Just back from Gallipoli, an incomparably beautiful place. The peace and beauty of the Gallipoli peninsula may seem incongruous given the often vicious fighting that took place there in 1915, but it is undeniable. The light is almost Venetian. Wild flowers abound. The CWGC cemeteries are wholly different from Western Front ones, the unstable ground being unsuited to Lutyens’ upright Portland headstones. But they are no less lovely (see photo), with a profusion of vibrantly coloured plants. They are often spectacularly sighted. The HELLES MEMORIAL is particularly dramatic, offering a vista towards both the Aegean and the Dardanelles – and to ancient Troy in the distance on the Asian side.
We were entirely alone. We saw no-one in any of the 20 or so cemeteries we visited. The third week in May is the best time to visit; not too hot and the hordes of Turkish coaches bringing the faithful to see the last hurrah of the Ottoman Empire (paid for by Erdogan’s party) have departed. These people are told a melodramatic story of heroic Turks led by Ataturk beating the overwhelming might of the Allies; they are told of Turks risking their lives to save wounded Anzacs in no man’s land. The story is not entirely true. Ataturk did indeed intervene to scupper Allied chances of a breakthrough at crucial moments but Turks were officered by Germans; and at no time did the Allies outnumber Turkish forces. Unfortunately, although acts of mercy occured, Turkish soldiers, perhaps bloodied by the ferocity of recent Balkan wars, were wont to kill prisoners, some only being spared by the timely arrival of German officers or, on one occasion, by an imam.
Myth abounds. Australians still buy the Mel Gibson line that gallant Aussie lads were led to the slaughter by bastard Pom incompetents. But the Aussies did a very good job of bungling their own tactics, of providing an ample resource of their own incompetent Brigadiers. More Australians were killed on the Somme than at Gallipoli. Most of those killed on the peninsula were born in Britain. The official historian, Charles Bean, wrote in his history a sanitised version in which Anzacs are universally brave and gung-ho; but his diaries reveal a slightly greyer picture, with Aussie ranks having their fair share of malingerers and shirkers. Yet one’s admiration for the broad mass of soldiery, of both sides, is boundless; they faced extremes of heat and terrain and sometimes day after day of hand-to-hand fighting. Some British generals were utterly useless, like Stopford at Suvla Bay, who didn’t bother to step off his pleasant accomodation on his comfy ship to come ashore and see the chaos his bungling had created on land. And there were brutes like Hunter-Weston who said he didn’t give a stuff about casualties so long as his orders were carried out, never a popular attitude with the men.
If our landings at Anzac (some way from the intended place) and V-Beach were bungled our leaving of the peninsula was a masterpiece of staff work, with not a man lost as we sneaked away in the night. The Germans were lost in admiration, the Turks cheered their ‘victory’. But they were soon to be utterly defeated, by Allenby and others, and to lose their empire.
If you go to Gallipoli stay on the peninsula at Gallipoli Houses, a marvellous guest house with fabulous views, run by a Belgian chap called Eric Goosens who knows as much as anyone about the events of 100 years ago.
But beware the Turkish driver. Getting out of Istanbul is a like a stock car race – a macho, beeping hysterical armada of cars all jostling for position without signals or an iota of ‘lane discipline’. Not for the weedy or those offended by gestures or shouts that can be roughly translated as ‘you are the son of a whore and may a thousand ants infest your armpit’.