Gallipoli: a bastard of a place

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

With the conclusion of the dawn service it was time to scale the heights and get a better feel for the monumental Gallipoli (Gelibolu) battlefield - this rugged, craggy lump of land that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 during more than eight months of conflict, with a further 400,000 wounded.

Total casualties were evenly halved between the two sides, although the Allies lost 35,000 dead as opposed to the Turk's 86,000, due to the defender's lack of ammunition and subsequent reliance on bayonet charges. What was achieved from this incredible loss? Almost all territorial gains were made on the first day, April 25, so in typical WW1 fashion, the remainder of the campaign was an awesome waste of life and resources, with very little to show for it. However this spectacularly poor strategic decision coupled with the incompetence senior commanding officers did result in the spiritual birth of three great nations - Australia, New Zealand and Turkey - so it was not a completely pointless exercise.

(The rest of this entry will be a composite of my lone trekking on April 25th and the tour I did the following day - a very difficult time of the year to get around. It is ordered according to strategic geographic objectives as opposed to chronology so my apologies for any omissions or sense of discontinuity.)

Anzac Cove is where it all began on the 25th of April, 1915. 1,500 Australians landed in the first wave at 4.30am and ten times that many Aussies and Kiwis came ashore during that day. British and French troops made similar, concurrent landings to the north and south respectively. Some say that due to a Naval error, troops were taken to the wrong beach for the landing. More recently historians have asserted that it was a deliberate decision by command to use rugged Anzac Cove as it was unobservable, out of range of Turkish artillery and shielded from sniper fire due to its topography.

It certainly was emotive to walk this non-descript, pebbly beach and see first hand the result of whatever decision or error was made. Due to road construction the beach is significantly more narrow than it was all those years ago, but only by staring up the sharp gullies and ravines to evocatively-named strategic heights like Plugge's Plateau and The Sphinx can you start to imagine what those soldiers toiled through to make critical early gains.

At landing only 250 Turks were defending the Anzac Cove area, but whilst important gains were made there were significant Anzac losses in these first waves due to fierce Turkish resistance and the steep and scrubby terrain - buying time that allowed the man who would later become 'Attaturk' to move reserve forces into the vicinity. Against the odds, by 6am pockets of Anzacs had scrambled more than a kilometre inland to occupy Plugge's Plateau and Lone Pine areas as the Turks literally fired everything they had at the advancing troops.

As their ammunition ran out they were forced to retreat as further waves of Anzacs replaced the fallen - only to be ordered to return and fight with bayonets. "I don't order you to attack, I order you to die." is a famous quote attributed to Attaturk at this crucial time and it was later said that the spirited resistance at Ari Burnu determined the fate of the entire campaign on that first day.

Ari Burnu and Hellfire Spit (The Beach) cemeteries contain the graves of some of these early dead, including one John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 'The man with the Donk', who as stretcher bearer miraculously roamed lead-filled valleys and rescued more than 300 wounded before he eventually "stopped a bullet" almost a month after the landing. Asked after on the day of his death, a Sergeant was said to say of him "he's at the gates of heaven, helping some mates through the door..."

Apparently he was the second man to hit the beach in the first wave - both first and third men died before making it to cover. With that the first Anzac legend was born.

Across the road lies Shrapnel Valley, one of the largest and prettiest cemeteries on the peninsula. It is so named as it was the limit of artillery range for guns placed on a point to the south of Anzac Cove, near where the Anzacs were meant to land, meaning that shells fired in its direction fell and filled the valley with shrapnel. This is where I headed up the slope in the chill morning air of Anzac Day, bashing through prickly nuggets of scrub to reach higher ground, which gave me further ideas of what those guys went though on that first day.

After sustained bombardment the valley was made barren, meaning snipers on higher ground could pick off hapless Anzacs at will.

You really have to see it to believe how difficult landing here was. Whatever the decision or mistake that was to determine the site, I had to wonder which actually would have been more desirable after I had stood both on the intended beach (Brighton) and then on the second ridge after climbing a few hundred metres up through the merciless undergrowth from Anzac Cove - the Cove or Brighton? I suppose it depends on the type of guns placed near Brighton and whether they could have been subjugated straight after landing.

Because the valley leading from Brighton Beach most of the way to the heights looked like a much easier approach than Shrapnel Valley or the path beneath the Sphinx (see below). I think maybe that if these guns were the first priority and had been taken the Anzacs could have swept up to the upper ridges and taken the high ground a lot faster, changing the course of the campaign, the war and history forever.

Another interesting memorial can be found on the road leading up the second ridge to Lone Pine (above right). Apparently early in the conflict an Anzac officer had been shot and was laying in no mans land mournfully pleading for help, although none could be given due to his location. After some time a white flag was tentatively raised in the Turkish trenches, then a lone Turk rose from them and went to the injured man - picking him up and carrying him to the safety of the Anzac line. The Turk returned to his trenches and went on fighting, but the act of bravery and compassion was one of the defining moments of the campaign and helped generate the mutual respect and friendship between the two sides (and nations). Nice one Mehmet! (a common Turkish name, used like Johnny for the Brits).

Lone Pine is the major Australian cemetery, memorial and your next stop on the ridge road that leads all the way up to the main high point and that elusive strategic objective: Chunuk Bair. The road runs through what was no mans land for hundreds of metres, with the evidence of trenches on each side of it as you make your way up the slope. It is one lane wide meaning that at a number of points the trenches were no further than eight or ten metres apart!

The Turks called it Bloody Ridge because in May they had unsuccessfully counterattacked to push the Anzacs into the sea, resulting in over 10,000 Turkish casualties which necessitated a cease-fire to bury the dead that lay decomposing in the growing heat. Further, in early August the Australians started a major offensive to take the ridge. Turkish trenches were taken in 20 minutes but the following three days and nights of unimaginably intensive hand-to-hand fighting resulted in 2,000 Australian and 7,000 Turkish dead.

No less than seven Victoria Crosses, the highest award for bravery in the Commonwealth, were awarded as a result of the battle - most posthumously. The gains were held until withdrawal but it was at great cost to both sides.

By 10.30am this Anzac day the circus had moved to Lone Pine and spread itself across the grounds. I don't know whether it was right for people to be lolling around amongst the graves but that's what happened, and it was sort of understandable after such a long night and a lack of room in general. Still, the dignitaries didn't seem to mind and the Governor General made a further stirring speech of special commemoration, although the service was very similar to the Dawn Service a few hours before.

A grenade's throw away from Lone Pine is a cemetery and complex of bunkers call Johnson's Jolly. Some have been reconstructed, others have quite obviously been worn down over time but are still the original diggings made there at the start of the conflict so many years ago. For treasure or souveneir hunters there is little that is easily found, but if in the 1930s more than 6,000 pieces of metal were found on one square metre of soil here, it is likely there is still plenty to find if you can get around the prickly bushes and dig down a bit. There is likely to be bones around as well so whether that is right to do so I leave up to you...

Two posts, one called Courtney's and Steele's Post, the other Quinn's Post, lie a short walk further up the road. Quinn's Post marks where the Anzacs found themselves on the night of 25 April 1915 - 1.1 kilometres inland and well short of the day's objectives. They had actually made further, to the hill called Baby 700 (metres in height) which was within striking distance of Chunuk Bair and view views of the Dardanelles - their overall objective. But as they only comprised small fighting units with limited supplies by then they could not force their initiative and were pushed back to Quinn's Post level to stay for most of the next 8.5 months.

Another legendary name - The Nek is found a further hundred metres up the road. This is where the suicidal charges of the Light Horse battalions occurred, made famous by Peter Weir's movie, starring Mel Gibson, called 'Gallipoli'. Only 10 grave stones are set here and five of these are 'thought to be' that of the victim. It is the commemorative plaque that says it all, as they do at all the other cemeteries at Gallipoli: 'there are several hundred buried here but of these only five can be identified', meaning that the rest have lain in no mans land and been blown to smithereens or decomposed beyond recognition. Horrific.

Three hundred Light Horsemen in five waves were mowed down here within 20 minutes on the 7th of August 1915, under the orders of British commander Sir Ian Hamilton. This action, like the Lone Pine assault, was to divert Turkish attention away from Suvla Bay so thousands of British troops could land there. Unfortunately they encountered so little resistance that their commander ordered a halt for breakfast, allowing Attaturk to move reinforcements in and block their encircling movement that would have captured the heights - completely wasting this opportunity and thousands of lives higher on the hills.

It was rightly called 'the most costly breakfast of the entire campaign'.

These are the views from the top of Walker's Ridge. The left looks down over The Sphinx, whilst the right looks over to Suvla Bay. How come the Brits get the nice flat places to land eh?

The main Turkish cemetery is basically right next to The Nek, marked by a rocket shaped memorial and a giant statue of an advancing Turkish soldier. The Turks lost 86,000 dead and only a tiny fraction of these actually found a grave and marker - the rest buried in mass graves marked with a solitary flag or unrecovered on hills and in the valleys around. Many Turks were touring this site around Anzac Day which again shows the importance of this time in their history too.

Final stops included the Baby 700 cemetery and Chunuk Bair. The former includes the grave of a Major Swannell, aged 39 who died here on the 25th April 1915. He obviously led his small band of men this far before falling prey to Gallipoli like so many of his countrymen had and would continue to do. From here you can see the Dardanelles, although it must have seemed like an eternity away as they were lonely and exposed in the face of mounting reinforcements that afternoon.

The latter is the main New Zealand memorial site - as a mainly Kiwis contingent was sent to capture it on that fateful day in August , also to provide a diversion to the landing Suvla Bay troops. Under withering fire and acting with outsanding bravery, the Kiwis took the western slopes and apparently a small band of Ghurkas actually started heading down the other side toward the Dardanelles before they were forced back, marking the farthest inland the Anzac troops would reach in the entire campaign - less than 2km inland. The heights could not be controlled so no advantage could be gained.

An interesting museum sits in the lowlands as you approach the battlegrounds, contain a lot of material found in the scrub by locals or dug up from the fields by farmers in more recent times - the remains of pack and equipment, badges, buttons, weapons and ammunition, shrapnel and bombs; as well as uniforms and kit, medals, photos and letters from combatants of both sides and topographic diagrams of terrain and troop movements. It's not really on a par with that found at El Alamein, but it's worth a look all the same.

Well, that is a monster entry that I hope goes some way to honouring the Anzacs and Turks that fought this monumental battle almost 100 years ago. I doubt it is all completely correct so if you think a correction is warranted please post a comment or send an email. I didn't know a lot of the details about this campaign even though it is so important in Australia's history and psyche, so hopefully you learned something from it too.

But I'd like to dedicate it to those who were shot, stabbed, beaten and buried alive; or were blown apart, bayoneted, strangled and strafed; who were massacred in their thousand upon dubious orders from high ranking officers who were no way near the action. May I just say to you: Goodbye cobbers and may your God bless in your eternal rest. You have done your respective countries proud and we wouldn't be the same without the ultimate sacrifices you have made. Thank you.

Having been here over an Anzac Day I wouldn't recommend it as an optimum time to visit. Estimates of the crowd on the night range from 7,000 to 15,000 - well short of the 27,000 last year - but a logistical nightmare on the one lane roads all the same. It is cold (mainly due to wind) and the Dawn Service tours are ridiculously expensive (around $US60) for what they offer (basically a ride across the ferry and then 10km across the peninsula to be dumped at the dawn service, then picked up and returned around 15 hours later, if you're lucky). You can do this independently but getting back across the peninsula the next day is the challenge.

At other times you probably do have to do a tour or hire transport - the latter especially if you want to get to more remote areas or to Helles or Suvla for the other major monuments. There will be little public conveyances and the distances to walk are quite sizable. The benefit is the cemeteries and monuments are clean and deserted, there is no scaffolding around, hotels are good value and ın general, prices are some of the best to be found in the country.

Next entry -> Roman ruıns at Ephesus, Selçuk

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen, September - October 1917
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