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The gallant heroes of Gallipoli

In the north-west corner of Turkey lies the answer to why a Delhi street is named after a Turkish statesman

Visitors at the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial. Photo: Alamy
Visitors at the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial. Photo: Alamy

The Gallipoli Peninsula is a thin sliver of land in north-west Turkey, separated from the mainland by a narrow strait of water known as the Dardanelles. This 61km strait—6.5km across at its widest—is the shipping passage from the Mediterranean to Istanbul, a major port on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara. From here, the 32 km-long Bosphorus Strait leads north to the Black Sea. Together, these two straits form the Asia-Europe divide.

Visiting the Gallipoli Peninsula was one of the highlights of my recent trip to Turkey. As a World War buff, I was keen to see the place where one of the fiercest battles of World War I had taken place. Today it is a peaceful place, where monuments honour the memory of those who died here, and salute their bravery, camaraderie and compassion.

I started at the Gallipoli Simulation Centre, a fantastic place that tells the story of the campaign through exhibits and an hour-long 3D experience (search Çannakale Destanı Tanıtım Merkezi on Google Maps to get there).

The Mehmetçik Monument is a tribute to compassion. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
The Mehmetçik Monument is a tribute to compassion. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

By 1915, World War I had reached a stalemate on the western front in Europe. Both armies, of the Central Powers and the Allied Powers, were firmly entrenched and no end seemed in sight.

Sitting in London with his cabinet, and exhibiting a certain callousness for non-British lives, Winston Churchill proposed sending old battleships up the Dardanelles and across the Sea of Marmara to capture Istanbul. The intention was to set up a supply route to Russia, thereby opening an eastern front for the war. Little went according to plan. When the British ships attempted to sneak through the Dardanelles, they were blown to bits by Ottoman land batteries or sunk by mines.

The Allies assembled an expeditionary force of 78,000 (many from Australia and New Zealand, and collectively called the Anzac) for what was supposed to be a swift and decisive reprisal campaign. The troops were to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula and disable the Ottoman guns so that minesweepers could clear the strait. But the campaign grossly underestimated the Ottoman military potential, partly the result of a sense of superiority amongst the Allies because the once powerful Ottoman empire was on its last legs by that point.

A war cemetery on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

But the Turkish army defended its shores with ferocity. What was meant to be a quick campaign, stretched on for nine months of intense fighting in which about 58,000 Allied soldiers and 86,000 Turkish soldiers were killed. Yet, amidst the destruction, honour and compassion for fellow man did not die here. One of the most poignant stories is that of an Anzac soldier who fell wounded on the land between the two trenches. To enable his rescue, a white flag of truce was waved from the Turkish trenches, and, when the firing stopped, a Turkish infantry man climbed out of his trench and carried the wounded Anzac soldier to the Allied side. Once the infantryman was safely back in his trench, the firing resumed. The Mehmetçik Monument on the northern part of the peninsula depicts this moment, showing the Turkish infantryman carrying the wounded Anzac soldier.

The Gallipoli campaign also saw the meteoric rise of Mustafa Kemal, a lieutenant colonel in the Ottoman army. On 25 April 1915, during the Battle of Gallipoli, he rallied his troops with the now famous words: “I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die. In the time that it takes us to die, other forces and commanders can come and take our place."

Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s statue and Chanuk Bair. Many Turks believe that his being saved from the shrapnel by his pocket watch was divine intervention and it was that moment that Turkey was set on the path towards its future. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s statue and Chanuk Bair. Many Turks believe that his being saved from the shrapnel by his pocket watch was divine intervention and it was that moment that Turkey was set on the path towards its future. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

Kemal was hit in the chest by shrapnel during the decisive battle at Chunuk Bair (Conk Bayiri in Turkish) when he was leading from the front. Miraculously, the shrapnel hit the watch in his breast pocket, and he was saved, living on to earn the title of the Saviour of Istanbul. Just a short distance further north from the Mehmetçik Monument, there is a statue of Kemal at Chunuk Bair.

As I stood there, I pictured Kemal rallying his troops. He must have brandished his riding whip high in the air, showing his soldiers that he did not care if he fell to the barrage of bullets.

There is also a memorial to the New Zealand soldiers who briefly held the area.

Another interesting place to visit is the Ari Burnu Cemetery (Ari Burnu Cemetery 17900 Kocadere Köyü on Google Maps). Of the 253 soldiers buried here, 182 were Australian. A look at the headstones reveals that many of them perished on 7 August 1915, in the attempt to capture a hill code-named Baby 700.

Ari Burnu Cemetery. The three tablets at the far corner are in honour of three Indian soldiers who died here. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

At the far end of the cemetery near the sea, set a little away from the rest of the graves, are three tablets honouring three Indian soldiers amongst the many other Indians who served and died at Gallipoli. These three were mule drivers who handled the gun-hauling animals.

A stone tablet just outside the cemetery is inscribed with a speech worth reading because it is the reason why there is no air of animosity at Gallipoli today, unlike other places where bitter battles were once fought.

It is the text of Kemal’s 1934 letter to Australia, asking the mothers of sons who died at Gallipoli to wipe away their tears. He wrote to say that those who lost their lives were now the sons of Turkey too, and at peace. The letter helped bridge the chasm between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand.

Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s letter to Australia and New Zealand in 1934. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

The letter was characteristic of Kemal’s unique statesmanship. In 1923, Kemal became the founder and first president of the Secular Republic of Turkey. He used his immense power and popularity to bring about the rapid modernization of Turkey through revolutionary social and political reforms, giving Turkey a shining new identity and helping it emerge from the shadow of the medieval Ottoman empire. One of his most ardent reforms was the emancipation of women. And it is because of his actions that Turkey is the most progressive and liberal Muslim-majority country in the world. In 1934, when surnames were introduced in Turkey, the Turkish grand assembly bestowed the surname Atatürk on him, a title that means father of the Turks, or of the Turkish nation. His picture adorns many homes, establishments and public places around the country.

India too holds Kemal in high esteem. How do I know this? Many a times in Delhi, I have driven down the road connecting Panchsheel Marg with Safdarjung Road. I have often wondered why it is named Mustafa Kemal Attaturk Road. After this trip to Gallipoli, I know, and I absolutely admire the man.

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