Sunday, November 16, 2008


"I'm not ordering you to fight; I'm ordering you to die. Your deaths will buy time for another commander and another army to arrive."

- Mustapha Kemal, to the 57th Regiment as they died at Cunuck Bair

You know, I'd planned this post another way in my mind. I was going for the anti-war angle, with a mention of Australia's involvement in Iraq and a rather sarcastic observations about how, both times, we were led into stupid conflicts by short, war-mongering old men with an eye for the populist vote. 

But the Gallipoli peninsula is actually quite a beautiful place. It's hilly and covered with a scrub forest, with a curving shoreline that's studded with pebble beaches. The Aegean Sea's a vivid blue, and when you find a spot where the sun's shining and you can hear the waves washing against the shore, you're flooded with this sense of peace. 

It's incredibly difficult to picture this as a place where 100,000 people lost their lives. 

When you walk through the various memorial sites that are scattered along the shore, though, the setting seems oddly appropriate. Because most soldiers were buried in mass graves, or simply disintegrated where they fell, they've resorted to placing memorial plaques for the fallen at the places where they landed. And the memory of those deaths is somehow more poignant when you're surrounded so much beauty. 

The strangest thing is that Gallipoli means as much for the Turks as it does for us antipodeans. You wouldn't think it, mostly because we Australians tend to be naively self-absorbed about things like this. In Australia, we've kind of warped it to make ourselves both noble warriors and victims of Imperial dictates. The Ottomans, who lost 55,000 soldiers, are barely mentioned. 

When you're learning about Gallipoli in school, you tend to forget that we're the aggressors in the campaign. And when you're driving through the pennisula, all the memorials are to the ANZACs. It's only up on the hill, at Cunuck Bair, that you get an idea that it wasn't all just about us. There's a memorial up there to the Turkish 57th Regiment, who charged repeatedly at the ANZAC trenches to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. They all died, of course, even the water boy. And there's just one memorial of theirs, versus the scores of ours dotted across the landscape. 

It makes you think. 

Anyway, Gallipoli's seen as the genesis of modern Turkey. From Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal went on to become the hero that founded the Republic of Turkey. Influential man, Kemal. History's supposed to be made through the glacial shift of public opinion rather than through the force of one man's ideas, but Kemal's an exception. I doubt any other Turkish leader could've set Turkey on the road to modernisation as well as he did. It's with good reason that they call him Ataturk (father of the Turks). 

I'll end with a quote of his, about the kids who died at Gallipoli. I first heard this in primary school, and it's never failed to move me since:

"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 living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

P.S. There's a cowboy on Turkish TV at the moment, and he's lassooing people to the tune of "Wild Wild West". I'm sure there's a perfectly plausible explanation, but it's all Turkish to me. 

No comments: