Macedonian Ramble: Hell’s Foundations at Galliopoli


The Allied landing beaches at Cape Hellas, Gallipoli, at the mouth of the Dardanelles Strait, in Turkey. British casualties here at V Beach were horrific, as Turkish forces manned the high ground behind the beaches. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the twelfth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

By my standards I splurged on my accommodation, the Hotel des Etrangers in Çanakkale, wanting to have a room that overlooked the Dardanelles so that from my window I could watch the passage of ocean-going ships on their stately procession to and from the Bosphorus and the Aegean.

At Çanakkale the strait (which separates Europe from Asia) is only several kilometers wide, and in the course of a few hours by the seafront everything from container ships to destroyers passes before your eyes. Many ships are headed to Istanbul; the rest ply the Black Sea.

Strategically, you can see why so much of geopolitics has been devoted to control of the strait—the world’s bottleneck. Without access to it, for example, Russia is a Baltic power (an inconvenient truth that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have overlooked when contemplating his Anschluss with Ukraine).

A Room with a View in Çanakkale

The town of Çanakkale is a mishmash, with new and old quarters, and owes its livelihood to its port on the Dardanelles. In summer people stop in Çanakkale as they make their way along the Aegean coast.

Ancient Troy is a little to the south (when I went in year 2000, there was a wooden horse in the parking lot). Mostly the tourists use the town as a jumping-off point to visit the Gallipoli peninsula across the water.

I was told that in the course of a season some two million visitors tour the area of the battlefields, which are spread across a large area—from Cape Hellas in the south to Anzac Cove, which is twenty miles to the north on the peninsula’s west coast.

With the Crowded House Tours I signed up for two battlefield excursions—the morning run to Cape Helles and an afternoon gig to Anzac Cove, which attracts busloads of Kiwis and Aussies.

Summer 1976 in the Dardanelles

Someone from the tour company collected me at my hotel, and we rode the ferry to Eceabat, which is on the Gallipoli peninsula and which I had come through the night before. She smoked a cigarette and checked her iPhone, while I prowled the upper deck of the ferry, remembering my passage through the Dardanelles with my parents and sister in summer 1976.

It came at the end of a Grand Tour, which had begun in Naples (where after our first lunch we rowed in a small wooden boat around the harbor) and continued through southern Italy and Greece (swimming and classical ruins) until we caught a Russian steamship, Adjaria, that was on the line from Beirut to Odessa. We took it from Athens (well, Piraeus) to Istanbul.

Adjara is an administrative republic within the state of Georgia, then all part of the Soviet Union, and our shipmates on the passage were the delegation of the Russian embassy in Beirut, which was being evacuated from the Lebanese civil war. Borscht was a dining room staple.

We left Piraeus in the afternoon and rounded Cape Sounion (and its magnificent classical Greek temple on the headlands) at sunset. Early the next morning at first light I got up as the Adjaria steamed through the strait (a narrow channel surrounded by hills), which I found dramatic.

At that point I really didn’t know much about the WW I military campaign, which began in winter 1915 when a fleet of British and French warships, at the direction of First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, rushed the strait, hoping to break through the narrows, seize Constantinople, and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war (if not off the world map).

Echoes of Gallipoli in Brooklyn

Some years later, when living in New York City, my wife and I became close friends with the British journalist and author Geoffrey Moorhouse, who was working on a social history of an English town in Lancashire, Bury, which lost many of it male citizens in the disastrous landing at Cape Hellas in the Gallipoli campaign.

In 1915, British battalions and regiments were raised from specific geographic areas around the country, and Bury had supplied many of the men to the Lancashire Fusiliers. They were sent ashore in April 1915, after the naval attack in March failed to break through the Turkish gun emplacements in the hills around Gallipoli and Çanakkale.

In those years Geoffrey was also working on a history of New York City, and often he would stay with us when doing his research.

Many evenings in Brooklyn the conversation would turn to the Lancashire landing. He gave his Gallipoli book the title Hell’s Foundations: A Town, Its Myths and Gallipoli. It begins: “Few military events in any war have continued to nag at posterity with their horrors, their heroisms, their pathos, their utter futility, so long after they occurred.”

All I could add to these conversations is what I had seen from the deck of the Adjaria in summer 1976.

Hell’s Foundations

I made it back to the Gallipoli peninsula in 2000, when I had meetings in Istanbul, after which, on the weekend, I hired a car to tour around Anzac Cove, Lone Pine, and Cape Hellas—the principal battle sites from April 1915 to January 1916.

That 2000 visit led me to read a number of histories of the battle (I liked those by Alan Moorhead and Robert Rhodes James, but there are many out there, including Peter Hart’s more recent Gallipoli), which was one of the worst defeats for the Allies (here notably Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand) in World War I.

Gallipoli cost the Allies some 300,000 casualties, of whom about 50,000 were killed. Ottoman losses were similar or greater, but its victory at Gallipoli helped to create the modern nation of Turkey, just as the Allied defeat contributed to the break-up of the British Empire, with Australia and New Zealand—hence the word Anzac—in particular deciding they needed more space from London.

Many visitors to Gallipoli today are from Down Under, where on European travels a visit to Anzac Cove is a rite of passage, if not an homage to Australia’s and New Zealand’s increasing separation from Britain.

A Return to Cape Hellas

Contemplating this visit, I thought of engaging a private guide, just as I had also thought of renting a bicycle and going around by myself. But December isn’t the month to be bike riding around Gallipoli, and the cost of a private guide was €200.

Reporting to the Crowded House offices in Eceabat, I discovered I was the only person to have signed up for the Cape Hellas tour (it doesn’t hold much interest for Aussies), and a few minutes later I was off in a car with Bulant, heading to the landing beaches at the southern end of the peninsula.

Along the way, we stopped to see a gun emplacement from Turkish artillery that on March 18, 1915, had sunk a number of British and French warships trying to break through the strait.

March 18 was one of the worst naval defeats of the war, costing the Allies six capital ships and 700 sailors killed. Artillery from the surrounding hills and rows of mines across the strait did the damage. For want of Allied minesweepers in the strait, the naval attack failed.

The naval defeat might have been the end of the Allied adventure in the Dardanelles except that Churchill, Lord Kitchener, and others in the cabinet were persuaded that knocking Turkey out of the war and seizing Constantinople would expose the flank of the Central Powers (principally Germany and Austria), allowing the Allies to break the stalemate on the Western Front in France.

Breaking through at Gallipoli would also allow the Allies to reinforce the Russians, who were bogged down in eastern Turkey and along the Eastern Front that stretched from Poland down through Galicia.

Six weeks after the naval engagement ended in disaster, the Allies sent ashore the first waves of its amphibious assault, which stalled in trenches not unlike those along the Western Front.

The defeat cost Churchill his cabinet post and almost his political career. He said wistfully: “I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.”

Lancashire Landing: Six VCs Before Breakfast

There were five landing zones at Cape Helles—beaches labeled S, V, W, X, and Y—where British forces in the first wave came ashore. In a diversionary landing, the French landed on the opposite shores, near Troy, but fooled no one.

W Beach was assigned to the Lancashire Fusiliers who, as Bulent explained, landed on a small rocky beach (near the picture above). Immediately inland there were sharp hills, which gave the Turkish forces height and cover to rake the landing zones with machine gun fire.

The Lancashire battalion never had a chance. Geoffrey writes in his history:

Few men from either the cutters or the steamship reached the overhanging shelter of the cliff during the day. A British airman who flew overhead shortly after this disaster began reported that the sea for fifty yards from the shore was “absolutely red with blood”. A Turk, looking down from the castle, likened the bodies in the water and along the sand to a stranded shoal of fish….

In their first two days ashore the Lancashire Territorials suffered 673 casualties [1,029 made the attack], many of them caused by shellfire as the Turks brought up artillery in their efforts to dislodge the invaders.

For its efforts, the regiment was awarded six Victoria Crosses, which in the lore of the British army became known as “Six VCs Before Breakfast.”

Geoffrey Moorhouse

Up the hill from V Beach is a regimental cemetery, which is as far inland as many Lancashires got. There I explained to Bulant about my friendship with Geoffrey, his book, and the decimated mill towns of Lancashire.

While he sat in the car, I walked among the headstones of the fallen, thinking as much about Geoffrey as about the British defeat.

We met in 1979, when I was working as a magazine editor in New York. Earlier my father had read Geoffrey’s book Calcutta, which he loved (my father would mention it often—both Geoffrey’s book and the city).

As my job in 1979 involved recruiting writers for Harper’s Magazine, I wrote to Geoffrey care of his publisher, and he responded by inviting me to visit him the next time I was in England.

We met outside London and remained close friends until he died in 2009. Over that time, he became a member of my and my wife’s extended families, close to our parents, and a friend of our siblings.

Many in the family traveling to Britain would head to Yorkshire to visit him in Gayle (he lived in the elegant Park House), and whenever he came to America he would make the rounds of our families’ houses.

Geoffrey was one of those who encouraged me to be a traveler and a writer, a career that he loved. He also loved American baseball (over the years I sent him a stream of baseball books), and in return he made sure that I became one of the few Americans who could understand and love cricket. (We went several times to Lord’s Cricket Ground, so that he could monitor my progress.)

As much as anything, I came to the V Beach cemetery to have something of a séance with Geoffrey, and I was not disappointed.

Bury, England Suffers in the War

Whenever we were together, Geoffrey would speak at length about Gallipoli and how the casualties there had eviscerated the towns around Lancashire. He would talk about his ancestors who fought there, the mourning in the families (which lasted for years), and later, in World War II, how the towns in the area had recoiled at sending yet another generation of its men to the meat grinders of the front lines.

In Hell’s Foundation Geoffrey writes:

There is no question of ignoring the ghosts of 1915 at Gallipoli itself, where they are almost tangible. And you can see, the moment you reach Cape Helles, where the Lancashire Landing cemetery is, just why Churchill thought it necessary to fight for the Dardanelles, and why the Turks did not dare let it go. Control those straits and you command all traffic between three seas and beyond. Today there is not a moment in any day or night when at least one vessel is not within sight of the memorials that stand sentinel at the Aegean end.

After one of my visits in Yorkshire with Geoffrey, I followed his directions and went to the Lancashire Fusiliers War Memorial (designed by Edwin Lutyens) in Bury, which resembles many that are spread around the Gallipoli landing.

There’s a sentence in his book which reads: “The year… saw the unveiling of a tablet in the assembly hall of Bury Grammar School, which had sent over six hundred of its old boys to the war, of whom ninety-seven were killed. Eight families had each lost two sons from that school.” Geoffrey attended the same school in the 1930s and 40s.

The Gallipoli Advance Ends at Krithia

From the Cape Helles memorial (a soaring affair, as you might find along the Normandy beaches), Bulant and I drove a few miles inland to the trench lines near the village of Krithia, over which the hilltop peak of Achi Baba looms.

During the ten months of the Gallipoli campaign, these lines were the limit of the advances made by British and French forces. (Achi Baba remained as distant and haunting as Mt. Olympus.) Bulant and I got out of the car and walked into some of the surrounding farmland, where he pointed to faint traces of the British trenches.

For British soldiers in this sector, the end of the fighting came in December 1915, after the order for withdrawal had been given. In their network of trenches, they made their way back to the beaches, where small craft were waiting to ferry them to offshore ships. Geoffrey writes:

In the pitch blackness of yet another stormy night, its soldiers filed down the mule tracks to the shore and made their way to the jetties of V Beach, where the empty shape of the River Clyde [a landing ship that wrecked on the beaches] loomed above them as a reminder of a landing there even more terrible than their own. But no regiment in the British or any other army had spent more of itself on this campaign than the Lancashire Fusiliers. They left behind 1,816 dead men on Gallipoli.

Even more bleak was the response to these losses back in Bury, where there was little public acknowledgement of the Gallipoli disaster. Geoffrey writes:

Yet the authorities did their best to conceal the extent of the disaster in the Dardanelles. From the middle of May 1915 until after the withdrawal had been completed in January 1916, the Gallipoli campaign ceased to exist as far as Bury newspaper readers were concerned, for it was never once described in all that time….

Then the curtains were drawn in every house along that part of the street, as a mark of respect and mourning for the dead. This was an old Lancashire custom, in peace as in war, and the habit was to open them again when the funeral was over. In 1915 there were few funerals but so many families mourning a lost soldier in turn, that parts of Bury seemed to have their curtains almost permanently closed.

When I drove around Bury, England, after that visit with Geoffrey in the 2000s, the window curtains were no longer closed but the old mill town, somber on a summer’s day, still had the feel of a war casualty.

Next: Anzac Cove, and the fate of Australia and New Zealand at Gallipoli. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran.