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Macedonian Ramble: The Tragedy and Competing Legends at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli

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From a memorial display: the west coast of the Gallipoli peninsula, where the Allies (notably from Australia and New Zealand—hence the word Anzac) landed at what is now Anzac Cove and fought their way to a stalemate in the deadly hills above the beaches. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the fourteenth 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.

The Turks came late to the Gallipoli war monument game (by that point the British and French had erected their memorials all over the peninsula), but above S Beach they put up a memorial worthy of Mao or Stalin.

My guide Bulant left me there in the parking lot, and we agreed to meet up in forty-five minutes, after which I would have walked around the soaring arch and read some of the inspirational inscriptions that overlook the Dardanelles.

The thing about Turkish war commemoration is that you get the impression that the only soldier who ever wore a uniform or fought the Allied invaders was Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). He’s on every memorial, with statues, quotes, and bas reliefs.

No wonder the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, behaves as if he were a sultan. And this Turkish memorial, of recent vintage, comes with several helicopter pads for state occasions.

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In the afternoon, I was in a mini-van with six others, all Australians, for an Anzac Cove tour. The guide was excellent. During the course of the day, he mentioned that he knew the filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson (The Lord of Rings, The Hobbit), who in recent years has become obsessed with the Anzac disaster at Gallipoli.

The guide told me that back in Wellington, New Zealand, Jackson invested millions in recreating a diorama of an Anzac trench (with studio verisimilitude), to bring home to New Zealanders the reality of the Gallipoli fighting. Then he ended up having to charge $15 for admission, after which Kiwis lost their enthusiasm for “the trench experience” and the exhibition was closed.

***

During the afternoon drive we stopped and heard detailed lectures at Anzac Cove, Lone Pine, and the Neck, and ended up on the heights of Chunuk Bair, where one of the great “what-ifs” of the war played out in August 1915.

Troops of the Wellington Battalion, led by a brave New Zealander officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, seized this high ground, which might well have collapsed the Turkish defenses had the Anzac senior command or the British reinforced the successful New Zealanders.

Instead, the British generals temporized, which allowed the Turks (led by Ataturk—who else?) to counter-attack, killing Malone and many of his men. At Chunuk Bair, the Turkish line held, although not before Ataturk had said to his men: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”

In his history of the Ottoman endgame, historian Sean McMeekin writes at sone of the great non sequiturs of the battle:

Insupportable or not, the conquest of “Tsargrad” for Russia was exactly what those Allies were bleeding and dying for on the Gallipoli Peninsula, whether or not they knew it. It was an odd thing for a soldier from New Zealand or Australia to fight for, but then the Gallipoli campaign as a whole becomes odder the closer one looks at it. Perhaps by virtue of the absurdity of their being in Turkey in the first place—for what quarrel could there possibly be between antipodeans and Turks, separated from one another by two oceans and thousands of miles?—the Anzac front has always had a special place in Gallipoli lore.

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Anzac Cove, where the Australian and New Zealand regiments came ashore, is now part of a national park, and beautifully tended. Above the beach is a grass lawn, with stately monuments and bronze inscriptions (“This beach, 600 meters long by 20 meters wide, was the life line to the Allied solders within the Anzac perimeter…”).

The original landing site of the Anzac forces was to the south of this cove, but during the night landing on April 25 their boats drifted north, and they came ashore beneath a sharp ridge line, insuring that many of the invading force would never get very far inland. On D-Day alone the Anzac divisions lost 1000 men, and some 2000 more were wounded.

The Anzac forces did make it ashore, barely, and for the next six months they fought a series of battles and skirmishes throughout the rolling hills and valleys above the beaches. (See the creases in the picture above.) The troops above Anzac Cove were yet another of Churchill’s beached whales.

For the most part the fighting was a variation on siege warfare, with the Turks occupying the high ground, from which they could pour down fire on the Anzacs below.

Attrition from snipers, illness, and disease caused as many casualties as did frontal assaults. The Anzacs hung on with a gritty determination—to a complainer, they would often say, “The next thing you’ll want is flowers on your grave”—but they made little progress out of the doomed perimeter.

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In the mini-van, we followed the course of the attacking Anzacs through places that they named Plugge’s Plateau, Shrapnel Valley, Russell’s Top, Lone Pine, The Neck, Baby 700, and Battleship Hill.

Today, crisply manicured cemeteries and marble monuments mark many of these battle grounds, which cling to hillsides and roundups, as did the attacking Anzac forces.

One plaque (of many like it) reads: “On the morning of 7 August at The Neck, four waves of Australians were cut down before they reached the enemy line.”

The Peter Weir film, Gallipoli, ends with one wave of this attack moving forward into a hail of Turkish machine gun fire, more proof, if any was needed, that Australia became an independent country on the backs of its dead on the peninsula. In all, some 8,700 Australians died at Gallipoli.

***

Most evenings in Çanakkale there’s a screening of the film Gallipoli in one of the hostels that caters to Australian tourists. I thought of trying to watch it this time on a full screen, but it was easier to see on my laptop back at the hotel, especially as the film has aspects of a television action drama.

It’s a coming-of-age story of two young men—track runners—who make the journey from childhood innocence in Western Australia to death and destruction in the hills above Anzac Cove.

The movie ends with Archy Hamilton (played by Mark Lee) sprinting into the Turkish machine guns at The Neck, as if lunging for an imaginary finish line (in this case the line marks the end of Australia’s illusions about Great Britain).

Because the film was made in the Australian outback, it feels as though the fighting occurred in the vastness of the North African desert rather than in the claustrophobic hills of the Gallipoli peninsula.

In reality, The Neck is not much bigger than a football field. The setting is dramatic, as it sits on an open plateau overlooking Suvla Bay (visible on the map above), where, according to the best-laid military plans, the British were to have come ashore in August 1915 behind the Turkish lines and cut the peninsula in half, insuring an Allied victory.

In the mythology of Gallipoli, the landing at Suvla Bay faltered because the British forces, once ashore, decided to brew tea on the beaches rather than rush inland. That pause allowed the Turks to rally their defenses against both the Suvla landing, and the Anzacs trying to break through at The Neck and on the heights of Chunuk Bair. When those thrusts failed, the battle was effectively over, although it took another four months for the Allies to admit defeat and withdraw in December-January 1915.

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From The Neck, we drove up to Chunuk Bair, where for about an hour we were free to wonder among the memorials, most of which are now Turkish (Ataturk manning the ramparts, etc.).

I read the Ataturk dedication delivered in 1934 at one of the memorials that I had first seen in Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book, Hell’s Foundations. Geoffrey found the message to the mothers of the killed Allied soldiers to be moving, and it is. It reads:

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.

I also found the trench lines that Colonel Malone’s men had captured on August 8, 1915, after which they pleaded for reinforcements (none were forthcoming).

I discovered the story of Colonel Malone from a New Zealand novelist and playwright, Maurice Shadbolt, whom I met in Wellington in 1989. He had written and edited a book entitled, Voices of Gallipoli, which is an oral history, largely of the failed attack on Chunuk Bair. (He writes: “Insofar as it was a success, it was the work of a few hundred ragged and skeletal New Zealanders. A mere seventy or so were to survive to the summit…. That day on Chunuk Bair was central to the New Zealand experience of Gallipoli. Afterwards the disillusion of New Zealanders with things British knew no limits.”)

New Zealand is a small and friendly country, and after I read Shadbolt’s excellent book in Wellington, I called him up on the telephone and we met for coffee. It was then that he told me more about Colonel Malone and the Wellingtons, and what they had endured on the hilltop.

In 1982 Shadbolt produced a play (later it was made into a low-budget film that’s now on YouTube), Once On Chunuk Bair, about the fateful encounter. I can see why he was drawn to those trenches, as everything tragic about the Gallipoli battle was played out in an area about the size of several tennis courts. In Voices of Gallipoli, Shadbolt writes:

The incandescent spirit on the summit was Wellington’s Colonel Malone. His British superiors had never been able to shut him up; nor could waves of bomb-throwing Turks now. Time and again he led short bayonet charges to keep the Turks and their bombs at bey. ‘How men died on Chunuk Bair,’ wrote Burton, ‘was determined largely by how men and women had lived on the farms and in the towns of New Zealand.’ It certainly seemed that farmer and lawyer Malone had lived a rugged New Zealand lifetime in rehearsal for his last hours. He and many of his men, after refusing to bend to the Turkish bombs and bayonet, were finally felled by misplaced British naval fire. It was the cruelest strike of all, a blunder not atypical in any war, and especially not on Gallipoli, which had never been more than miscalculation after miscalculation. But for New Zealanders at last to take Turkey’s high ground and then to be shelled by their own side was all too symbolic. For fifty years a curious and tactful silence was preserved, with survivors of Chunuk Bair too cowed or dispirited to talk of it other than among themselves, and then furtively, at reunions.

Shadbolt’s oral history came out just as the last of the Gallipoli veterans were fading away, one of the reasons, he said, he was able to finally put everything in print. Otherwise, he was coming up against the Anzac legend, which the official Australian historian C.E.W. Bean defined this way:

Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.

It’s less associated with killing off the one successful attack of the battle with friendly fire.

As William Tecumseh Sherman liked to say (and which I heard my father, a combat veteran in the Pacific, repeat often): “I think I understand what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

***

As I wandered among the markers on Chunuk Bair, I thought also about my Anzac conversations with my friend Professor Michael McKinley, who taught Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict for many years at the Australian National University in Canberra, but who now lives in New Zealand. He introduced me to the term “Anzackery,” the idea that the myths around Gallipoli have grown so distorted that they have altered the way Australia and New Zealander look at the world. When I asked Mike for a working definition of the word, he sent me a link to an article by another professor, David Stephens, who writes:

Anzackery distorts Australia’s military history to make the Australian contribution more important than it was in reality. Gallipoli, for example, becomes ‘Australia versus the Turks’ and the efforts of British, French, Indians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders and Germans fade into the background…. The inflated version of Australia’s military role in the Dardanelles and elsewhere is used to promote patriotism and encourage support for current wars. Emotive rhetoric prevails; emotion, sentiment and nationalism are at the heart of Anzackery but it is rarely peddled without purpose…. Sentiment prevents us asking important questions about why we fight wars. The Anzac centenary should be marked by vigorous debate. Anzackery is a bubble that needs to be pricked.

I now realize that Maurice Shadbolt had the same reaction, although he did not coin such an imaginative term to define his anger. For him, Lt.-Col. Malone’s Wellingtons, if not the nation of New Zealand, had been hung out to dry on Chunuk Bair. Now the many critics of “Anzackery” have taken that reaction further, and are making the point that in embracing the myths of Gallipoli to such an exaggerated degree, Australians (and to a lesser extent New Zealander) have confused some of the meaning of the tragedy that they endured.

Next and last: San Stefano and Ataturk’s Istanbul. Earlier installments can be found here.