Memoire of a visit to Gallipoli

Contributed by RICHARD POLLARD

 

A Visit to Gallipoli – My Impressions

 

I visited Gallipoli (also known as Gelibolu in Turkish, from the Greek kallipolis “beautiful city”) on the west coast of Turkey towards the end of April this year. In fact it was the day before a huge cordon sanitaire was thrown around thPeninsula for the official 100 year commemorations, which included the visit by our own President

It was an overcast and windy day – maybe in keeping with the surroundings and tragedy of the place where in less than 9 months of 1915 and early 1916,nearly half a million men died, were wounded or evacuated as seriously sick.

Land and Sea –The Peninsula and The Dardanelles

Parts of the Peninsula could be mistaken for shoreline in Clare or Kerry – narrow beaches, some sandy, some stony, rising up to sandhills , with deep gullies and ravines, in some places, very steep and seemingly impassable.
The one essential difference is when you turn your back on the land, you look out at a dramatic and vast channel of water, but in some places less than 2 kilometres wide. From a higher vantage point, you will see what seems to be an endless convoy of ships, tankers and cargo boats, at a measured distance from each other, making their way in one direction only. For this stretch of narrow waters is strictly policed, monitored and controlled : each ship must travel at a minimum distance in the convoy, and at regular intervals the direction of the heavy maritime traffic is reversed.

This is the Dardanelles Straits, still today a highly sensitive and strategic waterway, separating the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorous, and the Black Sea to the North, from the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to the South.

The Gallipoli Campaign

This then was the setting for the Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign, which was fought at sea and on land between 25th April 1915 and 9th January 1916.It was fought between the Allied Forces, comprising forces from the British Empire (including Australia which had become independent in 1901,while New Zealand was granted effective independence in 1907.The Campaign is often considered the birth of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, and the date of the Landing, 25th April, as “Anzac Day “) . Australia lost 7,600 killed, some 18,500 wounded or missing, New Zealand 2,400 killed and some 5,100 wounded or missing.
                  

France was also a significant Allied partner in the Campaign, with 27,000 killed and some 23,000 wounded and missing.  The British Empire Forces (excluding Anzac ) suffered 22,000 killed and some 198,000 wounded or missing. Historical statistics vary regarding the final summary of casualties –on both sides – of those killed in action, missing believed dead, and evacuated as wounded or suffering from sickness.

Opposing these formidable forces was the weakened and depleted forces of Turkey, the remnants of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. However, significantly, Turkey had decided, or was influenced to ally itself with Germany, which provided both military advice and armaments.

The Gallipoli Campaign was originally conceived by the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, as a daring naval attack on and through the Dardanelles to take and occupy the Straits, then Constantinople, now Istanbul. This would have had the dual result of knocking Turkey out of the war and opening up a second front in the East to attack German forces through Russia. It needs to be remembered that by late 1914 the war on the Western Front had become a stalemate : the Franco-British offensive had ground to a halt and new political and military initiatives by the Allied Forces were in short supply.

The initial Gallipoli naval campaign was a disaster : out of 18 Allied capital warships,3 were sunk by mines or shelling and 3 severely damaged. The Allies were now faced with deploying substantial ground forces , with no element of surprise, and some intelligence on the topography of the Peninsula dating back to the Crimean War. There was little or no intelligence related to the defensive ground forces or logistics and armaments opposing the landings.

It is important to summarise these facts to enable us to understand why the entire project resulted in one of the largest modern political and military disasters and the unjustified level of casualties which ensued.

The Fallen at Gallipoli

There are over 25 separate cemeteries or commemoration sites across the Peninsula commemorating the Fallen –on both sides. We were fortunate in the time available to us, to visit 5 or 6,including Anzac Cove, where we met a large contingent of visiting Australian and New Zealanders, the Lone Pine Australian Monument, Cape Helles British Memorial, Green Hill Cemetery and Suvla Bay. Significantly these last two were visited by President Mary McAleese in 2010.The President’s visit was the first official recognition of the huge loss of Irish lives (both North and South ) and casualties at Gallipoli .

As we were reminded by our Turkish guide, in fact more Irishmen, both from the North and South, died or were casualties at Gallipoli, than soldiers from New Zealand, which very publicly and prominently commemorates Anzac Day (with Australia) every year.

        

Probably stating the obvious, it seems to me that the difficulty for us and for Ireland has either been our collective national amnesia to these tragic events, or our diluted and divided leanings -either North and South on this Island. Significantly, this year of commemoration, there has been much written and broadcast about the Irish involvement and the Gallipoli campaign in general. (There is also a very interesting ongoing exhibition in Collins Museum ( then the Royal Barracks ) on the Irish and various Regiments involved ,and well worth a visit ).

Ireland’s Contribution

Somehow Ireland’s total contribution has been lost or diminished over the past 95 years as part of our involvement in the British Empire. Thanks to various historians, commentators and broadcasts, we are only now recognising recently what a defining role Irish men played in Gallipoli and indeed in other 20th century conflicts .
It is interesting to note recent articles and programmes which are only now highlighting specific Irish and personal involvement, which at the time, was woven into the fabric of British military history and their Regiments, including :

1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin, Munster and Inniskilling Fusiliers
(which took part in landings at Cape Helles on 25th April )

10th(Irish) Division-containing new service battalions of the Irish Regiments because of very heavy losses -landed at Suvla Bay, where Mary Mc Aleese laid a plaque in 2010 in their memory. We visited this site and landing area : wide and desolate, containing flat salt marshes and open ground for kilometres inland-until it rises up to difficult hilly terrain, full of steep valleys and gullies…farmers today continue to cultivate the land here, and continue to uncover battle remnants and human remains. The whole of the Peninsula is now dedicated as the Gallipoli National Park and all cemeteries and commemoration sites remain open 24 hours a day throughout the whole year.

7th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers D Company (Pals Unit )

Pals units were a very persuasive concept in the British Army : to encourage groups of young friends to sign up together. It worked very successfully , especially in the North of England and Scotland. In Dublin, the then President of the Irish Rugby Football Union appealed for recruits and the D Company Pals Unit was established at the Royal (now Collins )Barracks. Some 220 young and enthusiastic men, mainly from middle class backgrounds, signed up. However, within a week of being thrown into combat at Gallipoli, this unit suffered a 70% casualty rate, most at Suvla Bay.

As a very modest reminder to their memories, I took a note of some of the Irish buried in the cemeteries so far away from us :

Private L Kemp Royal Munster Fusiliers 15 September 1915

Corporal D Green Royal Dublin Fusiliers (38 ) August

Private P Walsh Royal Dublin Fusiliers (28) 17 September

Private E Darcy Royal Irish Fusiliers 31 August

Corporal RM Broderick RIF (25) 10 August

Private P McGrath RDF 13 August

Private M Haverty RMF (39) 1 September

Brigadier-General Thomas Earl of Longford (50) 21 August
HQ Staff. 2nd South Midland Mounted Brigade*

*5th Earl of Longford , born in Dublin, eldest son of William Pakenham
Buried at Green Hill Cemetery, Suvla Bay.

As a small footnote: the overall Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force was General Sir Ian Hamilton (appointed by Lord Kitchener ,Secretary of State for War, who visited Anzac Cove in November 1915). When the expedition stalled, he was relieved of his command in October, effectively ending his military career.

It is reputed that this was due in no small part due to a young Australian newspaperman and reporter called Keith Murdoch who was given permission to visit the battlefront at Gallipoli and reported back frankly and openly what he had seen and experienced at the front. His report was sent to the Australian Prime Minister, and found its way to Lloyd George (who had opposed the landings ) who encouraged him to send a copy to the then British Prime Minister, Asquith. The Australian reporter was the father of Rupert Murdoch, the business and media magnate.

The successful evacuation of Gallipoli began on December 12th until 9th January 1915,and ended one of the most disastrous political and military events in British history.
In addition, we also visited some of the main Turkish commemoration sites, one of which is located high above the Peninsula. There are spectacular views from this highest of vantage points : a virtual 180 degree view of the coast and waterway and a direct view down to some of the main landing sites. But it is the Straits which dominate your attention -spreading out far in both directions. Now as then, this area is heavily forested, mainly with pines and would have been the eventual high point strategic objective by the Allies in occupying the Peninsula. Here there are actual fortified trenches dug and preserved just as they were built 100 years ago. Apart from a Turkish cemetery here, there is also a very impressive and large memorial with the words of Kemal Attaturk ( who played a decisive and leading role in defending the Peninsula ) and became the leader and father figure of modern day Turkey :

“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 Memhets 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.”

( Attaturk , 1934 )

At the end of a very impressive and indeed emotional day, as a group, we made our way down from Sari Bair Ridge(at over 300 metres, the highest plateau in Gallipoli ) to Kilid Bahr Fort and ferry point across the Narrows to Canakkale, the ferryport opposite on the Asia Minor side of Turkey. The city is the nearest town to the site of ancient Troy which we visited the next day.

From here next morning we were able to see back across the Dardanelles and the Narrows –the narrowest crossing point through which the Allied warships had attempted their naval invasion. Only today, as mentioned earlier, this has been replaced by the sight of a steady convoy of large ships and tankers making their way in single file south towards Cape Helles and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Below them lie six of the Allied wrecks (the subject of a TV documentary by the ocean explorer, Dr Robert Ballard).

As we left Cannakkle, the abiding memory was brought down to a human level: of all the individual lives lost on both sides, casualties and longer term suffering – by a single fateful decision which placed the lives of so many in deadly peril.

The final view and memory was of the very large hillside overlooking the Narrows on the other side (photo at top) :

On it flies an enormous red Turkish flag, and beneath it, the DUR YOLCU MEMORIAL , with a huge carved figure of a Turkish soldier, and engraved on the hillside in huge lettering, the simple words :

18 MART 1915

The simple date is a reminder when the combined Allied fleet sailed up the Dardanelles and began shelling the Turkish forts and gun emplacements.

Maybe this poem tells us as much about ourselves and our history as it does for the Turkey of yesterday and today ?

*A Turkish poem commissioned to commemorate the defence of Gallipoli and ultimately, Turkey :

Stop wayfarer ! Unbeknownst to you this ground
You come and tread on, is where an epoch lies;
Bend down and lend your ear, for this silent mound
Is the place where the heart of a nation sighs.

To the left of this deserted shadeless lane
The Anatolian slope now observe you well;
For liberty and honour, it is , in pain,
Where wounded Memhet laid down his life and fell.

This very mound, when violently shook the land
When the last bit of earth passed from hand to hand,
And when Mehmet drowned the enemy in flood,
Is the spot where he added his own pure blood.

Think, the consecrated blood and flesh and bone
That made up this mound, is where the whole nation,
After a harsh and pitiless war, alone
Tasted the joy of freedom with elation.

Maybe this poem, translated from Turkish, tells us as much about ourselves and our history as for the Turkey of yesterday and today.

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