The Gentlemen's War

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Flag of Turkey  , Turkish Aegean Coast,
Saturday, July 7, 2012

I extended my stay for 2 more nights, unwilling to leave just yet. The weather and food continued to be perfect and the Archaeology museum was truly rewarding. Especially with Avi, who had majored in classics at university. I was also learning the value of the siesta. Finally understanding how lethargic the humidity could make you. Nights were spent lazing on the rooftop, enthralled in great debates as we passed the hookah hose around the table. Passionate ponderings of whether patriotism breeds racism, how one might convert to Jediism, what provisions make a country a country which had the fascinating side note of realizing that if a requirement was being internationally recognized and other nations were in disagreement then technically we don't know how many countries there are in the world. According to the internet there are approximately 196, including Greenland, who we are apparently skeptical of.

On my 4th day I woke up before 6 and trotted down to the bakery on the corner to grab a few fresh rolls for breakfast, as I was heading to Gallipoli and would be missing my usual morning feast. Apparently the company’s main tour bus was full, so for no extra cost I was taken in a private car that followed the bus and stopped at the same rest stops. The quiet car passed fields upon fields of sunflowers. Hills yellowed by their vibrant coloured flowers instead of yellowed from drought and dead grass like so many in Australia. I ended up beating the bus to our first stop. Too far from the city to warrant English translations on the menus and without any pictures, I chose the 3rd cheapest item on there, AUD$3.50. I figured the first 2 would probably be simple salads and too Spartan to satisfy my appetite. The result was pretty damn good. Meat, tomato and melted haloumi wrapped in pita and lightly toasted with a side salad. I was proud of my choice. Speaking to the other Aussies when they arrived, it became apparent I had gotten extremely lucky with my private ride. The others had no air conditioning where as I had resorted to putting on my jacket I was so well chilled. The others chose only to buy Doritos and cokes, complaining that there was nothing else to eat. Some eyed my lunch suspiciously, possibly wondering how I’d managed to pack a freshly cooked meal and cutlery into my daypack. I found them whiney and obnoxious before pulling myself up for being entirely unfair and hasty in my judgements. Unlike them I had not just spent the past 3 hours in a sticky sweaty bus.

Our next stop was a restaurant overlooking the Aegean for a simple seafood lunch. Seated next to me were 3 Australian lads in their late 20s, one of them, Peter, had been camping and couch surfing around Europe for a year and a half. The other 2 were his best mates, come to join him for a few weeks before returning to their responsibilities back home. Our guide introduced himself and we piled into 2 separate and thankfully cooled buses. The first location on the ANZAC tour is now a blissful beach side camping ground. 100 years ago it was the intended landing site for the Australian and New Zealand Soldiers. Flat, well covered and strategically advantageous to commence a 3 wave attack to take control of the peninsula and from there the Dardanelles. We were given the back story to help us understand Turkey’s involvement in WW1. The Allies had hoped for Turkey to remain neutral but the country was being heavily courted by the Germans. Churchill had caused outrage when he "requisitioned" two almost completed Turkish battleships in British shipyards, so Germany gifted them with two new warships which had an enormous effect. The Ottoman Empire closed the Dardanelles to all shipping on the 27th of September, blocking Russia's exit from the Black Sea. However when the 2 new ships were chased up the straight Turkey allowed them to pass but destroyed the following British fleet. With German built ships now anchored in Istanbul, compensation and anti-British propaganda given by the Germans, Turkey officially joined the Central powers. General Ludendorff stated in his memoirs that he believed the entry of the Turks into the war allowed the outnumbered Central powers to fight on for two years longer than they would have been able on their own. Had the war ended in 1916, that would have meant that some of the bloodiest engagements would have been avoided and The United States might not have been drawn from its policy of isolation to intervene in a foreign war.

So now an active member in the Great War, Turkey set up guns and mines along the Dardanelles. Failed attempts were made to pass through until the plan to seize the land from the other side was put into practice. There is no definitive conclusion as to why the ANZACS landed down the coast from where they were supposed to be. The original excuse of currents has since been disproven. However whether it was an error in navigation or a last minute decision no one was willing to claim, still remains mere speculation.

Our group was then taken to the actual landing site. Even close to a century later, now with roads and structural improvements, it is very clear why the location was such a disaster. The Turks had the higher ground and saw the fleet coming. The soldiers who even made it out of the boats under a hail of bullets had to climb almost vertical rock faces to reach flat and safer ground. With no coverage and the cliffs turning into mud slides under the night’s rain, they were easy targets. When word of the failure had gotten back to the superiors the order returned to stay put and dig. Dig.

The next point along our educational trail was the sight of the annual dawn service. Then on to the first of too many cemeteries. That particular graveyard was wedged in a small niche of stunning scenery. The Aegean lapped at the edges of lush greenery as I weaved through the tombstones, reading messages from grieving mothers to their sons, pleading them to rest in peace. The dazzling vista managed not to mock this place of mourning. Instead providing a pocket of paradise for those long dead soldiers who sacrificed so much. Between grave sites was a huge memorial expressing words of condolence to families whose loved ones are buried there. Stating that those buried on Turkish soil will be cared for and respected as if they were Turkish sons. The level of compassion conveyed in regards to what was honestly an invading force moved me to tears. I thought of western society, whose ancestral grudges can still be felt towards old enemies. I became a weeping mess at the unpleasant comparisons and also at the warmth I felt for such powerful words of kindness.

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well."

The tour continued to the trenches on Johnston’s Jolly. The space between Turkish and ANZAC tunnels was barely the width of a suburban road. On May 19th the Turks were met with some of their biggest losses. Approximately 3,000 Turkish soldiers had been killed and another 7,000 wounded. The Anzacs, by comparison, lost 160 and had 468 wounded. Days passed and the stench of the dead blistering in the sun became too much. So on May 24th a truce was made. From 7am to 4.30pm each side could come and collect and bury their dead. As they combed through the bodies all soldiers got their first real encounters with the enemy. What was discovered was that without the interference of propaganda and political nonsense, what was left was just fellow human beings. That coupled with the recent massacre, Anzac soldiers began to see the Turks as fellow sufferers and respect for their courage grew. From then on, in between attacks and showering bullets, the ANZACS would throw chocolates and in exchange the Turks would toss back cigarettes with the message in French, “enjoy with pleasure”. Thus Gallipoli was christened The Last Gentleman’s War.

After the emotional upheaval of the tour, I enjoyed some much needed cherry ice cream from a flattering stall owner, lapping it up before it melted on the way back to the bus. I’d spent the majority of the day taking in the history with Peter, sharing our disbelief, horror and morbid fascination. When the bus stopped back at our lunch time restaurant, I followed his lead for my first swim in the Aegean Sea. Warm and welcoming I floated by the pier as the thundering sounds of little local feet came running past, followed by loud splashes as the kids jumped off the end. Besides Peter and his friends, the rest of the group were going into town for the night. We were the only ones headed back to Istanbul. A smaller bus came for us and with the exception of a sleeping elderly couple; us 4 were the only ones on there. The other 2 boys nodded off quickly leaving Peter and I eyeing each other from across the aisle. Dozing in and out of consciousness to wake and notice the other watching and smiling.  He shuffled across his 2 seater and held out his arms. I crawled across the chairs and cuddled into him. He pulled me closer, gave me an earphone to share and we went to sleep. 
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