A Visit to Gallipoli: Introducing Futility

After leaving Istanbul, our first stop was Çanakkale to visit Gallipoli – a site of great importance to Australians and New Zealanders, despite the fact that other nations lost far more soldiers there than we did. I’d visited Gallipoli on my first trip in Turkey, and rather than try to rewrite how I felt about it, I thought that I’d post the email that I sent home following that visit.

Yesterday I did a tour to Gallipoli. I was not overly excited about it; when it comes down to it the only reason I even went to Çanakkale and Gallipoli was because I felt obliged to, as an Australian, and because everyone had assumed that Gallipoli was half the reason for going to Turkey. However, when I was actually walking around there, along the beaches that they landed on, in the little cemeteries, in what’s left of some of the trenches, I found it quite emotional. Not because I have any emotional connection or any ancestors there or anything like that; maybe just the harsh conditions where they landed, the string of mistakes, and the ages on the gravestones. All the tombstones were erected about twenty years later, and there are very few – more often the names are listed on plaques, with a number of names like ‘Williams, J [Served as James, J]’ – these names belonged to young kids, some fifteen or sixteen, who lied about their ages to get in. And there are a lot of stones that say ‘Believed to be buried here’, which is pretty sad also. They’re all really well kept, with flowers and plants growing in between – and it sounds callous, but they’ve got a pretty nice view from some of them, right on the beach.

The guide we had was fantastic, although I think he focussed a little much on the Australian perspective [the tour was five Australian women] when I would have liked to hear more of the Turkish side. He did talk a bit about that, especially when I asked questions. It was funny, I couldn’t remember a whole lot about the Gallipoli campaign or WWI for that matter, but there were a few things I remembered – which turned out to be things that the history teacher on the tour, who teaches WWI history, didn’t know – like how the soldiers of both sides would swap food and cigarettes across the trenches on the front lines which were only eight metres apart. How a Turkish soldier had raised a truce flag in order to rescue a wounded Australian lieutenant and carry him to the Australian trenches to be treated [this Australian soldier, Lord Casey, later becoming our Governor-General].

We went up to Lone Pine, I hadn’t known the story of that. Apparently [and Anne, the history teacher, confirmed it for me], two brothers were on the front line and one was killed. The other brother found a pinecone lying on his brother’s body and sent it to his mother in Australia as a souvenir. From the seeds of the pine cone, his mother planted a tree. When the monuments and cemeteries were built in the 1930s, and when the shrine in Canberra was built, the mother send a pinecone from that tree to Canberra and to Gallipoli, and seeds from these were planted there. It’s a nice story.

The thing I wanted to see most at Gallipoli was actually the monument erected by Ataturk with part of his speech written on it:

‘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 would like to think that, had the situation been reversed, someone in Australia could have said something so beautiful. Ataturk, at that time known as Mustafa Kemal, had led the Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli. We went to the Turkish cemetery for the 57th brigade, and that was pretty sad too. That entire division was wiped out on the very first day, after being told that they were not being ordered to fight, but to die, because in the time it took them to die more Turkish soldiers and their officers would arrive. Today, apparently the Turkish army no longer has a 57th brigade out of respect for this event. There were some really nice plaques there with words written by the Australian Governor-General Lord Casey [there’s a Rover crew named after him], who had been rescued by the Turkish soldier. So, at least it seemed that there was someone able to say something nice in return.

I guess I really didn’t anticipate that Gallipoli would affect me so much, having no emotional connection to the place whatsoever and a general hatred of war. Maybe it was just the sheer futility of it all, and some of the words written on these young boys’ headstones at a place where they think they may have been buried. And yet, we still haven’t learned a thing. I haven’t change my mind however and think it would absolutely HORRIBLE to be there on Anzac Day. I don’t think you could pay me enough to go at that time.

Some things never change, and on my second visit – while I wasn’t hit with the tragedy of it all as hard as the first time – the simple futility and the utter waste of an entire generation of men still struck me. When you look back at it, there is no victory or glory to be found in the Gallipoli Campaign on either side really. It was a complete failure for the Allies and the ANZACs, and the Turks lost so many young men that it could hardly be termed a success except for that they did ultimately prevent the Allies from controlling the sought-after Gelibolu Peninsula.

In Australia, many people claim that ‘Australia as a nation’ was ‘born’ on the battlefields of Gallipoli. I disagree with this. I also disagree with the increased glorification of this campaign over all others in modern Australian culture. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t disagree with the respect shown to the history and to the people whose lives were ended or irrevocably changed as a result of being sent to the bloody battlefields of war. I just don’t like the way that the ANZAC legend has become the ultimate image of patriotism in Australia. I should admit that I also hate patriotism, as I believe it leads only to division rather than unity, and nothing good ever seems to come from it. The increase over the last twenty years in Australian ‘pilgrimage’ to Gallipoli on Anzac Day also strikes me as bizarre. I can’t imagine a worse time to be there – freezing in a crowd of ten thousand drunk or hungover Aussies and Kiwis, getting no feel at all for the actual territory or battle. I’ll stick to hearing the Last Post played at home. While I believe all countries should, to an extent, honour those who have given their lives for their flag, I don’t think that Australians should attempt to define their national identity based on a battle.

This visit to Gallipoli, we were lucky enough to have a very distinguished guide – Kenan Çelik, a Gallipoli expert and the first Turkish recipient of the Order of Australia Medal. Some of the stories and histories he told us differed slightly to what I’d been told last time, and Kenan gave us far more information than I think any other guide could possibly do. If you ever plan to visit Gallipoli, it’s one place where I’d absolutely recommend doing a tour – and if you can, try to do a tour with Kenan Çelik. His website is http://www.kcelik.com/.

Here are a few more photos from around Gallipoli.

This is the cove where the Australian contingent landed in 1915.


Many of the tombstones bear very religious messages, or messages that irritated me a little in the way that they glorified war. I understand that the families of those who died would want to believe that their sons or husbands died for some greater cause, but the epitaphs I liked were those that were simple tributes to the deceased as a person rather than a soldier, like this one.

A view of the one of the beachside cemeteries

The best known part of Ataturk's speech, which always makes me a little teary.

One of Mum's photographs of the beach cemetery

The cemeteries are very well kept, with flowers and shrubs growing around the headstones.

Remains of the trenches

The statue of the Fallen Soldier - a Turkish soldier carrying a fallen Australian soldier to the Australian trenches following a ceasefire.

The Turkish 57th Regiment cemetery


Lone Pine in October 2010

Lone Pine in January 2012

The gravestone of Simpson, of Simpson and his donkey fame.

A beautiful sunset from Chunuk Bair


6 responses to “A Visit to Gallipoli: Introducing Futility

  1. Cannot believe that I have just read almost duplicate of my thoughts on Gallipoli, from those before going; response to the exaggerated emphasis on the Australian role; the wonderful (literal sense) words of Attaturk; the distress that this battle has defined a nation; the huge generosity of the Turkish people; the awful inscriptions on some stones which suggestedthet there was “no better way” – BAH!! – the photo (I also took just this one) of Frank’s gravestone with his beloved’s most emotive words; the beauty, serenity and very moving simplicity of the memorials; the wish that all the ballyhoo would end and just leave this place to quietly tell its story to each individual as they chose to visit – all these were my thoughts – how well you have presented them with your beautiful photographs. How many others think like us?

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to have thought how I did! I would imagine we’re not alone, although it seems rarer given the increasing emphasis on the Gallipoli campaign in the Australian psyche. I’m pleased you enjoyed my post and found a resonance with it. The headstone for Frank was heartwarming, because it was so simple and so human and so loving, and so unlike those remembering the dead as a soldier before a person. I was surprisingly glad I visited, despite my initial reluctance. It shouldn’t be forgotten, at the same time as it shouldn’t define us.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful post ~ one quote from your email resonated, especially: “How a Turkish soldier had raised a truce flag in order to rescue a wounded Australian lieutenant and carry him to the Australian trenches to be treated [this Australian soldier, Lord Casey, later becoming our Governor-General].”

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