Gallipoli visit a tour through tragedy

LIZ LIGHT
Last updated 05:00 24/04/2013
Anzac Gallipoli
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RESTING PLACE: The Anzac cemetery at the southern end of Anzac Cove.

Anzac Gallipoli
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HEROIC HUMANITY: A statue depicts a Turkish soldier carrying an Anzac casualty back to his army.

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It's little, Anzac Cove – a stony beach a couple of hundred metres long; nice stones, too, with marble and coloured granite orbs riffling in gentle waves.

There is a cemetery on the southern headland with Australian and New Zealand headstones neatly lined up in rows.

The names are of men who died during the Gallipoli campaign but they’re only a tiny, symbolic selection of the 11,400 Kiwis and Aussies who fought on the hills nearby and died here. The memorial cemetery is pretty; beside the sea, shaded by two big oaks, olive trees growing wild around it and flowers everywhere in spring.

During the eight-month campaign to possess this peninsular, New Zealand lost the largest number of its men, in comparison to population, of all the Allies but the Turks lost proportionately twice as many, with 87,000 dead.

I feel deep compassion for the Turks, who gave so much in a war they didn’t want. Turkey was the crumbling Ottoman Empire then, and the Turks were genuinely defending their Motherland, with no option but to side with Germany.

The Allies had their knives ready for an Ottoman carve-up with Russia salivating after Turkey’s Black Sea coast to the north, Armenia claiming a large chunk of it to the east and France and Britain firmly entrenched in Syria and Jordan to the south, and all eyes on Middle East oil. And the British grandly promised Greece great chunks of west Turkey to entice them to the Allied table.

The Kiwi and Aussie Johnnies and Jimmies were humble pawns doing what they were told, fighting and dying for grand imperial desires, while Winston Churchill and Kaiser William and their military mates played massive war games.

On the ridge above Anzac Cove, I look at the trenches that the troops were holed up in. Sometimes, amazingly, they are only 10 metres apart. The Turks dug their trenches close to Allied ones to protect themselves from Allied bombing – they wouldn’t bomb their own and accuracy was hairy then.

‘‘This was the last gentlemen’s war,’’ the Turkish guide and war historian explains. ‘‘Though the Turks and the Anzacs were enemies they respected each other.’’

He tells stories of the Turks having tobacco but not paper to roll cigarettes with and the Anzacs having paper but no tobacco. Deals were made, with tobacco and paper  enthusiastically thrown across no-man’s-land. A tin of beef was thrown to the Turks and they sent  a rock back with a note asking for biscuits; they, too, developed a taste for the oat and golden syrup biscuits that now famously carry the Anzac name.

There are stories of humanity and heroism; of the Turk who, after a battle, put down his gun and waved a white flag, and climbed out of the trench to pick up a wounded British soldier and carry him over no-man’s-land to leave him with his colleagues. Of the Turk who sang love songs beautifully every night, entrancing soldiers on both sides. And then he stopped singing.

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The Anzacs missed him and hoped they hadn’t shot him during the daylight battle.

John Simpson, a stretcher-bearer with the Anzac Corps, and his donkey made 300 trips up Ammunition Gully, the sometimes safe supply line to the front, carrying wounded men back to Anzac Cove, only to be eventually shot by a sniper. And we are told of the hundreds of conscripted students from Istanbul University who, after just one week of training, were sent to the front. The Turks say they buried a university at Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli battlefields tour concludes at Chunuk Bair, the highest point in the peninsula, the strategically desirable point. A larger-than-life statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the main Turkish hero of this war, the general who inspired and cajoled his men to fight the Allies, and win, against the odds, stands with his eyes respectfully closed.

Turks revere Kemal, the man granted the name Ataturk, the father of Turkey. A few metres from the Ataturk statue, the memorial to New Zealanders who lost their lives at Gallipoli is tall, simple and austere. The Wellington Battalion were the only Allies to reach Chunuk Bair, this high point, but lack of backup by the British meant they couldn't hold it for long.

The hilltop, with Ataturk, is an honourable place to be remembered. The inscription is simple: "From the uttermost ends of the Earth."

- The Dominion Post

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