By Mark Porter and Ana Pouvreau
A simple plaque at the Helles War Memorial stands out: “From the town of Hawick, Scotland, in grateful memory of the officers and men of that town who fell in Gallipoli in the Great War 1915.’ Acres of marble with the names of the dead surround the humble stone, planted in the soil of the Dardanelles. Here, men from the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots fell to Turkish guns alongside Allies from across the globe as the last great offensive of the disastrous campaign fell apart at Suvla Bay.
The white marble headstones dazzled so brightly in the Turkish sunshine that we were forced to look away. Like the Allied troops, we alighted at Anzac Cove to start our tour of the peninsula. Here, in April 1915 amidst a hail of shrapnel, the disastrous Gallipoli campaign kicked off.
Many of the men got no further than where they now lie, and many of those who did paid the ultimate price elsewhere on this narrow strip of land. Some 4600 Scots were among the 131,000 Allies who died, many of them fighting alongside Australian and New Zealand troops (Anzacs) at the battles of Lone Pine and, two days later, Chunuk Bair on August 6 and 8.
What you see now, at the junction of Asia and Europe, is a far cry from the mayhem of 1915 and one couldn’t help thinking that if a golf course were to be created in Hell it might resemble the now serene landscape of Gallipoli. An eerie serenity pervades the rolling landscape and, in the bright spring sunshine, there could scarcely be a more peaceful spot for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Today this beautiful Turkish isthmus, facing the Aegean to the west, the Dardanelles Straits and the Sea of Marmara to the east, is a patchwork of monuments and memorial stones linked by country lanes, mountain tracks and undulating greenery.
A stone monument is inscribed with the deathless prose of the man who won the campaign for the Ottomans and became the founding father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk: “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 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.”
We headed down to the tip of the peninsula where stands one of the most magnificent of the cemeteries, the Helles Memorial to the British. Troops are remembered in row upon row of immaculate Commonwealth war graves and panels of marble tightly etched with the names of the fallen line the walls of the monument. Near where the Highland Light Infantry and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are immortalised is a simple commemorative stone donated by the Borders town of Hawick, a humble reminder that each lost son had a home.
Accompanied by a feral dog and her puppies, we strolled down the dirt track to V Beach cemetery where the sea laps gently below the walls and where two Irish battalions were laid to rest. The mighty fortress of Seddülbahir, attacked in the 17th century by the Venetians, was finally brought to its knees by Allied naval firepower in 1915. Its ruins overlook the cemetery.
Seaside homes dot the flat sands and yellow sandstone bluffs rise out of the Aegean. In the valleys between the cliffs, olive and tamaris trees grow down the steep escarpments. We stopped for a stiff coffee at a modest coffee house on the square, opposite the mosque at Sedd el Bahr village, and watched the fishermen’s tiny rowing boats bobbing in the slack waters of Cape Helles.
A far cry from the fateful morning of April 25 1915, the start of the campaign, following a disastrous naval operation in March, which almost brought to an end the career of its main instigator, Winston Churchill.
The Allied plan was as brilliantly simple in conception as it was hopeless in execution: secure the Straits and take Constantinople, giving access to the Black Sea to supply the Russians in order to free up a new line of attack on the Germans. It would also pull in the Greeks and Bulgarians, ancient enemies of the Ottoman Turks, and hey presto, the stalemate of the Western Front would be transformed into a glorious victory from the East.
Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, had underestimated the strength of the Turkish troops, under the command of Ataturk, and had overestimated the potency of his own fleet, which fell easy prey to the mines and coastal gun batteries. If the naval thrust of March 18 1915 was a failure, his attempt to consolidate on land was a calamity, and after nine months of blistering summer heat and frostbitten winter nights the ragbag army of dysentery-ridden men was evacuated the following December and January, and Churchill was forced to resign his post.
The easiest way to access the peninsula is from the port of Çanakkale, which is a quick ferry ride across the narrowest section of the Straits. The Gallipoli war museum (Çanakkale Destani Tanitim Merkezi), is well hidden from view but well worth finding. This 5,600 square metre visitor centre, on the road to Kabatepe, was commissioned by the army and the Ministry of Defence and was only recently finished.
In addition to 11 rooms, with cinema screens shockingly simulating what it was like in the trenches of Gallipoli, are some rather more prosaic offerings which also carry poignant memento mori: bullets with bullet holes in them, Ataturk’s waistcoat and dress shoes, letters, watches, mangled boots and water canteens that would be inadequate for a summer school trip.
The battle sites and 31 memorials to the 130,000 dead covers a surprisingly small area. This is because Allied troops were unable to make much headway against the ferocious onslaught of Ataturk’s men. Heat, exhaustion, illness and difficult terrain also dogged every step. With an impressive flourish of national pride, the Turkish government has declared the whole area a National Historic Park, to show the futility of war.
Up at Chunuk Bair, where the Allies enjoyed a shortlived victory, the trenches have been preserved. You can look down on Suvla Bay 540m below, where British troops landed, and walk a few hundred metres along the preserved dug-outs in the footsteps of New Zealand’s Wellington Battalion, before visiting the New Zealand monument. Here, a statue to Ataturk, the Allies’ nemesis, celebrates the moment when a fob watch covering his heart prevented a bullet from possibly changing the course of modern history.
From the Australian monument at Lone Pine there are views across the peninsula, from the Aegean to the Dardanelles. Nearby is the memorial to the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment, which was wiped out following the Allied landings at Anzac. Atatürk, the 19th Division commander, famously told his men: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die. During the time before we die other forces and commanders will take our place.” The great man, of course, lived to tell the tale.
Before taking the 10-minute ferry back across the Straits to Canakkale we walked through the French Memorial at Morto Bay. Lined by rosemary bushes, baytrees and well-ordered flowerbeds, this is perhaps the biggest and most atmospheric of them all, with 3,236 graves and four ossuaries containing the bones of 12,000 unidentifiable soldiers.
It surprises many to learn that more French soldiers were killed at Gallipoli than Australians and New Zealanders combined. It seems surprising that so few French visit, given the huge interest from the other side of the planet.
The museum and Historic Park are open 365-days a year. For those unable to make any of the centenary celebrations, which will last until January, there is always a fallback position: Russell Crowe’s film about it, The Water Diviner.
Close to the peninsula are Troy and Çanakkale. One is a ruined citadel and the cradle of European civilisation, and the other a bustling modern seaport where you ladies can buy lingerie for peanuts. Both provide a good contrast to the sombre setting of Gallipoli. And Çanakkale is the ideal place to stay for your visit.
Both of us studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school so were fascinated to visit the remarkably well-preserved remnants of Troy, which lie half an hour’s drive from Çanakkale. Who could not be moved to walk in the footsteps of Hector, Priam, Paris and Aeneas? Or Achilles, Menelaus and Helen? Here, at these very walls, the ancient Greeks besieged the Trojans 3,000 years ago, digging in for ten years until that wily fox Odysseus came up with the idea of stuffing a wooden horse with soldiers and hoping the Trojans would assume it was a present and pull it into the citadel. They did, of course, and the rest is history.
The horse you will see is the one created for the Hollywood blockbuster, Troy, in which Brad Pitt played the moody Achilles. For us, the ruins brought to life Vergil’s Aeneid and the texts of Homer, Herodotus and Euripedes.
As you stand on the ramparts you have to picture the sea lapping at its base 3,000 years ago, at the mouth of the river Scamander. This area is now silted up, but it doesn’t take much to imagine how it was.
Çanakkale, on the other hand, is great for shopping. Clothes and shoes are cheap as lentil soup, restaurants and bars plentiful and the port is a hive of social activity. It is the only place we have ever been where a shop solely dedicated to belts is next door to one which sells only underpants, just down the road from another that specialises in braces. This is also the place to come to buy Turkish nuts and Turkish delight (lokum).
Well worth a visit is the Naval Museum, with its replica of the Nusret, the little mine laying ship which did so much to prevent Churchill’s initial naval thrust. The Nusret laid thousands of mines along the Dardanelles, perilously close to where the ferry crosses to Kilitbahir on the peninsula.
We returned to the Hotel Tusan, near Canakkale, haunted by a hellish vision of the past made all the more poignant by the tranquillity of the present.
Mark Porter and Dr Ana Pouvreau were guests of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office gototurkey.co.uk and flew Turkish Airlines. Flights from xxxx to xxx, start at £xxx. Hotel Tusan in Çanakkale – tusanhotel.com – organises trips to the battlefields. Prices for accomodation start at xxxx