and its difficult to articulate simply. However, learning the background of the war is the thing I think I took away the most and had not previously understood.
In the end, it was deemed an Ottoman victory, their greatest during the war and a major Allied failure. The most successful operation of the campaign was the evacuation of the troops on 19-20 December under cover of a comprehensive deception operation. The operation cost 26,111 Australian casualties, including 8,141 deaths. Despite this, it has been said that Gallipoli had no influence on the course of the war.
There were some stories that really stood out to me on that day. We should all known John Simpson. But I didn’t. Amidst constant firing and sniper shots, he would walk back and forth with his donkey collecting the wounded and bringing them back until he was sadly killed during the third attack. Hundreds of wounded soldiers were returned to the beach because of him.
We were also told that the casualties were so high that a truce was called one day. Both armies were allowed to arise from their trenches and collect their wounded. This war has been referred to as the last Gentlemens War as both forces were able to meet their opponents. Imagine that. Meeting this foreign man who fired during the day at you, shaking his hand, sharing a smoke with him, carrying a dead body back together and then to say farewell, before returning back to your trench to again collect your rifle and resume the war. We heard a story of a wounded Ally who lay in the middle screaming for help. No one dared to stand up for fear of being shot. However, a Turkish soldier rose from the trenches, walked over to him and picked him up, carried him to the allies and then walked back to rejoin the Ottomans on his side.
It was truly alarming to see just how close some of the trenches were to one another. In some places, only metres. You would think this was a detriment to each. However, it was more strategical than anything. By being so close, it eliminated the threat of grenades. You just wouldn’t throw a grenade for fear it would either land in your own camp or because it allowed the opposition time to throw it back.
I think what I struggled to get my head around were the conditions. Trying to picture fighting in 40 degree weather, with dead bodies rotting all around you, repugnant odours filling your nose, constant flies badgering your face, dehydration, little food, no toilets, no sewage system, unrelenting gunfire, I wouldn’t last an hour. A lot of soldiers cut away at their clothes so that their pants became shorts to find reprieve in the heat. They only thought they’d be there for a few weeks. 6 months later though it was the middle of winter and the war was still going. A tough season when you are dressed in tiny shorts.
I also could not believe how small the area was where the Anzacs were ordered to attack. It was so funnelled that only 150 could run in a straight line. Contrary to the movie, I don’t believe there was a machine gun greeting them. The Ottoman rifles were not automatic and could only fire one bullet at a time. They did not have magazines and were single-shot. However, the Anzacs were easy pickings as they tried to cover this small section wave after wave after wave.
A pine tree stands in Lone Pine and there is a story behind this. An Australian soldier’s brother was shot dead here. As a memento to his mother, the surviving brother sent home a pine cone from a nearby tree. His mother planted this and now a pine tree stands in her yard. From this tree, a pine cone was returned to Lone Pine and now stands a third generation tree from the seed of a tree standing during the conflict.
I sympathise with the Turks as much as I do for the Anzacs. I feel they were caught in a war that was not theirs and lost men they shouldn’t have lost. But there is a beautiful quote that stands on a giant plaque on the peninsula. It reads:
“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.” Ataturk, 1934.
I’m not sure if I’d say I found the day emotional. There were a few people in our group who had relations lost in the war. One lady even found the plaque of her grandfather and burst into tears. But for me it was about context. Whenever we now hear “Lone Pine” or “Anzac Cove” referred to, we will know exactly what they are talking about. Seeing the terrain with our own eyes is something books and movies can’t portray. Looking through a gully and understanding how easy it would have been to be shot at whilst the soldiers crossed makes the campaign vivid.
The last surprise of the day was seeing just how small the area is where the Anzac service is held every year. It is tiny! I have no idea how 10,000 people can squeeze onto that tiny patch of grass.
So anyway, that’s it. I now know so much more about the campaign than I did one or two months ago. And I don’t think I would have been able to grasp it without physically being there. Unfortunately, I’ve been completely unable to articulate our experiences in any form of cohesive text here. But for those who have been, I’m sure they’ll nod in approval. For those who haven’t, please don’t read this indecipherable mess but just make sure you get yourself there.
And from now on, just maybe, I’ll get myself out of bed at 5am on Anzac Day and remember this moment that really helped to cement our nation’s identity.