There’s a bit of a running joke in my family that I seem to have a penchant for visiting sites of former death and destruction. I blame my parents and all those childhood holidays to Normandy. But I couldn’t come to Turkey and not visit Gallipoli.
For those of you who may not know, the Gallipoli peninsula was the site of a First World War campaign, particularly remembered in Australia and New Zealand as a large proportion of Anzac soldiers took part. Without going into too much detail of the history (this BBC site gives an excellent overview if you’re interested), the general historical consensus is that it was a terrible, poorly planned campaign, epitomising the futility of war, conjuring images of men struggling to climb impossibly steep cliffs to the high ground; battling it out in awful trench conditions; and ultimately tens of thousands meeting their end under machine gun fire. It was a hugely important event in the modern history of both Australia and New Zealand, just as the First World War was across the British Empire, with vast numbers of mothers and fathers sending their sons off to die on the other side of the world in the name of the British crown.
I really wanted to visit Gallipoli so that I could visualise a place that always seemed so foreign and remote to me. Now, it is possible to visit on a day trip from Istanbul, but that would be a very long day. As it was I chose a 2 day option which included a visit to nearby Troy. There are public buses making the route, but I wasn’t sure they would get us there in time for the afternoon tours. A few different tour agencies operate in the area, and all seem to offer the same tours for very similar prices. We went with Crowded House and our 135 euro each included:
- 6.30am pick up from hotel in Istanbul
- Minibus to Eceabat
- Lunch in Eceabat
- Afternoon tour to Troy
- Overnight accommodation in twin room in hotel in Cannakale
- Buffet breakfast the next day
- Morning tour of Helles sector – it was very interesting to see this less visited part, and we effectively had a private tour
- Lunch in Eceabat again
- Afternoon tour of Anzac sector (couple more people joined us)
- Minibus back to Istanbul, where we stopped for a quick dinner break (not included) then they dropped me directly at the airport as I had a late flight
We’d been warned by friends beforehand that Troy was fairly underwhelming, but I think it depends on your expectations. There is not a huge amount to see, but with a tour guide explaining the different archaeological layers, and a good visual imagination, it was pretty interesting. Admittedly I knew very little about the legends before I got there, so it was all fairly new and interesting for me. I did however remember watching the Brad Pitt movie “Troy” at the cinema as a teenager, and the wooden horse used in the filming was on display in Eceabat which was quite cool. There was also a more basic, but climbable, replica in Troy itself.
As for the battlefield tours, doing the whole day gave us a great overview of how events unfolded a century ago. The Anzac sector was only part of the story, so seeing the Helles side too was a good balance. I also hadn’t realised that so many British and French troops participated in the campaign: the number of names on the Helles memorial from the Worcestershire Regiment alone (where I’m from originally) was shocking. In total, 35 countries were represented when you count them separately rather than as part of one empire or another. Our tour guide Bülent spoke English with a charming Antipodean lilt, littered with slightly displaced fillers and idioms such as “actually” and “I was gonna say…”, borne out of 20 years of guiding Anzac descendants and tourists. He told us he regularly guides Peter Jackson, the movie director, who has visited multiple times and seems to have a keen interest in the history. A future film in the pipeline perhaps?
There were numerous battlefields across the peninsula, some with many named graves, and others with only a handful. Names of unidentified Allied soldiers were listed on the Helles memorial. I’ve been to a fair few Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in my time, and I am always taken aback by how immaculately kept they are, no matter where in the world. They do a really great job. The Turkish memorial was staggering in size: a huge four pillared structure, next to a 70m flagpole. It was designed in the 1940s, but when the project ran into financial difficulties it became an early example of crowdfunding as a nationwide newspaper-led campaign helped it to its eventual completion in 1960. I was surprised to see as many Turkish tourists as I did, coachloads of them, but our guide assured us that had we come at the weekend the crowds would have been much worse. Apparently 3 million Turks visited in 2015, and the government provides free school trips there as part of what seems to be a rather worrying piece of political (and even more worryingly, religious) propaganda.
War grave tourism isn’t for everyone, but I find it strangely calming, even inspirational. Philip Johnstone’s poem “High Wood”, written in Feb 1918 before the end of the war, imagines a future tour guide leading a group through the battlefields, an image I like to think soldiers of the time would have found comforting and hopeful rather than in any way disrespectful, although most criticism of this poem interprets it in the opposite way. I know there is always war and suffering going on in different corners of the world at any one time: you could argue that it’s just one continually shifting battlefield. Yet still I like to visit these places, their supreme serenity belying their troubled history, and contemplate how the most beautiful locations can so easily become the scenes of such infernal cruelty, and how amazing it is to see the sun shine again on even the darkest hells.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.
Philip Johnstone, 1918