The summer of 2011 gave me a rare and very welcome opportunity to visit the ANZAC war graves on the Gallipoli Penninsula, in Turkey. As an Australian by birth and a lover of military history by choice, I have always been awed and amazed by the incredible bravery displayed by both sides during what I still believe to have been one of the most brutally misconceived military adventures of the war of 1914-18.
The history of the botched landings, and the subsequent battle of attrition is well enough known not to repeat here. It would also require the labours of a more accomplished historian than myself. Suffice to say that the Australian and New Zealand forces found themselves pinned to a few stretches of narrow, open beaches for months on end, in searing heat, and confronted by a Turkish army that fought with the suicidal desperation to be expected of men defending their own soil.
For months, the air was rent with a series of brutal artillery bombardments, as Allied warships in the bay belched flame, smoke and steel death at the entrenched Turks. Attack after attack was mounted with a bravery that defies either logic or description.Snipers ruled the day. Yet the Turks hung on and, eventually, common sense prevailed. The beach heads were evacuated in a series of brilliant feints at night; silence returned to the Gallipoli shoreline.
ANZAC casualties had been enormous. All told, the twenty one cemeteries on the Gallipoli beach fronts contain the remains of around twenty-two thousand men. Of these, less than half were ever actually identified. Many are interred at the famous cemeteries, such as Lone Pine. The atmosphere there has to be felt to be adequately described.
We stopped off here from the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey, during our Voyages to Antiquity cruise from Athens through to Istanbul. From the port of Canakkale, coaches and a short ferry ride took us to the site of that ancient, blood soaked battleground.
Today, those same beaches where so many men lost their lives are silent, serene, and more than a little sad. A wistful kind of uneasy peace hangs over them like fine mist, but the only sound on our visit was nothing more deadly than that of gentle surf, drumming on the sand beneath my feet.
And, of course, there are the graves. Row upon row of brilliant white markers, springing like molars from the ground. Rank after rank after rank, arranged with military precision. Even in death, the ANZAC troops were clearly expected to display a posthumous discipline.
You would need a heart of stone not to be swamped by a tidal wave of different emotions. Pride, anger and, above all, pity for a whole raft of needlessly lost youth, fetched up forever on the shores of a foreign country, far from home and loved ones. Did I cry? Hell, yes. How could you not? The sheer beauty of the scene combines with the futility of the past to knock you sideways.
It is not an easy thing to see, but the bravery of those incredible men required nothing else. We, after all, were going back to a very comfortable and well run ship. They never got the opportunity to go anywhere but right here.
What makes it even more poignant is the obvious care, respect and gentility shown to the fallen ANZAC troops by their Turkish opposite numbers. After the war, they worked diligently with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to create a series of apt, beautifully manicured cemeteries and memorials. The result is this string of stunning last posts for the fallen thousands who flocked to the King’s colours, and died on a foreign field, far from home.
So, for the curious who might wonder about these sights, here are the pictures I took on a beautiful summer’s day, two years ago. If you are wondering whether it is worth making the journey, I would certainly say ‘yes’. The Turkish people are incredibly kind and generous hosts. In many ways, they were also dragged by events into fighting a war that they neither wanted, nor could afford. They are very conscious that the young men on both sides suffered a common fate, and they bear no animosity.
Most of the physical scars that littered this once ravaged landscape have now healed. Butterflies flit skittishly through the remains of old trenches where men once fought and died. The flowers, the fauna and the sheer beauty of the place returned a long time ago.
There is something incredibly cathartic about visiting this hallowed ground. Moving, disturbing and yet, ultimately, incredibly life affirming, Gallipoli and its cemeteries beg for your attention. Those interred forever in this peaceful, rolling patchwork quilt overlooking the sparkling sea deserve absolutely nothing less.