It’s ANZAC Day today – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day of Remembrance – and it’s making me think of Turkey, and Gallipoli, and a scene I witnessed more than three years ago now.
In 2007 I spent four glorious weeks traveling around Turkey in the company of some of my dearest friends. Among other adventures we sailed the Adriatic, slept in caves, marveled (and laughed) at the phallic rock formations of Cappadocia, ate Turkish delight in Istanbul, and toured Gallipoli.
I knew very little about Gallipoli before visiting Turkey. I knew it held an important place in Australian history and national identity. I knew lots of people died there. And I knew it was in Turkey. Apart from that I knew nothing except that it was a giant military stuff-up and Australia lost. I’d always thought it a bit odd that our most important day of military remembrance was celebrated on a date associated with our greatest defeat. I mean, what country does that?
In addition to my shocking ignorance, I didn’t even want to go and visit Gallipoli. I’d already seen more than a few battlefields in places as far apart as Vietnam and Bosnia and I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to spend part of my holiday wandering around World War I trenches feeling all sober and depressed. My dear friend, Tash, however, did want to go and visit, and because she was in Turkey with me just because I’d asked, I figured spending one day at Gallipoli was the least I could do.
I don’t know what I expected to find at Gallipoli except for sadness – and that was there, all right. As we wandered over the ridges and hills of the peninsula we could see just what a debacle the whole campaign had been right from the start. An estimated 10% of the troops disembarking from the carriers drowned before they even got to shore, weighed down by their gear. Those who made it to the beach were hopelessly exposed to fire from the steep hills flanking the cove – hills they would not have had to scale foot by torturous foot during the coming year and a half if they’d landed almost anywhere else along that rocky coastline. Half a million people died at Gallipoli during that time. You couldn’t help but shake your head at the useless, senseless, waste of it all.
But that wasn’t all I found at Gallipoli.
After we’d toured many of the significant battlefields and clambered in and out of trenches, our guide took us down to Anzac cove, the site of that first fateful landing. There he urged us to pick up a stone to take with us.
The stone I selected was red. Round on one side, rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz marble the red in a bizarre reversal of the pattern of our own human bodies. I carry this stone in my camera case now and whenever I see or touch it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and mateship. I think of graciousness.
Turkey has carefully preserved this entire area of Gallipoli and consulted closely with Australia in the process. Reportedly, when the Turkish government recently wanted to pave access roads into the battlefields, the Australian government lodged a formal protest something along the lines of, “Hey, you can’t do that, that’s our sacred ground!”
In response, Turkey didn’t reply, “Wait just one minute! You invaded our country, you killed hundreds of thousands of our citizens, you lost, we kicked you out, and now you are trying to tell us what to do with our land? We won, and it’s our sacred ground, too.”
No, the Turkish government basically said, “Oh, good point. OK then, we won’t pave the road after all.”
The whole area has been turned it into a virtual shrine and, in the process, Turkey has not only carefully and deliberately honoured their own dead but the dead of the ANZAC troops as well. They have erected giant granite monuments – equal in size for the ANZACs and the Turks – to commemorate the bravery and the fortitude of all who fought here and the respect that troops on both sides reportedly held for one another. There are cemeteries for the Australian and New Zealand soldiers scattered over the entire area, often lying directly adjacent to the cemeteries for the Turkish troops. And down on their knees in these cemeteries were Turkish gardeners carefully tending Australian graves.
Engraved in granite and standing watch over the battlefields are these words by Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk), a soldier who fought at Gallipoli and later went on to become Turkey’s first president:
Those heroes who 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 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 lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
I’d never seen anything like this extraordinary generosity of spirit before on a battlefield, and I haven’t since. Perhaps it would be a little like North Vietnam (or Northen Laos, for that matter) setting up war memorials to the US of an entirely different flavour to those you find in Ho Chi Minh City. I think about that and I wonder why they would, just as I wondered how and why Turkey has embraced those who once invaded them. I don’t come close to fully understanding it, even now, but three years down the track I continue to marvel at it.