On Wednesday, we drove to Gallipoli, which is about 330 kilometres from Istanbul – about a five hour drive. The highway is fine in parts and not so good in others. If you’re feeling the pinch from the increased price of petrol in Australia, it is over $2.70 a litre in Turkey – although many other things, such as food, are comparatively cheap.
So much has been written and said about Gallipoli over the years that it’s hard to provide a fresh description. The Gallipoli Peninsula is at the south-eastern most point of Europe, on the western shore of the Dardanelles, the narrow waterway which leads up to Istanbul and into the Black Sea. The bottom part of the Peninsula has been declared a Peace Park and it contains a bewildering array of monuments and cemeteries for Turks, Australians, New Zealanders and British. The section where the ANZACS fought is only a small part of a large area which the Turks managed to defend – at massive human cost.
Anzac Cove itself is unexpectedly small – a narrow, unremarkable beach at the foot of an array of steep hills and gullies, covered with a mottled collection of low shrubs. In Australia recently there was a lot of controversy about roadworks leading to Anzac Cove and whether this damaged the heritage values of the site. I was part of a Senate Committee Inquiry that looked into this issue which tabled its report just a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately it was a very partisan inquiry, with the Liberal Party members seemingly just interested in defending the Government’s position and Labor mainly interested in beating up the Government. I tried to assess the issue on the evidence and it seems to me what happened was less than ideal, but we need to learn from it for the future rather than just assign blame.
There’s no doubt the widened road has a stark visual impact, as it carves straight into the hillside the ANZACS ran up when they first landed. However, for better or worse the road was already there, so there was already some impact. There seems little doubt it needed to be widened for safety reasons, but whether it had to be done quite so starkly is debateable. It is only one small part of a very large area, but it happens to be right across the front of the first ANZAC landing spot – which is why it draws such heavy traffic of Australians of course.
Naturally, at the end of the day it is Turkish land and we cannot direct them what to do, but it is clear that the Turks work hand in hand with Australia on these sites and our Government was heavily involved in planning and pushing for these roadworks. If they had just admitted the facts and their mistakes, instead of responding with their usual combination of obfuscation and buck-passing when the criticisms were raised, it would make it easier to feel confident that we will get it right in the future.
The real problem is that the numbers of people wanting to visit the Gallipoli peace park continues to grow, and at peak times there is not the infrastructure to cope with them. It is a place for peace and reflection – which is more difficult when there are streams of buses snaking around the place, disgorging packs of people at various times. However, without substantial infrastructure at the edge of the Park and the provision of more managed ways of moving people around the area, I don’t think there is much of an alternative to this. This article details such an approach which looked like being adopted a few years ago, but things seemed to have since moved down other paths for a variety of reasons.
The monuments and cemeteries have of course involved alterations to some of the area, and the geography which was so pivotal to many of the battles and hardships can’t be kept unchanging. But there is no doubt that it is still a haunting place to visit. In a simple display of just how different things are 90 years later, from the same place where so much blood was shed and so many people were never to return home or talk with their loved ones again, I was able to phone home on my mobile phone. I was standing on the beachfront at the main ANZAC commemoration site (which is actually just a few hundred metres around the bend from Anzac Cove) talking with my little girl. I was missing her a bit more than usual, as that day was her fourth birthday (another reason I was a bit reluctant to go on this trip, but opportunities like this don’t come up very often).
The bigger memorials up on the ridge line, where some of the most fearsome battles were fought, give a fuller sense of the scale of the tragedy and bravery, as well as the immense difficulties involved. We were lucky to have a local guide who was well versed in the history of the battles across the whole peninsula, who gave us good insights into the thoughts and actions of the Turks, as well as the Allies.
Australia’s Lone Pine memorial up on the ridge is very moving, but I found the monument to the Turkish 57th Regiment perhaps the most compelling – an entire Regiment wiped out, knowingly going to their deaths to provide the time for reinforcements to arrive to take their place. The respect which the ANZACS developed for the Turks stemmed from that time, and it is part of the positive folklore that grew from the battle. Stories and feelings from this battle were mentioned warmly by many of the Turkish people we met with in Ankara, which is such a contrast from many wars which produce decades of enmity.
We left Gallipoli and caught a ferry across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale. The strait is only a mile wide at its narrowest and some of the huge monuments at Gallipoli were clearly visible from the other side. Hundreds of thousands of Turks lie buried there – some in marked graves, some in unmarked or mass graves and some still undiscovered from where they fell. It is always worth Australians reminding ourselves that Gallipoli is a very sacred area for the Turks too. It is a little bit different to the uniqueness that the ANZAC landings have developed for Australia. Wars and battles are so much more a part of Turkish history than Australia’s. But the loss of Turkish life was enormous and the Turkish victory at Gallipoli was a key part in building the legend and mystique of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) – the main commander by the end of the campaign who went on to lead a war of independence and be the first President of modern Turkey in 1923. (as I mentioned in the previous post, we laid a wreath at his mausoleum on Monday).
Atatürk’s words from 1934 are on a memorial near the first ANZAC landing spot. These words have been mentioned in some way in almost every meeting we have had since we’ve been in Turkey:
you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway 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.
It is a reminder that, while in politics there are millions of words that disappear into the ether or fall immediately on barren soil, sometimes a politician’s words can be immensely powerful and beneficial – even for decades to come.