We were fortunate to be able to return to Gallipoli the day after Anzac Day to have a more leisurely look at some of the battlefields on the peninsula. Although Garreth and I already had a pretty good idea of the challenges faced by the Anzacs due to the topography of the region, the opportunity to walk around gave us a new perspective on the campaign.
Image credit: Anzac site
Our tour group were still tired after Anzac Day – being awake for almost forty hours had taken its toll, and we crossed the Dardanelles on the ferry back to Eceabat in weary silence. Once we arrived on the peninsula, without the enormous crowd and numerous security checkpoints, it was much easier to be able to observe our surroundings.
One of the most frequently cited reasons for the failure of the Anzac landings is that the forces were landed on the wrong beach. (There were numerous reasons, of course, but coming ashore at Ari Burnu, rather than Kapatepe, certainly hindered the beginning of the campaign.) The stretch of land between Eceabat (on the Dardanelles) and Kabatepe (on the Aegean coast) is a flat plain – perfect for landing a large force. If the Anzacs had landed there, as planned, it may have been possible to sweep straight across to the Dardanelles, thus cutting off the Turkish forces on Cape Helles from any reinforcements and forcing them to fight on two fronts.
We started at the Anzac Commemorative Site on North Beach, where the grandstands from the previous day were in the process of being dissembled. We scrambled down to the waterline and looked back at the cliffs. They seem to wrap around the beach, starting from Ari Burnu in the south, giving a very claustrophobic feeling to this section of sand.
Walking southwards along the road, we visited Ari Burnu Cemetery and Beach Cemetery, before catching a bus back up to Lone Pine, which was now empty of people.
Just northwest of Lone Pine is Johnston’s Jolly, a part of the ridge where Anzac and Turkish trenches were only separated by seven metres. It was close enough for soldiers to be able to lob bombs back and forth between the trenches. The trenches are still visible in the dirt – narrow gullies covered with pine needles that wind between the trees.
Looking back from Johnston’s Jolly, we could see the rocky peaks of the first ridge that overlook Anzac Cove, including the back section of the Sphinx. In that valley between the ridges was some infamous places, such as Quinn’s Post, where the Anzac troops eked out a precarious existence as the Turkish soldiers rained bombs and bullets down on them. Standing up there, looking down on those vulnerable places, it was incredible to think that the Anzac forces held out for so long.
But hold out they did. On one night, the Turkish offensive of 19 May, the Anzac force of 17,500 managed to defend against 42,000 attacking Turks.
On the ridge between Johnston’s Jolly and Chunuk Bair is The Nek, a narrow stretch of land that Charles Bean famously described as the size of two tennis courts. And it truly is precipitous – the ground drops away on either side. It amazes me to think that anyone can scale up the side of this thing, especially under fire. The barbed wire is still clustered around the trenches. It was here on 7 August 1915 that the soldiers of the 8th and 10th Light Horse Regiment charged the Turkish trenches in one of the most futile attacks in modern military history. Ordered to fix their bayonets and empty their rifles of bullets (firing would only slow them down), the Anzacs attacked in three successive waves. Virtually all of them were killed or wounded. Charles Bean wrote, regarding the 10th Light Horse, “With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families, youngsters – in some cases two or three from the same home… Men known and popular, the best loved leaders in sport and work in the West… rushed straight to their death.”
It’s only at the top of Chunuk Bair that I could truly appreciate the strategic significance of this mountain. It overlooks the entire peninsula, from Suvla Bay in the north to the Dardanelles in the east. It is a sacred site for the New Zealanders, where they assaulted the summit during the August offensive, actually managing to hold it for a day before being driven back by the forces by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). And it was here that Kemal gave his famous order: “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.”
The real tragedy of Chunuk Bair was that the British reinforcements in Suvla Bay decided to stop on the beach for a spot of tea and a swim rather than racing inland to assist the New Zealanders. Even Atatürk would later admit that if the Anzac forces on Chunuk Bair had been able to hang on to the mountaintop, the whole campaign would have turned out differently.
All of the places I’ve described are within easy walking distance of each other. The Anzacs only held 400 acres of land on the peninsula. It couldn’t be described as a foothold, but a toehold. Those soldiers spent eight months clinging to the side of cliffs. It’s sobering to think of how many soldiers died – on both sides – for this desolate piece of coast.
I had mixed feelings as we left the Gallipoli peninsula that day. I feel privileged to have been there, in that particular place at that particular time. It felt like a sacred pilgrimage, as I visited those sites whose names have become part of Australian folklore. Finally, I was overcome with a great sense of sadness. These cliffs are a mass grave, a memorial not just to the soldiers who rest here, but a memorial to human folly, desperation, and the futile ambitions of old empires.