Kiwis and Aussies tried to change history in what was then a crumbling European empire
On 30 April 1915, when Australia learned that five days earlier the country's first overseas army corps had landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire, a wave of joy swept through the streets. The day was declared a public holiday. Everybody kept repeating, mantra-like, what was so commonly heard at the beginning of the Great War: "We'll soon win and everything will be OK!" The Anzacs, as the soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps came to be known, together with British and French units, aimed to conquer the fortified Ottoman positions controlling the Dardanelles.
A few days later, according to the plans of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, Constantinople would fall. Thus Germany would lose a major ally. Bulgaria, which was still a neutral country at the time, would join the Triple Entente. Allied ships would have a safe route to supply weapons and humanitarian aid to Russia, which fought on the Eastern front. The defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary would be a matter of months.
But, as the Bulgarians say, the easiest way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans.
The atmosphere in Australia and New Zealand during the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli was far from festive. Everybody had already learned the terrible truth about Anzac Day. On the first day of the landing 2,000 of their soldiers died. The fights lasted eight months – eight long months of relentless trench warfare in which the Ottomans triumphed.
At the beginning of January 1916 the Allies withdrew. Bulgaria had already joined in the war in August 1915 – siding with Germany. The planned aid never made it to Russia and the military crisis grew to such an extent that in 1917 the Bolsheviks started their fatal revolution.
Anzac Day and the Gallipoli Campaign are significant in making the Kiwis and Aussies realise they are separate nations, and not simply part of the Commonwealth. So 25 April 1915 came to be regarded as a turning point in the formation of the two nations and the heroism of the men who fell as a result of their government's national pride.
In Australia and New Zealand, Anzac Day is a day of remembrance and has been celebrated with the so-called Dawn Service since the 1920s. The tradition is a symbolic echo of the landing at Gallipoli, which took place in the early morning just before dawn.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, commemorative services have been held on the Gallipoli Peninsula too, attracting more tourists there than at any other time of year. Coming mainly from Australia and New Zealand, visitors gather for the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, the site of the landing, at 5.30 am. When dawn breaks, they would lay wreaths on the memorials of the Turkish, British and French soldiers on the southern Cape Hellas and pay their respects at the war cemetery of the Anzacs.
The New Zealanders, who were among those who suffered the most casualties per capita in the Great War, rest on the Çonkbayırlı Hill. The Australians are in the Lone Pine area. This is the site where, in August 1915, the Anzacs made their only breach in the Ottoman line of defence – at the cost of nearly 5,000 lives.
Despite the intervening years, the graves and the memorial, the place looks much as it did in 1915. There is still a single pine tree growing there. The Australians named the area after it because it was the only tree surviving from the grove the Turks cut down to fortify their positions.
The present-day Lone Pine is not that same Lone Pine. The first tree fell victim to the battle too. In the 1920s the Turks planted a new grove, but with Stone Pines instead of the original Aleppo Pines. However, a few cones of the original tree survived in the pockets of some Australians, who took them back home. Several descendants of the Lone Pine grew from their seeds – and are still growing next to the memorials of the Australian and New Zealand victims.
The Turks gave another name to the area: Kanlı Sırt, or the Bloody Ridge.
Nearly a century after the bloody battles, Gallipoli is an idyllic place. But local people still find cartridge cases, rusted weapons and human bones in its fertile soil. Over 100,000 people died in the battles for the peninsula. Most of them were Ottomans and Germans. So why didn't the Allies win?
Half of the answer lies in the mistakes made by the Allied command. The British Navy tried to enter the straits as early as the autumn of 1914. As it was next to impossible to evade the Turkish naval mines, the Allies decided to give up this tactic just as the Ottomans were running out of ammunition. The land campaign, on the other hand, was delayed several weeks. The Ottoman troops had enough time to replenish their ammunition, dig trenches and barbwire every beach suitable for landing on.
The Allies continued to make mistakes. The main push by French and British forces was launched from the southernmost tip of the peninsula, Cape Hellas. However, their troops failed to penetrate any further inland.
The main plan was to divert the attention of the Ottomans by disembarking on the west coast of the promontory at the same time as the French and British. Their target was the wide and flat beach of Gaba Tepe. But because of a navigational error, the boats landed the soldiers in the narrow, hill-surrounded Arıburnu, now Anzac Cove. The Anzacs spent the next months under heavy fire coming from the strategically located Ottoman positions above.
There were a number of people to blame for the failure on the Allied side. But there was a single man responsible for it on the Turkish side: 34-year-old Lt Col Mustafa Kemal, who was in charge of the main Ottoman forces.
He knew the area well – three years earlier he had fought there against the Bulgarians during the Balkan War. But he had something more than knowledge too: he was capable of planning his move and motivating his people to fight even when the situation seemed hopeless. The young officer managed to hold Gallipoli.
This victory made him famous and launched his political career. In 1919 Kemal organised the resistance movement against the occupying forces in the defeated Ottoman Empire and four years later announced the birth of the secular Republic of Turkey.
Memorials to Atatürk dominate the Gallipoli landscape. One popular photograph shows him standing in the trenches on the peninsula. The memorials are inscribed with his words, such as "There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom...
After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well." A monument marks the place where Atatürk was hit in the stomach by shrapnel, but his pocket watch miraculously saved him.
Gallipoli marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Ironically, its rise had begun on this same peninsula. In 1356 an earthquake demolished the walls of the Byzantine fortress of Gallipoli. The Ottomans, who were just an ambitious Asian power at the time, took the stronghold, and thus set foot in Europe as conquerors for the first time.
Gallipoli is studded with war hero memorials, but one of them stands apart from all of them. It is easy to tell from the pile of Turkish flags shrouding it. Bayraklı Baba Türbesi, or the Tomb of the Flag Father, appeared in Hamzaköy centuries before the First World War.
In a battle that took place in 1410, the Ottomans were surrounded by their enemy. Their banner was in danger. To save it, the standard bearer cut it up and swallowed the pieces.
Bayraklı Baba did not die immediately. He had enough time to go and tell his comrades that he had saved the banner. They did not believe the story. So the indignant standard bearer took out his dagger and sliced open his stomach to reveal what was inside.
Interestingly, most Balkan peoples, including the Bulgarians and the Greeks, have similar heroes.
In 1880, in Plovdiv, Bulgarian soldier Gyuro Mihaylov was standing guard by his company's standard. A fire broke out. The sentinel chose to burn to death along with the flag rather than abandon his post.
In 1941, while being on flag guard duty at the Acropolis, Greek Evzone Konstantinos Koukidis received an unbearable order from a German officer: replace the Greek flag with the Nazi swastika. Koukidis took down the flag, wrapped it around his body and jumped down the hill.
Commenting on www.vagabond.bg