Gallipoli: A Personal Tour

April 25, 2014 by

Europe, Places to Go

gallipoli day tour turkish memorial
Turkish Memorial at Gallipoli

The sun is shining, warm with the beginning of spring. The narrow sandy beach is deserted. Tiny crystal clear waves lap at the few piles of seaweed. It’s an idyllic scene and hard to imagine thousands of soldiers landing here at dawn on April 25, 1915. But I try, because this beach below me is Anzac Cove.

My grandfather was one of the last to evacuate Gallipoli, just before Christmas 1915. We have his war letters, neatly copied into an exercise book by his aunt; his official army photographs of Anzac Cove and the trenches, and the blue cloth-backed map he carried in his pocket, faded and worn at the folds. And of course, we have his medals.

When I was a child, every Anzac Day, my mother would take those medals out of their cases and we would walk out of our gate to the War Memorial which, coincidentally, stands outside my parents’ house in a small coastal town in Australia. On it are listed the names of local men killed in the war. Some surnames are repeated too many times. Most of them are families I recognise.

I hadn’t ever really thought about visiting Gallipoli although it was such a huge part of my family history. And in fact, my day trip there came as a bit of an afterthought to a quick trip to Istanbul, possibly because until then I hadn’t even been fully aware of where Gallipoli actually was. It sounds shocking, and is not a great reflection on me, but although hyperaware of the tragedy of Gallipoli I did not know a lot of details.

Now for me, Gallipoli is a real place, with sights, smells, sounds.

Gallipoli: Bringing it to life

My time was limited so I did a one day Gallipoli tour with a driver and a guide. It’s a four and a half hour drive from Istanbul to the Gallipoli Peninsula so we only had about three hours actually there. That’s why most people stay the night, either at Ecebeat or the larger town of Cannakale across the Dardanelles. (I recommend Cannakale.)

We met our guide Aykut at Ecebeat. A smiling, friendly man in his 40s, who makes his living through a passion for and knowledge of a great tragedy. A Turk teaching Australians and New Zealanders their history. And giving some understanding of the other side of the story, as well.

gallipoli day tour trench
WWI trench at Gallipoli

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Gallipoli. Certainly not such peace. Barely a bird in the sky. And such silence. According to Aykut, this used to be an area famous for its honey, though but not anymore. ‘All the bees are gone now. Since 1915.’

The only buildings I can see are miles away up the gently curving coast, three abandoned beach shacks about to be pulled down because this area is now a national park.

Standing on the cliff above Anzac Cove, I looked at my grandpa’s photograph of the same beach in 1915. It was 45 metres wide then, it is only 30 metres wide since the road was put in to cope with the massive crowds coming each year to commemorating the ANZACs – in 2007, more than 30,000 people attended the dawn service. At either measurement, the beach is narrow for so many men and supplies.

For boats taking the wounded to the hospital island offshore. For donkeys and artillery storage. Where I am standing is the exact spot from which the photograph was taken. It’s a really strange thought. At the end of the day I gave my copies of grandpa’s photos to Aykut.

Gallipoli: Still haunted

The beach might look calm but the place is haunted. Leading up into the hills are narrow, scrubby valleys with names like Shrapnel Gully, Rescue Gully. Through these all those men had to scramble day and night. Under enemy fire. Carrying wounded friends.

Once you get up the hills, onto the ridges and plateaus, there are trenches winding beneath the trees. I hadn’t expected there to be so many trees. I’m guessing that the land ended up fairly stripped at the time; now the trees have grown back.

And in the clearings, there are headstones. Cemeteries built since 1915 to commemorate the men who died here. Some replace the original graves hastily dug by the soldiers at the time, burying friends, the early casualties before the sheer number became too great to cope with. Some are from a later time, so we never forget what happened.

One headstone reads: Private H O’Donnell. 11th Battalion, Australian Inf. 12 May 1915. Age 16. He sleeps where Anzac heroes came to do and die.

Another headstone reads: Private W C Fawcett. 23rd Battalion, Australian Inf. 20 September 1915. Age 20. Sisters. Florrie. Alice. Rosie. Miss you dearly. Miss you “Will”.

gallipoli day tour WWI cemetery
ANZAC cemetery in Gallipoli

The ANZACs had about 250,000 casualties out of 700,000 troops. The Ottoman Turk casualties were around 253,000. This was over 250 battle days. So each side lost an average of 1.000 men per day.

Even though these graves represent so few of those who died, they are powerful in reminding me it was individuals who fought here, struggled to survive here, many of them dying here. And families who never really knew how, where and why they lost them.

Aykut took us to a section of the trenches known as Johnstone’s Jolly and Wire Gully. Here there are remnants of the trenches dug by the ANZACs. It is how Australian soldiers got the name, Diggers. After Sir Ian Hamilton’s famous command to “dig, dig, dig until you are safe”, they began digging trenches. A front line of only 3.2 kilometres. A distance of 1.7 km from the beach to the frontline. But behind it, connecting trenches and tunnels of 320 kilometres. And thousands of men lived in these holes. For months. Under fire. Each with a ration of one litre of water a day. (Water which came from the Nile River in Egypt as there was no well in the Anzac-held territory.)

I stood in a trench and tried to imagine it. A road has now been built following the path of the front line. I was a few metres from the road. In the ditch on the other side remains an Ottoman dugout, one of the burrows which kept soldiers alive during bombardments. Eight metres between the two sides at this point. When not shooting at each other, the ANZACs and the Ottoman soldiers used to throw food and cigarettes to one another across the gap.

A huge statue of the Ottoman Turkish Commander Kemal carrying a British Officer to safety back on the ANZAC side stands along the roadside. There was humanity amongst the brutality.

After visiting Gallipoli, I understand the whole thing so much better. I know that the Dardenelles campaign was about opening a new supply route for Russia – then an ally – to get weapons in and their main export, wheat, out. Did 16 year old Private O’Donnell know that? Or Private Fawcett? Or my grandfather? Did any of them have any idea why they were even there?

Gallipoli: What I learned

I now know that a naval attempt to capture the area had failed so the ANZAC landings were conceived. I have stood on the high ground at Chunuk Bair that was the object of the exercise and seen how hopeless the position of the ANZACs was while the Turks sat on the hilltops. I’ve discovered that the British landings on Helles Peninsula south of Anzac Cove failed because they were betrayed by Mr Palmer, an ex-diplomat who was captured and spared death in return for information. And that the New Zealanders landing on North Beach came under sniper fire from the Ottoman soldiers guarding the peninsula and rounded the point to join the Australians.

I’ve learnt about the importance of timing: Hamilton decided to leave the landed ANZACs on Gallipoli although their initial landing mission failed because in the half hour he was making his decision he heard that an Australian submarine had breached the Dardanelles and he assumed he would have support from that side of the peninsula. He did not know the submarine was quickly captured, that the crew sunk it to stop the enemy getting their hands on the technology. Since then it has lain just offshore, intact.

That submarine has recently been the subject of negotiation: the Turks want to raise it, the Australians argue it is still their property. An agreement has been reached and I am told it will be raised next year to go on permanent display at Gallopoli from the 100th anniversary of the landings in 2015.

I’ve also learnt about the interconnectedness of everything. Because the battle to control the Dardanelles failed, Russia underwent great hardship. At this time Russia was the world’s main wheat supplier and the war in Europe had cut off their trade routes; the country suffered economically. This, partially, contributed to the Revolution. Which led to the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the face of the twentieth century as we knew it. The failure at Gallipoli had a massive impact on world history.

As we stood by the trenches at Johnstone’s Jolly, Aykut pointed to a bush and we saw bees. ‘They are coming back,’ he said. ‘After nearly one hundred years, maybe they are coming back.’

Philippa Burne

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3 Responses to “Gallipoli: A Personal Tour”

  1. steve Says:

    looks like a really cool place

  2. Julie Says:

    Hello – have just read your very interesting acount. My grandfather Hugh Brickell was one of the last four to leave Anzac Cove in 1915 along with 3 others, Alex, Rex and one other. I have yet to find out their last names, but have just read his letter after escaping from there.

  3. philippa Burne Says:

    Hi Julie

    I wonder if our grandfathers knew each other! Mine was Henry Crowther. He left the trenches at the very last with only a few other men. He too wrote a detailed letter about it – fascinating. I haven’t got it here but lots of details of which part of Gallipoli he left from etc. It’s an amazing part of history. What those men went through!