It’s hard to imagine a child making their was through the Australian school system who isn’t au fait with the ANZAC story and my schooling experience was no exception, learning about Simpson and his donkey, the ineptness of the command, the bravery of the Australian and New Zealand diggers and the futility of the campaign.
In doing so you build your own mental picture of what it would have been like at ANZAC Cove as the troops came ashore on 25 April 1915. In later years I always thought the harrowing start of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ must be something akin to the chaos described of the initial landing. It was interesting then on our visit to the Gallipoli Peninsula to come face to face with the subconscious mental picture and context I’d built up overtime around the ANZAC story.
During our time at the Turkish Military History Museum we’d been fortunate to happen upon the room dedicated to the battle for control of the Dardanelles and the ensuing Gallipoli Peninsula conflict at the same time as a group of big wigs from the American services were being shown a short film on the campaign by their Turkish hosts. As we silently made our way amongst them it was evident that the piece wasn’t on the land battle of Australian focus, but rather the successful naval campaign of 18 March 1915 against the English and French for control of the Dardanelles that preceded the Gallipoli landing.
|The Dardanelles from the Gallipoli Peninsula|
More than this however, and something I hadn’t really thought too much about, is that in the context of their history the successful defense of the Dardanelles was at the time a tremendous victory for the Turks over the powers of England and France and one which they are justifiably proud. Like the continued beating suffered by the Australian cricket team of the mid eighties, prior to this Ottoman Turks had been on quite a losing streak. Instead of the four years the Australian cricket team endured however, theirs had stretched over 100 years as the might of their former empire slowly crumbled.
With these insights we set off on our penultimate bus journey from Istanbul to the town of Canakkale. Canakkale is a quaint student town on the southern shores of the Dardanelles and provides an ideal base for the pilgrimage to the Gallipoli Peninsula on the opposite shore.
There are a host of tour companies that operate tours to Gallipoli from Canakkale and given it’s a place I’ll only come to once or maybe twice in my life I wanted to make sure of a decent experience. The tourist information bureau handed over a host of flyers for various companies that all appeared to visit the same sites, including one for ‘RSL Tours’, obviously trying to use the ‘Returned Service League’ (RSL) moniker to hook people in.
|The Dardanelles from Canakkale|
On visiting the RSL office to enquire about prices it was obvious there was no relation with the organization in Australia. As we climbed the stairs we were confronted by a smoke filled room with three middle age Turks in leather jackets in deep discussion. Looking affronted at our entrance I brandished the RSL flyer in their general direction, which they grudgingly admitted was theirs, before simply stating ‘closed for the season’ and turning back to their discussions. Slightly bewildered we retreated back down the stairs out into the street.
While they were closed a few more were open and I booked us onto TJ Tours which a Kiwi had recommended to us way back during our tour of Ephesus. I’d expected in wandering around Canakkale to find pockets of continued Australian and New Zealand presence roaming across the town. This was not to be however as it was evidently low season and with a maximum day temperature around 12 degrees it’s easy to understand why we appeared to be the only Gallipoli tourists in town. That evening I did some further research and came across this excellent site prepared by the Australian Government on each of the key sites on the Peninsula.
The following morning on a crisp but clear day we caught the ferry across the Dardanelles to the town of Eceabat to meet up with our tour group who, except for us, were on a one-day round tour from Istanbul. On arrival the other participants to the tour were already absorbed in the Four Corners documentary on the conflict from 1988 ‘Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore’ that provides an engrossing lead in to the tour.
|Brighton Beach looking north to ANZAC Cove|
With this context we boarded our little bus for the short journey to Brighton Beach, the commencement of the tour. On the journey our guide, TJ regaled us, maybe a tad too much, as to his credentials on leading such tours.
On our first stop, and subsequent others after, what struck me most was what an unexpectedly picturesque location the English had chosen for the ANZACs to come ashore that fateful morning. I’d never really associated Gallipoli with the same Aegean Sea that contains the many beautiful Greek Islands just off the coast, with its crystal clear waters and coastal heath vegetation.
Another prominent aspect of the tour that came through was the key role Ataturk played in firstly rallying the Turkish troops to hold the Australian and New Zealand advance on the first day, that they only briefly surpassed once again over the whole campaign, and through the campaign, in leading his troops from the front. There is a great story of how during the August Allied offensive and Turkish counter offensive his life was saved from shrapnel by his pocket watch. It’s fair to say the history of the Turks over the past century would have been significantly different had he been killed that day.
Nineteen years after the Gallipoli campaign Ataturk gave a moving tribute to those from both sides of the conflict that lost their lives. While the ANZAC campaign is long regarded as significantly contributing to the national identities of Australia and New Zealand it also significantly shaped and contributed to that of modern Turkey through the emergence of Ataturk as its leader.