Alan Scott: Myths of Gallipoli - a century on, it's time to think again

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Tales of Anzac bravery are celebrated but the stories of Turkish heroism and gallantry also need to be heard as we mark the bloody conflict often regarded as New Zealand's baptism of fire as a nation.

New Zealand soldiers, believed to be from Wellington Mounted Rifles occupying a trench on the Table Top during the night of August 6, 1915, as they prepare for the attack on Chunuk Bair. Photo / James Cornelius Read
New Zealand soldiers, believed to be from Wellington Mounted Rifles occupying a trench on the Table Top during the night of August 6, 1915, as they prepare for the attack on Chunuk Bair. Photo / James Cornelius Read

'At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them."

Another Anzac Day - although it's not the big one - next year will be the centennial of that dreadful exercise in military futility known in English as the Gallipoli Campaign, and to Turks as the Canakkale War. Next year, visitor numbers will be limited to politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk lucky enough to have their number drawn in a ballot.

This year, there are fewer restrictions, and the usual crowds of pilgrims from Downunder will this evening (NZT) converge on the beaches, battlefields and cemeteries where more than 11,000 of their grandfathers left their remains during eight months of bitter trench warfare.

I want to bisect the dates selected by Turks and Anzacs to commemorate the event. For Turks, it has passed. March 18 is when they celebrate their victory - sadly ironic for Australians and New Zealanders who remember April 25 as the day our boys came ashore at Anzac Cove.

As far as Ottoman commanders were concerned, the main threat came from battleships of the combined French and British navies trying to storm through the Dardanelles, heave-to at the entrance to the Bosporus, train their 15-inch guns on the Sultan's palace and offer him the chance to exit quietly with his hands up.

Like many well-laid and not-so-well-laid plans of mice and men, the naval gambit didn't come off. Three battleships - one French and two British - were sunk by the shore batteries and mines inhospitably placed by Ottoman defence forces.

The Royal Navy and its French allies beat a strategic retreat, and Plan B was put into action. That was the beach landings with which we antipodeans are more familiar. For their part, the Ottomans, trusting in conventional military wisdom which favours the defenders in a marine-based invasion, backed themselves to turn it back - which they ultimately did, after eight months of fairly pointless slaughter.

These days, what we descendants of those Anzac lads choose to commemorate is something more symbolic. At the time, the British Empire was still claiming to rule the seas and an empire on which the sun never set. New Zealanders were still colonials and thinking of Britain as "home"; the King and Country they were fighting for, George V and Mother England.

Many of us now, rightly or wrongly, look on April 25, 1915 as the date we began to grow up as a nation, to cut the imperial apron strings and to forge our own identity. The brave young men who performed above and beyond the call of duty in those Gallipoli valleys and on the ridges planted the seeds of independence and self-determination in our national psyche.

The day of commemoration in Turkey may be different, but that bloody struggle has an equally important place in the popular consciousness. Defeat in World War I heralded the end of the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Victory in the Canakkale War marked the beginning of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the resistance movement that turned back a military invasion, expelled occupying forces and founded the modern Republic of Turkey.

Legends abound on both sides of extraordinary courage, heart-rending pathos and minor events with major repercussions. One such is known to Turks as "the watch that changed a nation's destiny". One of the crucial engagements of the campaign took place on the ridge of Conk Bay (Chunuk Bair). During that closely-fought encounter, a piece of shrapnel is said to have struck Colonel Mustafa Kemal in the chest. The watch in his breast pocket took the impact and very probably saved his life. Turks often say, "If not for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, there would be no Turkey".

On the Anzac side, an enduring story is that of Private Simpson who, with his donkey, earned fame and gratitude by carrying wounded comrades back to the shore under constant fire in an area known as Shrapnel Gully. Prints of the man and his beast hang on walls of RSA clubrooms, and a statue by sculptor Wallace Anderson in the Australian War Memorial Museum in Melbourne enshrines the legend.

In Turkey too, statues are to be found embodying the courage and self-sacrifice of young men who managed to retain their humanity in those inhuman conditions. There is Corporal Seyit, a gunner who is reputed to have carried single-handedly three artillery shells weighing 275kg to the shore batteries silenced when the shell crane was damaged.

Another, in a location known to Anzacs as Pine Ridge, immortalises the deed of a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded Allied officer to safety. An article in the Daily Telegraph told how the officer, a captain, "lay in no man's land while a ferocious battle raged around him. A white flag tied to the muzzle of a rifle appeared from a Turkish trench and the shooting suddenly stopped. A Turkish soldier climbed from the trench, picked up the officer, delivered him to the Australian lines and returned to his own side".

The story is considered reliable since it was reported by Lieutenant Richard Casey, who later became Governor-General of Australia.

It is a surprising thing to me that Turks seem to harbour no resentment against the descendants of those Anzacs who invaded their country and killed 80,000 of their young men.

I have found that my New Zealand nationality seems to give me a special status in Turkey. We are accorded free-of-charge a three-month visitor's visa when we enter the country - a gesture our Government does not reciprocate.

The magnanimous words of Ataturk to the mothers of Anzac soldiers killed in action are often quoted: "Those heroes that 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 the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your 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."

I was a little saddened, then, to read the following article in my local Turkish newspaper recently. Translated, it says: "On the 99th anniversary of the Canakkale naval victory, and as Anzacs prepare for ceremonies commemorating their war dead, an 89-year-old insult has come to light.

"A statue entitled 'Evacuation' in the collection of the War Memorial Museum in the Australian capital city Canberra depicts an Anzac soldier leaning against a gun carriage with a Turkish flag under his feet and beside the flag a human skull assumed to belong to a Turkish soldier.

"The gun carriage on which the Anzac soldier is leaning represents war and the disaster of Gallipoli. The Turkish flag and skull on which he is standing symbolise the territory they invaded and the enemies they killed.

"The museum's website contains photographs, and information that the statue was modelled in clay in 1925, moulded in plaster in 1926 and cast in bronze in Melbourne in 1927. According to notes on the website, the 82cm-high statue was later bought by the Australian War Memorial Museum and added to its collection.

"While our boys during the Canakkale War were waving a white flag to pause hostilities and behaving like gentlemen in carrying a wounded Anzac soldier back to his own trench, the continued presence of this statue in the collection after 89 years has drawn a reaction from history scholars.

"Every year on Anzac Day, April 25, Australians and New Zealanders coming to pay their respects to their forebears are welcomed on the Gallipoli Peninsula by a monument depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac soldier in his arms."

I checked it out and it's true. There is such a statue in the Australian War Memorial Museum, and it seems to contain the details to which the Turkish columnist was objecting.

The sculptor, Wallace Anderson, served in France during WWI, so he had first-hand experience of the conflict. Apparently he saw it as his artistic mission "to show the public the qualities of Australian servicemen, rather than just the details of war". This particular piece portrays an "idealised depiction of Australian manhood", an admirable sentiment, as far as it goes.

But we should recognise that what may have been important to Australians and New Zealanders in the 1920s may have been superseded by the requirements of living in the 21st century global village.

One of the myths of Gallipoli, from an Allied point of view, is that although we were unsuccessful, we put up an almighty fight, and in the end, by remarkable feats of ingenuity and cunning, managed to spirit ourselves away from under the noses of the Turkish gunners without major loss of life.

It is possible, however, that those Ottoman commanders, seeing the invaders were obviously intent on vacating the premises, elected to let them go without inflicting more unnecessary casualties.

It may have been deemed necessary, in Australia in 1925, to maintain the myth by suggesting that, in spite of the manifest failure of the Gallipoli invasion, our boys had trampled on the Turkish flag and inflicted heavy casualties on the young men defending their homeland - but 90 years on we may want to accept that such jingoistic imperialism belongs, at best, to the footnotes of history.

One of my favourite New Zealand writers, Maurice Shadbolt, produced a book based on interviews he carried out in the early 1980s. Realising that the Gallipoli generation would not be around much longer, Shadbolt hunted out survivors and visited them in old folks' homes around New Zealand.

Voices of Gallipoli is a collection of transcripts of the interviews he conducted with these men in their 80s, some of whom had not spoken of their experiences before. Their poignant recollections convey, with dramatic simplicity, the contrast between the idealised heroic glamour of war and the dehumanising squalor, terror and personal loss of Gallipoli: "I lost my dearest friend, Teddy Charles, that day. We joined up together and saw the campaign through together until Chunuk Bair. There were no officers left, no NCOs. Just soldiers. Teddy led 30 men forward to try and hold the ridge. He called, 'Come on, Vic', but I was impeded by Turkish fire. We never saw those 30 men again. Later, in the dark, I thought I heard Teddy's voice calling for his mother, then for me. But then the place was crawling with Turks and I couldn't get to him. He's still on Chunuk Bair, a pile of bones."

And: "Veterans of the Wellington battalion remember a member of the machine-gun section being sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. It happened in late July at Quinn's Post. The sentence was remitted on medical grounds as the man had not been relieved from sentry duty at the proper time. He continued to serve on the peninsula and was killed in the August battles."

Interestingly, there is very little information about this book online - it seems to be out of print and I was unable to find an in-depth review. How many years must pass before we are able to view historical events with dispassionate objectivity? Very occasionally we are permitted a glimpse into a "familiar" event through the eyes of another observer - and the experience can be sobering.

I read another Turkish source suggesting that, if the invasion of Gallipoli had succeeded and Allied forces had been able to supply and reinvigorate the Czarist Russian military, as was their aim, the Bolshevik Revolution might have been delayed and perhaps never have occurred. The red tide of British imperialism might have flowed a little longer - and that of Soviet Communism faded before it began. The world might have been spared the mindlessly suffocating half-century of Cold War threats and posturing.

History is full of "ifs" and "might-have-beens" ... and it's worth remembering that there are at least two sides to every story.

Alan Scott is a New Zealander who has been living and working in Istanbul for more than 15 years.

- NZ Herald

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