Going Beyond the History Books in Gallipoli

When I was sixteen, my family went to France. In Normandy, my dad plotted out the sites of historical significance while my sisters and I clambered onto an old cannon and posed, Brady Bunch-style, like the trio of insensitive teenagers we were.

My dad shook his head and declared that one day, he was going to come back here without us so he could fully explore the area.

Fortunately, by the time I made it to Turkey, I was 27 years old and capable of conducting myself with a little more decorum.

Istanbul was a place I’d always wanted to visit. Gallipoli, however, was not. It was barely on my radar – I was certainly willing to go, but it wouldn’t make or break my trip.

After all, it wasn’t my history.

Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey
ANZAC Cove – it looks like a holiday brochure, not the site of an arduous battle.

On April 25th, 1915, the ANZACs (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) arrived on what is now known as ANZAC Cove, a small bay on the western edge of the Gallipoli peninsula. They, along with regiments from Britain and France, were part of a mission intended to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in an ultimate bid to control Constantinople and the waterways to Russia.

It was the first time the Australian & New Zealand armies had participated in a major international battle. Although the effort was unsuccessful, it has become a deeply significant event in both Australia and New Zealand. During nearly nine months of combat, thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed.

ANZAC Cove sign, Gallipoli, Turkey
As many as 10,000 Australians alone visit Turkey for ANZAC Day.

Every year on ANZAC Day, Australian and New Zealand citizens flock to Gallipoli to participate in dawn services. By all accounts, it is a deeply emotional event.

And I knew almost nothing about it until I started dating Jared.

Yes, I knew of ANZAC Day – I had lived in Australia and New Zealand. But what I knew was limited. Soldiers died, there’s a national holiday, and it’s the only day of the year that it’s legal to play Two-up in Australia.

To be fair, this is about as much as I can recount of American historical events, but it’s still a pretty weak effort.

But when you’re there, standing in a place where people died fighting for their country, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Even as a sixteen-year-old in France, I realized that eventually. Immediately after perching on a cannon, I was struck dumb by the indentations made in the ground from the cannonballs.

Bomb blast, Gallipoli, Turkey
Everlasting reminders of the war that was fought in Gallipoli.

The same thing happened to me in Gallipoli.

We visited in May of 2009. The searing heat bore down on the back of my neck, and I wondered how the soldiers managed to stand it in their uniforms. I was unprepared for how beautiful it was, this quiet spot that was pure hell for so many in 1915.

Our Turkish guide told us the stories of how ANZAC & Turkish soldiers developed friendships, tossing cigarettes and food back and forth between the trenches. After a particularly bloody battle that left 10,000 Turkish soldiers dead, both sides agreed on a one-day truce so that they could bury the bodies.

Trench, Gallipoli, Turkey
Traces of the battle still remain.

I’m no historian. As soon as I learn facts, I tend to forget the details, coming away with only an overall sense of the event.

It was like that with my visit to Gallipoli. I don’t remember the names of commanding officers, the specifics we learned about the battles, or all of the memorials we visited.

What I will always take with me is the knowledge that it’s irrelevant whose history it is. It matters to someone, and that means it matters, period.

The most striking thing I saw that day was this memorial, inscribed with the words of a famous speech given by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was the first president of Turkey, but he was also a war veteran, having commanded the front line for the Turkish army in Gallipoli.

Ataturk speech ANZAC memorial

It is easily one of the most touching speeches I’ve ever read. If you’re Australian or Kiwi, you’ve probably heard this before. I can only imagine what it means to you. It is recited at ceremonies every year on ANZAC Day; for me, it was the first time I’d read it. The speech is re-printed on websites all over the place, but I’m going to do it here, too.

“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.” ~ Atatürk, 1934

I felt like an outsider that day in Gallipoli; an impostor in a place that meant so much more to people who would never get the chance to see it firsthand. But when I read that speech, it became real.

Panoramic views of Gallipoli, Turkey
The Gallipoli peninsula – not your ordinary slice of paradise.

The Allies lost this battle, but they won the war. When I visited Gallipoli, notions of winning or losing seemed unimportant. The lasting legacy of respect, even for your so-called enemies, was what stood out. Atatürk’s words of strength and condolence go against the rigid concepts of Us vs. Them. It’s a reminder to us all that during war, both sides suffer.

That’s a history lesson everyone can benefit from.

NZ monument at Gallipoli
The New Zealand memorial at Gallipoli.


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