How does one of the greatest debacles of World War I look from the Turkish perspective? On the centenary of the conflict, should the Government apologise for its part in an invasion that claimed 86,000 Ottoman Empire lives - almost twice the number of Allied soldiers killed?
They crouch in dusty trenches. Rats scurry, fresh from feasting on bloated bodies in narrow no-man's land. The troops absentmindedly scratch plump lice lining the seams of their heavy uniforms. Shells whistle overhead, aggravating raw nerves. Dysentery-ravaged, hungry, thirsty, exhausted and terrified, they want to go home. Even if they'll be leaving mates behind.

They wonder what the "Kiwis" and "Diggers" are doing in the other trenches - some only metres away. They have never even met a New Zealander.

Why did they come halfway around the world to invade their homeland? They seem like honest soldiers, decent ordinary folk. Just like them. But they won't lie down. They will fight to the death. What choice do they have?

To understand Gallipoli is to delve into history. Turkey never wanted a war. By the turn of last century, the once great Ottoman Empire was on the decline, while Britain was an aggressive imperial force still staking out claims.

While Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire were Allies in the Crimean War of 1853-56 against Russia, Britain had already taken control of Egypt and Cyprus from the Turks in the late 19th century.

The British then set their sights on the oilfields in the Persian Gulf and had ambitions in the general Mesopotamian area, according to English historian Peter Hart, author of Gallipoli.

In 1911, knowing they had to bolster their military capabilities, the Turkish Admiralty placed contracts with Armstrong Vickers at Newcastle-on-Tyne for two battleships for delivery in 1914.


But on the eve of World War I - by which time Turkey remained neutral - First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, confiscated the battleships.

The act of British "treachery" helped sway the Turkish people in favour of siding with Germany when war broke out in early August 1914.

It signed a treaty of alliance with Germany, and formally entered the conflict on October 28, 1914, with the bombing of Russian Black Sea ports.

The Triple Entente, or Allied Powers, declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 4.

With a stalemate on the Western Front already, Churchill convinced his government of the merit of an assault up the stretch of water known as the Dardanelles to Constantinople and the Black Sea. He said it would knock Turkey out of the war, removing one of the countries propping up Germany, and providing a "backdoor" attack route from the east.

The Allies land at Anzac Cove.
The Allies land at Anzac Cove.

The Dardanelles strait has been of strategic importance for centuries. The site of Troy on the Asian side, which looks across at Cape Helles on the peninsula, dominates the cultural history of the region.

Churchill's plan was "lunacy from the start", Mr Hart believes.

"[It] never had the chance to succeed; an idiocy generated by the muddled thinking of 'Easterners' such as Churchill. By attacking the Turks, the British merely allowed them the opportunity to kill and maim British [and Allied] soldiers."

After a naval attack on the strait failed, the British Empire, comprising the UK, New Zealand, Australia, India and Newfoundland, with help from France, invaded Turkey at an Aegean Sea beach now known as Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915.

However, the Turks had plenty of time to dig in and were well prepared for the invasion.

During the landings, the Allies suffered heavy casualties but the military top brass were desperate to push on. Over the next eight months, there were 141,547 casualties with 44,150 dead.

Robust Turkish record-keeping dispels the myth the Turks did not suffer as much as the Allies.

There were 251,309 Turkish casualties, with 86,692 dead.

Nejat Kavvas, a Turkey-born artist and former diplomat who lives in Auckland, is critical that some Anzac historians have failed to give a balanced view of the conflict.

"History is a positive science, like physics or chemistry, it is not gobbledegook. Like all positive sciences, you look at all angles, and make a positive deduction from it.

"But it hasn't always happened that way and that is one of the main reasons that Kiwis have never really found out what happened at Gallipoli," he says.

After emigrating to New Zealand in the late 1970s from the country he is at pains to tell Kiwis is not Turkey, but Trkiye (pronounced tukia), he settled in quickly.

But he always felt Kiwis held a lingering bitterness towards Turkey over Gallipoli.

"I couldn't understand how people could hold a grudge that a Turk shot their grandfather ... The Turks were defending themselves. Wouldn't you do that if someone attacked your country? We're not going to pick up flowers, we're going to shoot them."

Allied soldiers were told the Turks were cannibals and would use poison gas in the trenches.

But as the bloody campaign wore on, the two sides realised they were both honourable fighters with much in common.

There is a famous Turkish tale that tells the story of two New Zealanders taken prisoner. They were asked where they were from. On being informed, the Turks said: "Never heard of New Zealand".

Some Germans who were eavesdropping explained it was a country in the Pacific, on the other side of the world. The incredulous Turks then demanded of their captives: "Why are you here?"

The prisoners said they thought it would be like playing an away game of rugby.

Gallipoli campaign histories are full of anecdotes of the respect that flourished between the Anzacs and Turks, despite the fierce fighting. The Turks tossed tobacco across the lines and Anzacs would return the favour with beef bully or chocolate.

"Turks realise that New Zealanders were just innocent pawns and good people dragged in to a very dirty game by the British," Mr Kavvas says.

While Turkey won the standoff at Gallipoli when the Allies withdrew in late 1915 and early 1916, it lost the war when it surrendered on October 30, 1918.

The British returned to Gallipoli just days later. All the potent symbols of heroic Turkish resistance: Krithia, Achi Baba, Chunuk Bair, the Kilid Bahr Plateau, the Narrows forts and even Constantinople itself, were all soon under the iron grip of the Allies.

No one put it more bluntly than Mustafa Kemal - the founding father of the Republic of Turkey who made his name as an army officer at Gallipoli - who said in 1927: "The Ottoman Army had been crushed on every front".

However, history is a continuing narrative.

Kemal, later known as Ataturk, used the fame he had gained at Gallipoli to "position himself in the post-war power struggles and was successful in building a strong independent Turkey", Mr Hart says.

The dense history of Turkey is littered with famous battles. Every March 18 it celebrates the 'Canakkale victory' which signified the birth of a new nation from the wreck of the Ottoman Empire.

However, Turkish military historian and former infantry colonel Mesut Uyar says until a few decades ago, the Gallipoli campaign was not seen as an important part of the Turkish Republic's foundation.

"Although popular Turkish remembrance and commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign started with the war-period propaganda and myth-making, the Independence War proved to be more important with its peculiar myths and legends," said Mr Uyar, whose new book, The Ottoman Defence Against the Anzac Landing is the first detailed account of the landing from the Turkish perspective to be published in English.

The construction of the Dardanelles Martyrs' Memorial in the early 1950s and an official 1980s campaign to create a more articulated Gallipoli history supported with sites of remembrance were instrumental in establishing an "omnipresence of Gallipoli in Turkish history", Mr Uyar says.

Over the last 35 years, strong relationships have also developed between New Zealand and Turkey, says Mr Kavvas, who played a part in that as a diplomat.

He is proud that the two countries have developed a better understanding and respect for one another.

However, a century on from the bloodshed, he believes it is time for the New Zealand government to apologise for its part in the invasion.

"It would be a very humane and befitting New Zealand gesture that Turks would welcome greatly. From the depth of my heart, I feel New Zealand is mature enough to do that."