Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Istanbul: A pilgrimage to Gallipoli.

34 years. That's how long its been since I visited Gallipoli. Let me tell you a story, or if you'd rather not hear it, trawl down a few paras and start there.  Anyway, the last time I was here, back in 1978, I was young, idealistic, and on an overland bus from Katmandu to London. Unfortunately when we crossed from Afghanistan to Iran we found the revolution in full flight and foreigners were distinctly unwelcome. We crossed from one side of Iran to the other in only 3 days. This was back in the days when there were no mobile phones and we kept in contact with home by letter and postcard. Letters from home were waiting for us at Poste Restante in some of the major cities we went to and there was an eager readership for any newspaper cuttings received by fellow travellers.

Our current events were completely out of date, hotel rooms didn't routinely have tvs at that time in the parts of the world we were in, so while we spent 3 months on the road, up-to-date(ish) news was obtained through crackly BBC World Service or by meeting someone who knew something. When Pope John Paul I died someone heard about it one night on the BBC and passed the information around. A month or so later another passenger shelled out for a copy of the International Herald Tribune and announced 'The Pope's died.' 'Yeh, yeh', we scoffed, 'We knew that weeks ago.' 'No.' he said to a crowd of disbelieving faces, 'Its the new pope. He's died too.' Funny feeling of dislocation like it was all happening in another dimension unrelated to important daily things like, who was chronically ill with diarrhea today and did we have enough toilet paper. Ah, but who could forget the evening performance in Afghanistan by Bul Bul, the Nightingale of Herat.  He sat cross legged on a platform and sang while we ate our camel knuckle stew served with the obligatory mountain of rice.  I wonder what happened to him? I can probably guess. 

Anyway, moving along, we eventually made it into Turkey and sutlac (rice pudding) which seemed like mana from heaven after camel knuckle stew. One of our stops in Turkey in was to Gallipoli which was, even back then, a place of pilgrimage for Kiwis and Aussies. At that time the area surrounding the battlefields was undeveloped, there were no roads just tracks cut through the scrub. We got up to ANZAC Cove, from what I remember there was no official signposting just the guide's word for it. Sadly we could go no further as rain had made travelling up the track to Lone Pine and the New Zealand memorial impossible, but what little we'd seen gave the Kiwis and Aussies on the bus much to contemplate.

Fast forward 34 years and I'm back. 

We had limited time unfortunately so we booked a one day return trip from Istanbul to Gallipoli, Gelibolu in Turkish, stopping after 4 hours in the seaside town of Eceabat. Here we had lunch at the hotel owned by the tour company, then off we went for a 4+ hour visit to the battlefields and grave sites. Nowadays there are sealed roads, information boards, tour buses, multi-lingual guides, a lot's happened.  
Our guide's name was Hassan and his services were provided by RSL Tours.  Hassan was most informative, knew more about Gallipoli than most historians and was able to explain the reasons why our guys ended up on Turkish soil with insights from both sides of the conflict.  He also explained the strategies and battle plans they'd been sent so far from home to fulfil. He explained the importance of the Dardanelles, which once you've seen how narrow it is, explains why everyone wants it even today.  He explained why the hills of the area were important enough to die for, though after 9 months and thousands of deaths it was a stalemate. He explained why the Turks fought so tenatiously (wouldn't you if you were defending your home?) He also painted a horribly vivid picture of what life was like for the men who endured the heat of summer and the cold of winter in the trenches. He also raised questions that made me revisit what I'd been taught at school and heard from family members over the years.Over the afternoon we visited Brighton (North) Beach, walking along the beach to the ANZAC cemetery. From there we drove further up the coast to ANZAC Cove. The site of the first landings is a shallow pebbled beach bordered by Ari Burnu to the north and Hell Spit to the south. On the night of 25th April 1915 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) made an amphibious landing onto this and other beaches along the coast. There are many books on the subject or check out Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landing_at_Anzac_Cove

We then visited the Mehmetcik Statue, a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying an English soldier and apparently based on a story told by Gov. Gen Casey of Australia. Further up the peninsula is the Lone Pine Australian memorial and reconstructed Turkish and Allied trenches at Johnston's Jolly (so called because the Allied commander was ordered to use his cannons to 'jolly up' the Turkish defenders.) We also paid our respects at the cemetery of the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment of the 19th Division (Ottoman Army).  It was to the 57th Regiment that Ataturk gave his famous order, "I do not order you to attack, I order you to die."  This regiment was completely wiped out during the Gallipoli campaign, the regiment number being retired afterwards as a mark of respect.

The final stop was the Chunuk Bair New Zealand Memorial marking the area where combined NZ and British troops stormed and took the hilltop.  During the battle, 17 men of the 'Native Contingent', the forerunner of the Maori Battalion were killed and 89 were wounded. (The story of the Native Contingent is fascinating in itself.)  The success of the assault was fleeting and the Turks retook the hill only a few days later. 
The Canuck Bair Memorial.
The statue is on the right is of Kemal Ataturk.
On the sides of the memorial are engraved the names of 860 officers and men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in the area in 1915 but have no known grave.

What doesn't change is that, despite what current historians may think, these events and the ones that followed resulted in a seismic shift in how New Zealanders and Australians saw themselves. It took many years but the public started to see themselves less as relocated English people ('South Pacific Poms') and more as 'New Zealanders' and 'Australians' with distinct national identities. It takes time, but with the passing of the generation with direct links to the UK, family ties fade. Gone also are the days of Overseas Experience when young Kiwis and Aussies headed for the UK for a couple of years of work and travel before returning home to settle down, build a career, probably a house, and start a family. Those young people, often the descendants of soldiers who fought for King and Country now apply for visas and have their stay in the UK limited. 

That's life I guess, time changes everything and our enemies last year are our friends this year.

'Maori Units of the NZEF', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/maori-units-nzef, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Apr-2011

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