In ANZAC fields, the pine trees grow

29 January 2016

Diana Bentley remembers her countrymen at the Gallipoli memorial sites

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The scale of the cost: large numbers of graves overlook the sea

The scale of the cost: large numbers of graves overlook the sea

IN THE wake of the centenary services for the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, the war cemeteries of the famed peninsula are festooned with flags and photos that flutter in the sea breeze, left by those who have come to pay homage to their forebears.

The grave of John Simpson, the infantryman who rescued stricken comrades with his donkey, bears a note from a descendant who was keen to make contact with other family members. Who knows what new bonds of friendship will be forged through the journeys to this hallowed ground?

Lying south-west of Istanbul, the peninsula is a narrow finger of land that extends 60 kilometres between the Aegean Sea to the west, and the Dardanelles Strait to the east. Bordering the link between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, it has long been a place of strategic importance.

Not far across the Dardanelles lie the ruins of the doomed ancient city of Troy, the site of another epic struggle.

Many day trips from Istanbul offer afternoon tours of the western, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) part of the peninsula. But I opt for an overnight stay in the small town of Eceabat so that I can also visit Cape Helles, the southernmost part of the peninsula, and follow the full story of the heroism and sacrifice in both places.

As an Australian raised on the stories of the grim struggle that ANZAC soldiers faced when they landed on the peninsula’s western coast, I imagined an arid, forbidding landscape.

Instead, I am met by a peaceful vision of lush farms and vineyards, offering sweeping views of the sea. Shepherds guard flocks of shaggy sheep, and farmers putter along narrow roads on tractors, between fields of wild flowers.

It is hard to imagine how it must have been transformed when the Allies invaded on 25 April 1915, beginning the gruelling military campaign in which more than 56,000 Allied soldiers were killed, and as many of the Turks who were defending their homeland.

 

THE hard evidence of the struggle is soon at hand. South of Eceabat, heading towards Cape Helles, a vast cannon, flanked by several statues of Turkish soldiers, points threateningly towards the Dardanelles.

The legendary Turkish Corporal Seyit Çabuk is remembered here for demonstrating Herculean strength: loading enormous shells to fire at the British ships, and galvanising Turkish morale.

When British and French troops invaded Cape Helles, they were aiming for high ground, and their objective was the wooded hill of Achi Baba. Standing in the lookout here, I gaze at the pine-forested hills that ripple into the distance, and watch as the sun glints off the sea.

Several attempts were made to take this hill, but their failure proved costly in human life. The task must have been daunting, but the attempt had started badly in any event: the sea at V Beach was said to have been red with blood during the Allied landings under fierce Turkish fire.

Today, much of the peninsula is protected as a national park, and the beach is a shady and peaceful place. Its silence and emptiness seem like a fitting tribute to the dead.

Several memorials stand in this area. High on a hill, the Çanakkale Martyrs Memorial is an enormous monument engraved with Turkish names and scenes from the violent conflict. The blockish structure rises 137 feet into the air, dwarfing all before it, and can be seen from far out in the straits.

The commanding figure of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, stands here, too. Atatürk, who ordered his soldiers not just to attack, but to die for their country, made his reputation in the campaign, and is also famed for his moving tributes to the Allied fallen.

Also on high ground, overlooking the sea at the very tip of the peninsula, is the Helles Memorial. An elegant obelisk, newly restored, it commemorates the lives of more than 21,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.

 

AWAY from the peace of these sites, at the relatively new Gallipoli Epic Simulation Centre, I am rocked about in a simulated landing craft, and shaken by explosions in 3D interactive displays about the history of the campaign.

After the solemn silence of the cemeteries and battlefields, the display provides plenty of realistic and noisy drama which gives visitors a tiny insight into the harrowing experiences endured by the young soldiers. The excellent museum also houses a range of memorabilia from both armies.

To the west lies the ANZAC part of the peninsula, where the Aegean Sea washes in on empty beaches. Owing to a signalling failure, the young Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed not on a broad beach fringed by low foothills, as expected, but on a cramped cove.

The huge red cliffs of the Sari Bair range that rear up from the sea must have been a daunting sight for the invading forces. Trained in Egypt, the troops called one rocky outcrop “The Sphinx”.

Fired upon by the Turkish forces stationed above, these men made sacrifices that have marked the psyche of their countrymen forever. A simple memorial at the ANZAC Commemorative Site stands above the sea, and it is here that ANZAC Day services are held each year on 25 April.

War cemeteries unfold in this rugged landscape, one after the other: Ari Burnu and Beach cemeteries, Shrapnel Valley and Plugge’s Plateau. The green lawns are beautifully tended, and the flowers are bright, but the white gravestones rise in awful numbers — there is no mistaking the scale of the cost.

The full blast of it assaults me as I read the heart-rending inscriptions written for young sons — many of them little more than boys — who are mourned here.

 

UP ABOVE, on the plateau, you can gaze down the ravines that cut deep into the hills to the beaches below. ANZAC troops heroically scaled the steep heights of Shrapnel Valley to make their way up to the front line.

In the scrubland here, Lone Pine Cemetery marks the spot of a Turkish stronghold, attacked and eventually taken by Australian forces. Nearby, the fallen of New Zealand, a fledgling nation at the time, just like Australia, are remembered at the Chunuk Bair Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial.

But there are tales of compassion on both sides, too. A fine sculpture at the Turkish Mehmetçik Memoria shows a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian officer, and commemorates a real event.

In the pine-scented forest there is an area of the battlefield known as “Johnston’s Jolly”, named after one of the Allied generals. Here, the trenches and tunnels of the opposing forces still scar the landscape beneath the trees. At Quinn’s Post, the trenches are only metres apart. Our guide informs us that they still find shells, teeth, and fragments of bone in these places.

At the end of my tour, the sun is beginning to throw shadows over the scrubland. The silence seems desolate. Here, young men died a world away from homes they would never see again. Those who survived would never forget what happened.

The guns have long fallen silent, and the peninsula is now a destination of pilgrimage for people from around the world. I marvel at a place that manages to seem so tranquil and beautiful, while harbouring reminders of so much human destruction.

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