Saturday, April 24, 2010
In 2002 I took a six-week break from work and spent some time traveling through Turkey and Bulgaria. I had planned to visit Troy and on a whim I decided to go to Gallipoli as well, thinking it would be historically interesting; the battlefields there are very well preserved and the entire area of Gallipoli is a national park. I shortly found myself in a hostel in the town of Canakkale, which is near the battlefield.
I had no idea that I was in for one of the more memorable experiences of my life (I should confess here that my history knowledge is not the greatest and I really had no idea what to expect). My first hint that this was not going to be your average museum-type tour came when I arrived at the hostel; nearly everyone there was either Australian or a New Zealander. I wasn't the only American there, but it was close. I know you're probably thinking "Duh," but again, I was incredibly naive and had never heard of ANZAC Day or the facts behind Gallipoli. I learned from my fellow tourists that it is like Pearl Harbor, only more important, as Gallipoli had a great deal to do with Australia and New Zealand forming their national identities apart from the British Empire.
The evening before the tour the hostel showed an Australian-made documentary about Gallipoli, a recap of the history behind the battle (believe it or not, I had no idea that Winston Churchill had masterminded this colossal disaster) intercut with scenes from the film Gallipoli. As we watched I suddenly realized that a woman behind me was weeping. My God, I thought. What have I let myself in for?
Two buses packed full of people left the hostel the following morning. Our tour guide was a charming Turkish man whose grandfather fought and was killed at Gallipoli. He told us that his knowledge of the battlefield came from his father, who had not yet been born when his father was killed, and who had made trip after trip to the battlefields trying to find where his father had been buried (he never did; it was an unmarked grave). There was a lovely elderly lady on my bus who was there to look for her uncle's grave. As young men, her father and his brother had both fought at Gallipoli. Her father survived the battle, his brother did not. She had promised her father before he died that she would some day visit her uncle's grave, as he had never had the chance to do. She had been told that he was buried at the Lone Pine cemetery.
The tour of Gallipoli takes the entire day; the site is huge. We visited every cemetery, stood in the trenches and saw the dugouts, which are still there (although we were warned not to go in, due to the danger of collapse). The entire site is incredibly well preserved. The trenches of the opposing sides are literally feet apart at some points. Today Gallipoli is beautiful and peaceful. I stood in what had been "no man's land" and tried to imagine what it would be like in the middle of a muddy battlefield with constant gunfire, barbed wire and mortar shells raining everywhere.
As I wandered around the Lone Pine cemetery later that day I saw from a distance the elderly lady from the bus kneeling beside a grave. Our guide stood by her, his hand on her shoulder.
She had found her uncle.
In 1934 Kemal Atatürk, leader of Turkey, said these words to the Australians and New Zealanders visiting the battlefields:
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 Here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, Who sent their sons from far away 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.I do not think that there is anything else to be said.
What a moving speech. I'd never read that before.
Thank you for the post. In country towns here the war memorials often show the names of multiple sons fallen at Gallipoli. Some entire families wiped out.