Gallipoli

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Sunday, August 5, 2007

We still have two missions before we leave Turkey. One is Istanbul, of course, and the other is a pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Canakkale is the town most people base themselves in when they visit the Gallipoli peninsula. It is also very close to the ancient site of Troy, another great place to visit, but we don't have the time or money to pop in there as well.

If you haven't heard about Gallipoli and its significance, here's the Reader's Digest version. World War I, Allied forces needed to get supplies to Russia. The North Sea was too icy so the next best way was through the Dardanelles, the stretch of water that connects the Mediterranean with Istanbul. The Allies felt that the sight of their warships approaching Istanbul would force the Turks (who were fighting on the German side) to give up. The problem was that the Turks had laid mines all through the Dardanelles so that the British couldn't get their battleships through. The Allies decided to try and gain supremacy of the Gallipoli peninsula first and that this would allow them to control the Dardanelles. Good plan, bad execution.

The Allied Forces contained a bunch of New Zealand and Australian soldiers who came to be known as the ANZACs. They were sent ashore at the wrong beach, one that gave them virtually no way to capture the high ground thanks to the high cliffs surrounding it. They fought bravely but were soon caught in a stalemate with the resilient Turks. After eight months of trench warfare and virtually no progress, the Allies withdrew having suffered massive losses. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster but it helped forge the identity of two young nations (as well as the Turks). The date of the landing (April 25) is a national holiday in New Zealand and Australia, our version of Remembrance Day. Every year thousands of Kiwis and Aussies come here to pay their respects and visit the sights.

I have been here before, with my Mum as part of a group tour to the historical sights of Greece and Turkey when I was seventeen. That tour was actually concentrated on places like Ephesus and the Acropolis, all the major ruins basically. It was one of those package tour groups that travels everywhere by air-conditioned coach and stops every day at some bloody carpet factory or leather jacket store so that the tour organiser can get his kickback whenever someone buys something. That sort of travel is so foreign to what we are doing now that it doesn't even sound right to lump them both in the category of 'tourism'. Although that holiday was educational, organised and convenient to a fault, it now feels artificial compared with the way Jane and I travel. Being herded like sheep on and off the bus, in and out of three-star hotels, lining up for our mass-produced coach-stop restaurant meals and being told where to shop would be such a different experience for us.

Gallipoli was not actually a scheduled stop on that tour as it didn't fall within the theme of ancient ruins. My Mum arranged, at no small expense, for a private car to take us from Istanbul to Gallipoli and back one day. Even though the tour group was all New Zealanders, none of them wanted to come with us, preferring to fart around Istanbul. Patriotic bunch. The day was all a bit rushed, considering that the driving alone is a nine-hour round trip and I was only seventeen at the time and didn't appreciate the history and significance as much as I should have.

Now, as a thirty year-old with a bit more knowledge of the Gallipoli campaign, a full day tour is something I am really looking forward to. Living away from New Zealand for a long period of time has made me more patriotic. When you live in your own country you get complacent, living abroad you are more aware of your national identity.

The tour, organised through our hotel, contains about twenty people, from New Zealand and Australia mainly, as you'd expect, but also some from Italy, Ireland and Denmark. The guide, Ali, a retired Turkish navy captain, is a tiny little guy in his late 60s with a wonderful sense of humour. He has spent his whole life exploring this peninsula and really knows his stuff. The tour takes us to ANZAC Cove, the ANZAC landing beach, plus some of the trenches and the main memorials. It is interesting but so sad to see the hopeless task that the troops were given, trying to climb the steep cliffs with forty-two kilograms of equipment on their backs and Turkish defenders firing at them. The graveyards are the saddest bits, seeing how young many of the soldiers were. For example, Private G.R. Seager, aged seventeen. His headstone reads: "He died a man and closed his life's brief day ere it had scarce begun." Imagine being the parent of someone like that, shot down in battle at only seventeen.

The trenches are sad too, only twelve metres apart in some places. No ground was won or lost in some places for months, the soldiers locked in the trenches not achieving anything. A kind of camaraderie developed between the Allied soldiers and the Turks, they swapped cigarettes and other supplies and formed a mutual respect that lasts to this day. Ali spoke to us of the ANZAC spirit that also grew within the Allies.

"The ANZAC spirit remains here", he says quietly. "Try to catch it and transport it in your heart. It is your responsibility to transfer it to your children and grandchildren." From most people that would sound cheesy but from Ali, who knows this place and its history better than most, it sounds genuine. He even gives everyone a souvenir from the collection he has accumulated over the years. As a child he used to explore the beaches and the battlefields for bullets and other bits and pieces. Now that all the bullets have been found and removed from the peninsula, his collection is quite special. I mention to Ali that my great grandfather on my mother's side fought for the British, who landed at the southern part of the peninsula. A little while later he presents me with a bullet that he found at that beach fifty years ago, fired by the Lancashire Fusiliers.

It is a well-organised, interesting and thought-proviking tour. As we are driving back to Canakkale, Ali puts on a tape recording of "And the band played Waltzing Matilda", a sad song about the ANZACs and the futility of war.

Our bus is scheduled to leave at one o'clock the next day, Tuesday, but there is one more thing to do in the morning. The great-grandfather mentioned about, Sergeant Henry Botham, is buried at Twelve Tree Copse cemetery, right down the southern end of the peninsula, a small, secluded memorial near a tiny, secluded and hard-to-get-to village called Alcitepe. We catch the early ferry from Canakkale to Kilitbahir on the Gallipoli side. Here we discover that the only minibus to Alcitepe, twenty-five kilometres away, leaves at 10:30am, two hours from now. That won't give us any time to get back in time for our one o'clock bus.

"Let's hitch-hike," suggests Jane.

"I don't know. Is it safe?"

"Of course it is," Jane says and sticks out her thumb. Half an hour later (it's a quiet road), a car pulls over and drives us to Alcitepe. Alcitepe is possibly the quietest village in the world but fortunately the road to the cemetery is well signposted. The road is completely deserted except for a horse and cart that rattles past us, and the cemetery sits quietly on the side of the road with us the only visitors. We find Henry's headstone, observe a minute's silence, take a little video for Mum and my Aunt Lindsay, then head back. It's a bit of a rush but we make it back to Canakkale just in time for our bus to Istanbul.
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