Remembering the Johnnies and the Mehmets

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We sit in silence on a pebble beach overlooking the grey Aegean Sea, a blustery wind whipping through the trees. Surrounding us are imposing cliffs, bare of flora after thousands of years of erosion. There is not a soul in sight. It’s the dead of winter and we are one of the few tourists braving the cold to explore the Gelibolu peninsula in Turkey, better known to westerners as Gallipoli. We could be on any of Turkey’s countless beaches, but this one has particular significance for two countries on the other side of the world. 99 years ago, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on this beach in the height of World War I, with the brief to invade the Ottoman Empire. This week, on the 25th of April, thousands of pilgrims will descend in their tour groups, buses and cars to commemorate ANZAC Day.

I am not a patriot. Australia is a beautiful country and an incredibly easy one to live in, but we are far from perfect. I question the merits of celebrating a day in which we invaded a foreign land tens of thousands of miles away that had never done anything to bother us, all at the behest of our mother country. But Australia was young, still a teenager. Our motherland still exerted considerable influence. So soldiers barely able to grow beards who until then were quite content in our little corner of the world suddenly found themselves ejected onto a beach in the Aegean in the dead of the night. It didn’t occur to me that when I moved to Turkey that my home country shared such sordid history with my new home. So a friend and I made the trip down from Istanbul during winter break to see what the fuss was all about. I am not a patriot.

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We stand by the edge of the Dardanelles Strait and wonder what to do next. Being the middle of winter there are no public buses to Gallipoli, but we eventually find someone willing to take us in their car. Our first stop is ANZAC Cove. When the troops were ejected on a beach in the dead of the night 2km from the intended landing point they found themselves surrounded by cliffs dotted with enemy soldiers. But they didn’t turn and flee. In fact, they stayed for eight months. 260 days of crawling through muddy trenches, dodging landmines, surviving the blistering heat of summer and freezing through the depths of winter. Those that survived returned battered, bruised and broken. Those that didn’t were left behind, often in unmarked graves. But throughout those eight months soldiers on all sides displayed incredible feats of courage. I begin to realize that this is the spirit that ANZAC Day commemorates. That is something I can get behind.

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In 1915, a single Turkish Pine tree stood at the top of the hill known as the ‘400 Plateau’, situated near the centre of the ANZAC eastern line. It was a coveted spot; taking the hill meant having a commanding view of the surrounding areas, essential in battle. Four months into the campaign, in August 1915, the ANZAC forces marched on the hill in order to push back the Ottomans. Four days of fighting passed, with the Australians eventually succeeding in their mission to claim the land. The battle of Lone Pine was one of the most significant victories for the ANZACs. But it was not without a price; half of the Australian troops and thousands of Ottomans perished. We hike up the hill to the main Australian memorial on ANZAC Day now on the site. These days there’s a new single pine tree, keeping watch over the graves of the soldiers, as well as the thousands of spectators that will descend here when the dawn ceremony takes place on the 25th of April.

Australians have a habit of dismissing their smaller neighbor as insignificant. But New Zealand played an integral part in keeping the Turkish soliders at bay during the 8 month-long siege. From the original beach attack to the fighting in the hills, New Zealanders were alongside Australians at every moment. Almost a quarter of the NZ soldiers sent to Gallipoli died in the campaign, and their graves are marked in special cemeteries across the peninsula.

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We stop by another cemetery, home to the grave is John “Jack” Simpson Kirkpatrick, the stretcher bearer who carried countless wounded soldiers on the back of a donkey he found from the front-line back to the relative safety of the beach. Eventually he too was killed, but not before the story of Simpson and his donkey was born, now one of the most enduring of ANZAC legends. There is a well-trodden path to Simpson’s grave; it’s one of the most visited sites in Gallipoli. But just as important is the grave next to him, and the one next to that. Every single one of the soldiers buried here were incredibly brave, and while they all can’t be immortalized in stories passed down through generations, here they are all treated as equals.

Despite once being enemies, Australians and New Zealanders are now welcomed on Turkish soil. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, fought in the battle at Gallipoli. Years later, as leader of the young country, gave a speech to the first Australian and New Zealand visitors, now enshrined in a memorial near ANZAC Cove:

“Those heroes who 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 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.”

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A cry of surprise comes from the back seat of our car. Leafing through a history book a Canadian friend had discovered that even soldiers from her home province of Newfoundland had fought at Gallipoli. Displaying an incredible memory of the thousands of graves on the peninsula, our guide swerves onto a dirt track and takes us to a distant cemetery overlooked by the majority of tourists. 49 Newfoundlanders died at Gallipoli in 1915. They may be overshadowed by the sheer numbers of Australian and New Zealand graves, but today at least they are in the mind of at least one Newfie.

While almost every tour visits ANZAC Cove and Lone Pine, many tourists end up missing an equally important monument; the one that signifies the thousands of Turks who lost their lives. It’s much further down the peninsula, but it should be on the itinerary of every visitor to the region. Despite ‘winning’ the battle, Turks suffered great casualties as well, including every single member of the 57th Regiment. The Turkish soldiers are often overlooked in western ceremonies, perhaps unsurprisingly, but they were just as unwilling participants in the battle as the ANZACs were. The imposing 48-metre high monument that sits at the tip of the Dardanelles somehow moves me more than any of the other memorials we’ve visited today. Turkey must be rubbing off on me.

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The events of almost a century ago still invoke great emotion in Allied countrymen and Turks alike. For Australia and New Zealand it was a baptism of fire, proving the young countries’ mettle on a world stage. For Turkey it signified the beginning of a national revival from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In recent years the revival of public participation in ANZAC Day, especially among the younger generations, has not been without criticism. 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, and it looks set to become even more popular. As someone calling Turkey their adopted home, it’d be disingenuous to say that celebrating an attack on the locals here doesn’t feel at least a little awkward. But even if you don’t visit Gallipoli on on ANZAC Day, and even if you are not an Australian, Kiwi, British, French, American, Turkish or even a Newfie, the trip to Gallipoli is well worth a visit as a lesson to the futility of war. Those that fought in the battle may be long gone, but today at least, that message is anything but forgotten.

This post originally appeared on Maptia.

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