The Sons of Gallipoli

As our tour makes its way through Turkey, we’ve seen some incredible sights – the urban sprawl of Istanbul, the olive groves of Sirince, and the surreal Moonscape of Cappadocia. We’ve seen the mausoleum of Atatürk, the ruins of Hierapolis, and the ancient chapels of Göreme. We’ve explored the tunnels and chambers of Kaymakli underground city. We’ve watched demonstrations of the Whirling Dervishes, the ancient art of pottery, and the weaving of carpets. We spent an afternoon wandering the ruined city of Ephesus, where Garreth performed a Shakespearean sonnet in the Great Theatre. And we’ve watched the sunrise from a hot air balloon above the calcium terraces of Pamukkale. Each day has brought a wealth of experiences. 

Sunrise over the calcium terraces of Pamukkale
 Something we’re rapidly learning is what Gallipoli means to the Turkish people, and the significance it played in inspiring a revolution and developing the modern Turkish nation. This isn’t something we could pick up from a text book: it’s something we’ve gathered from conversations with locals, watching adverts and documentaries on Turkish television, and seeing how the nation is approaching the centenary of the battle.

As soon as we’re recognised as Australians, there’s an instant kinship with our new Turkish friends. More than one local has used the term brother to describe the relationship. Australians are welcomed here – we fought in the same battle, we were forged in that same crucible. It doesn’t matter that we fought against each other; all has been forgiven. There is a distinct sense that we are travelling to Gallipoli to remember not just the Australians and New Zealanders, but the many Turkish soldiers who also lost their lives.

The Turkish experience of Gallipoli was an entirely different narrative to what we hear in Australia. The soldiers were repelling an invasion of their homeland. In many cases, they were fighting for land that had belonged to their families for generations. Many of them sacrificed their lives to protect their nation. It requires a strange sort of cognitive shift to think of Australia as an invading force, but that’s what happened. 

Anzac soldiers in Cairo, 1915. Photo taken by my grandfather, William Henry Cameron
 When the First World War began, the British Empire may have been at the height of its powers, but the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline. The Committee of Union and Progress were removing power from the Sultan and placing it in the hands of the people. An empire that had lasted for over 600 years was close to imminent collapse. And suddenly they found themselves embroiled in a war between the empires of Europe. The people knew that defeat could signal the end of the Ottoman Empire. So they were fighting not just for the defence of their homeland, but for the preservation of their way of life – their traditions, their culture, their very history.

As I’ve previously written, the Turkish commemoration of Gallipoli occurs on 18 March, the day when frantic Turkish forces defeated one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled, as the British tried to storm the Dardanelles. It was an incredible victory for Turkey. A declining empire had defeated the mighty British fleet.

It’s not hard to draw parallels between Australia and Turkey in the development of nationalism after the events of the war. Gallipoli was the place that crystallised those traits that defined what it meant to be Australian – mateship, bravery, larrikinism, and a healthy disrespect of authority. It sparked the birth of our national consciousness. But in that same crucible, the modern Turkish nation was born. It was the final defence of the motherland, even as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. When Mustafa Kemal said to his soldiers “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die,” the willing sacrifice of those soldiers bespoke of great loyalty to Turkey. 

The Atatürk mausoleum, Ankara
 Finally, part of the kinship between our two nations is due to one man. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the commander of Turkish forces at Gallipoli, who later became founder of the Republic of Turkey, singled out the Anzacs in his letter to the mothers of the fallen soldiers in 1934:

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 now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway 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.

By separating Australia and New Zealand from the British, Atatürk created a bond between the nations. Our sons became their sons. The blood that had fallen on the Gallipoli peninsula was mixed between all soldiers, regardless of nationality.

When we gather on the shores of Gallipoli in just a couple of days, I will be proud to be standing side by side with our Turkish brothers. The legacy of Anzac isn’t confined to Australia and New Zealand – it is still alive here in Turkey, where it all began.


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