April 25th 1915 was a moonlight morning. The Aegean was calm. Today it is sunny and warm, about 80 degrees. The waves crash into Turkey’s northern Aegean shore. My running pace is strong but weakens when I think of the young men who struggled and died here. Looking to my left I see the pristine Aegean, bluer than any sea I can remember. To my right is the brown and crusty landscape of cliff after cliff, ridge after ridge. In between my breaths I can almost here the crackle of Turkish machine gun fire and the cries of the Australian and New Zealand troops who fell on that April morning in 1915.
Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the fateful ANZAC (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula during WWI. The tragedy that unfolded on the beaches and narrow cliffs overlooking the Aegean is not hard to imagine while one runs along the ANZAC invasion route. The 5 km run from Kaba Tepe to ANZAC Cove along a newly paved road is serene though exhausting. The road rises and falls, twisting and turning along the coast while the sun beats down unimpeded by any natural cover. This is the running route along which I have taken my Grade 9 students from the Istanbul International Community School the past two years during our annual class trip to Gallipoli.
Although a great tragedy, Gallipoli holds a symbolic and almost mythical significance for the soldiers and nations that did battle here for ten months. Whereas Western Front savagery resulted in little more than senseless loss of life, the Gallipoli campaign serves as one of the major events in the narratives of an emerging Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand. Turkey, shedding its Ottoman past and declaring independence in 1923, and Australia and New Zealand, fighting overseas for the first time and distinguishing themselves from the British as separate and equal nations, were on the rise. The British and French Empires were in the initial stages of decline. Moreover, fought in the ancient lands of the Trojan War the battle holds a Homeric significance that embodies the folly of war; a folly depicted in the iconic last scene of the 1980 film Gallipoli when Mel Gibson races through the rough terrain to deliver a message not to attack the Turkish lines with yet another futile frontal assault. But the terrain slows him down and hundreds of Australians, including Gibson’s best friend, are cut down by machine gun fire.
“Did they really have to run up these cliffs?” students inevitably ask.
“They did. But they did not get far,” I reply.
The Allied objective the first day was a point 11 km from the invasion beaches. Over the ten month battle the Allies failed to accomplish this. In the end the battle took the lives of over 50,000 ANZAC, British and French troops. The Ottoman Turks lost a staggering 86,000 successfully defending their crumbling empire.
Our trip to Gallipoli is full of information, breathtaking views, and the horrid stories of war told from the point of view of local expert guides. But it is the run along the ANZAC invasion route that allows students the nearest understanding of the struggle and pain that young Australian and New Zealand troops experienced as they scrambled up the beaches and cliffs under Turkish machine gun fire. In fact, students are often compelled to bolt off the road and try their luck at scampering up the steep embankments that blend into the burnt and barren cliffs that surround the beaches. The attempts are made eagerly and with great enthusiasm at first but then abandoned much as the Gallipoli campaign was in January 1916 – with a sigh of resignation admitting that what looked possible at first was not.
After the war the entire battlefield was turned into a cemetery commemorating the Turkish, ANZAC and Allied troops who died here. The ANZAC cemetery, where the 100th Anniversary ceremonies will take place on April 25th, is the most powerful reminder of the ten-month battle. For those few who have run the course along the invasion route the impression will not soon fade.
As we run by ANZAC Cove we slow down to read a quote from the hero of Gallipoli and founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Inscribed on a large pillar overlooking the seaside cemetery where ANZAC troops are buried where they fell, the quote captures the beauty and tranquility the shoreline exudes:
“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 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.”
From ANZAC Cove we turn and run back toward Kaba Tepe. Inspired by Ataturk’s words I pick up the pace. The students do, too. For a few moments the tragedy that transpired that April day is with us step after step, breath after breath. The history will remain with us forever.
Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School I have written extensively about Eurasian Affairs, including articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, and Moscow Times.