Growing up in America has definitely given me a unique view of world history. A unique and biased view, many could argue.
Yes, my world history classes covered the ancient Egyptians and the empires of ancient Greece and Rome. We learned about the French Revolution and British colonization. And yes, we even brushed upon both World Wars.
But I didn’t really have a sense of how much got left out until my trip to Europe this past summer.
I was signed up for a 9-day Busabout tour from Istanbul to Split with a bus full of mostly Australians. Our first stop after Istanbul was Gallipoli — a place I had heard about before, but honestly knew very little about. I just knew it was akin to a pilgrimage site for Aussies and Kiwis, but I was fuzzy on the reason why.
Well, as it turns out, Gallipoli — a peninsula in eastern Turkey in between the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea — was the site of one of the bloodiest, most ridiculous battles of World War I. And I’d never even heard so much as a whisper about it in any history class.
This actually kind of pissed me off. I mean, I realize that distilling thousands of years of history down into a semester- or year-long course is tough. But I would have hoped that a battle with roughly half a million casualties would have at least merited a mention in my history book.
The Battle of Gallipoli, which took place from April 25, 1915 to January 9, 1916, was important to history in more ways than one. First of all, it was seen as a major defeat to the Allies (who were trying to secure a sea route to Russia), and a defining moment for the Turks. It would be the spark to light the fire for Turkish independence years later lead by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — one of the commanders at Gallipoli. And for the the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), the battle would mark a turning point in establishing each country’s national identity.
That’s kind of a big deal. But it took a visit to Gallipoli for me to learn any of it.
I’ve done some research into dark tourism before (tourism to sites associated with death and/or suffering), and have found that motivations ARE often tied to a person’s nationality and personal history. Americans, for example, are much more likely to want to visit places like Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero for emotional reasons than, say, people from China. For a Chinese person, Pearl Harbor is just another attraction in Hawaii, and Ground Zero is a cool place to get a photo taken. For Americans, though, these places are almost sacred; these are places where OUR history has played out and been memorialized.
I knew, then, that visiting Gallipoli as an American would be different. I have no ties to the Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, or Turks who lost their lives on these far-off shores. But I was still interested to learn more about it.
And learn I did.
Our visit took place on a hot and sticky day (a running theme for me this summer), with the sun blazing overhead and barely any breeze coming in off the Aegean. It was as if the weather was actually trying its best to make Gallipoli feel heavy and oppressive.
We had a local guide for the afternoon, who rode around on our bus with us for about 4 hours, taking us to every spot integral to the Battle of Gallipoli. We began at Breaker’s Beach, which was originally supposed to be the main landing point for the Allied forces — comprising British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops — on the peninsula.
However, for some unknown reason (bad intelligence? poor tactics? misjudging the tides?), the Allies landed a couple of kilometers north of the target beach, on a beach that was much more difficult to take. This would be the first in a series of stupid mistakes that would allow this battle to drag on for months. As we stood in small patches of shade listening to our guide detail the botched attacks, stalemates, and dismal conditions that characterized the Gallipoli campaign, I could feel that uneasy feeling in my stomach growing — that feeling that often accompanies things that appall me. It never ceases to amaze me how terrible war can be.
We next made our way up to a larger beach that was eventually used as an Allied camp, and walked along the coast to ANZAC Cove — the spot where the Australian and New Zealand forces first landed and succeeded in gaining some ground on the Turks, if only briefly. As I dipped my toes into the turquoise Aegean, I was acutely aware of how many young men (and they WERE young — only about 18 on average) lost their lives in these waters; on this sand.
ANZAC Cove itself today stands as a memorial. There are a few actual graves on the shore, and a few lines of memorial stones, as well. What moved me the most, though, was a large stone monument bearing very moving words from Atatürk, the eventual first president of the Republic of Turkey:
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 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.
This, more than anything, nearly brought me to tears. It tied in with what our guide told us about the young men from opposing sides befriending each other in between skirmishes — the Brits, Aussies and Turks would all play football together; trade cigarettes; share laughs. And then, when their commanders told them to, they would pick up their guns and — I don’t know how — kill each other.
After sobering ANZAC Cove, we headed up to Lone Pine Cemetery, the site of a major battle between the Australian and Turkish forces in August 1915. For 5 days, the opposing sides fought for control of roughly 150 meters of land atop a hill. The battle was part of a larger Allied offensive to gain high ground from the Turks, but the Battle of Lone Pine was the only one that was really successful — the Australians eventually gained the upper hand. But the battle was not without casualties. Roughly 11,000 men died here. 11,000 men. In 5 days. In a space not much longer than a football field. Mind-boggling.
Today, Lone Pine serves as an Australian/New Zealand memorial at Gallipoli.
From Lone Pine, we next went to the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment Memorial. History is written by the victors, they say, but even though the Turks won at Gallipoli, I can guarantee that most Westerners don’t learn much about Turkey’s losses in this campaign. Here at this memorial, though, we did. While sipping on cool lemonade, we listened as our guide told us about the 57th Infantry Regiment — one of the regiments that Atatürk commanded.
Atatürk is famously quoted as having told this regiment: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.” And die they did. Every single one of them was either killed or wounded. Today, as a sign of respect, there is no 57th Regiment in the Turkish army.
Our last stop of the day was at Chunuk Bair, site of another main battle of the August Offensive of 1915. Here, New Zealand infantry attempted to take the hill from the Turks on August 8. Nearly every one of them died. Their bravery is remembered with a memorial — right next to a statue of Atatürk.
There are so many more stories associated with Gallipoli that I could tell you. The one about a pocket watch saving Atatürk’s life in battle. Ones about the horrible trench conditions that claimed many lives on both sides. Yes, it may be true that these are not MY stories. But they are still stories that deserve to be told.
When we left the Gallipoli Peninsula, a few of the Australians in my group asked me what I had thought of it. “Was it really boring for you?” they wanted to know.
No, I told them. No.
Visiting Gallipoli wasn’t boring for me. It was a part of history that I ashamedly had known nothing about, and now could appreciate for what it was — a heartbreaking tale of war and loss. A tale I’m glad I heard, because it helped remind me — as all “dark” places like this tend to do — how precious life is, and how lucky I am to still be living mine.
Have you ever visited Gallipoli? If not, would you want to?