Gallipoli

Not counting Hong Kong, Turkey was the first country I visited last year, and depending on where you think the country sits, either the first European, first Middle Eastern, or both country I ever visited. As an Australian, a visit to Gallipoli was pretty obligatory.

For those who aren’t aware, the Gallipoli campaign in WWI is a huge part of the founding mythology of the Australian nation. Considering it was a) a battle that had bugger-all to do with Australia, rather being in the interests of our imperial masters and b) one that we lost, a lot of Australians take issue with the large part it plays in our national mythology (a number of prominent Australians are fighting for greater recognition of Kokoda, as it was probably the only actual defensive battle for Australia against an invading force – Imperial Japan – since federation, and it was successful). Although it’s worth mentioning that for a while, there were some positives from that: largely, that Australia’s war memorials were focused on the futility of war and pointless loss of life. Then John Howard got elected, Australia was drafted into the war on terror and the ANZACs were posthumously drafted in as “fighting for the freedom of people everywhere”. Screw Howard.

ANZAC, by the way, stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. The two countries were grouped together in the British Imperial Forces, and the acronym stuck. Nowadays, “Anzac” either refers to a simple, rolled-oat biscuit (“cookie”, for the Americans reading) or when a politician wants to assure New Zealanders that they aren’t entirely forgotten by their next-door neighbors (the words “Anzac spirit” get thrown around liberally).

So, anyway – In Istanbul, I decide to arrange a day trip out to Gallipoli. It’s one of the few things I did last year with a tour guide as opposed to a bit of research and my two legs, and I’m very happy I did (the tour was done by RSLTours, and after a bit of haggling with an agent in Istanbul, came to €65 including lunch – money well spent). The guide we had for the day – we were in a small group, with an older Australian couple and two Swedish backpackers – was a history postgrad and had dedicated some time to the history around the founding of the modern Turkish state, which, he told us, Gallipoli was as instrumental to as it was for Australia, if not more so.

Mustafa Kemal was a junior commander who led the Ottoman forces at Gallipoli. It was at Gallipoli he made his name as leader, and his victory in defending the Dardanelles gave him the public respect and authority to be able to take control after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and remake the Turkish state in the modern, secular image he had in mind. He was remarkably successful – talk to anyone in Turkey who isn’t Kurdish, Armenian or Assyrian and they generally have little but praise for Kemal, who came to be known as Ataturk.

The common theory surrounding the landings at Anzac Cove, and the one taught in most Australian schools, is that they fucked it up and landed at the wrong beach – a scrubby, steep slog instead of the nearby easily sloping rise with good tree cover. The guide suggested an alternative he’d come across in his research, which makes so much sense I wondered how I had never thought of it before: This beach was deliberately chosen, because of course the Ottomans would have much better defenses at the obvious, easily assaultable landing point compared to this rocky pain in the arse where no sane commander would put their troops. Almost none of the soldiers at Gallipoli had ever seen battle before, and as such the hellishness of that first landing stuck out in their minds as horrible, and the idea that it was a cock-up was, I suppose, easier to stomach than the alternative that assaults are always just that damned hard. The fact that the boats dropped the soldiers – carrying full kit – a fair way out from the beach for stealth purposes, meaning they had to wade waist-deep for a good distance after being dropped straight into freezing early morning April waters would not have helped. Oh, by the way, that photo only shows halfway up:

The ANZAC soldiers assaulting the Ottoman position still had this to go, and once they realised where the assault was coming from, the Sphinx – the Anzac nickname for that rocky outcrop – was used as a gun position (it’s barely changed – if you look at a photo from WWI, all that’s different is that trees have grown back from the bombing). It was of course, a fucking massacre. When British command got told what was happening they sent the command to “dig, dig, dig” – simply to dig into position. It’s for this reason, by the way, that Australian soldiers are to this day referred to and refer to themselves as “Diggers”.

Lone Pine was the site of one of the biggest battles of the Gallipoli campaign. The tree here now was regrown from a branch of the original, and it’s surrounded by hundreds of graves.

That’s Lone Pine in the distance. The front line generally fell somewhere between where I’m standing and Lone Pine for the last third or so of the campaign. Those hills are where Simpson and his donkeys (there were several, as they didn’t have as good self-preservation instincts as Simpson), a combat medic who’s become something of a folk figure in Australia for heading back and forward – often a couple dozen times per day – to the front lines to rescue injured soldiers, did his work. If you’ve seen the movie Gallipoli, this is where Mel Gibson’s character did his big failed-hero run at the end of the film, too.

And this? This is the most important picture here, and simply one of the most wonderful sentiments I’ve ever seen displayed on a public monument.

I’ll also try to mention what music I particularly associate with a place, because I find that affects my memories a great deal.

Of course this song was in my head the entire day at Gallipoli. How could it not be? Waltzing Matilda – a wonderful little folk song about the homeless suicidal thieves who made my country great – was adapted as a marching song, and has been played at pretty much every military event in Australia for the past hundred years. It’s played every Armstice Day and every ANZAC Day – a day specifically for remembering Australian and New Zealand war dead which occurs on the 25th of April, the date of the landings at Gallipoli – it was played at the passing out parade when I finished basic training, and it was played when ANZACs returned from overseas. Every Australian knows it, which is why “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” has so much impact for every Australian when they hear it. I am curious, though – non-Australians, what does this song say to you? Does not getting the references still let the sentiment of it shine through?

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