Tuesday 3rd May 2011, Gallipoli, Turkey
Today we have been visiting the Commonwealth war graves in the north west of the peninsula. These are chiefly Australian and New Zealand cemeteries with a few Ceylonese and British graves included. Gallipoli to the Australians and New Zealanders is what the Somme is for the British. Anzac day on 25th April is a day of very deep significance for them. An annual memorial service takes place at the largest cemetery, Lone Pine, on that day, attended by thousands of Antipodeans who make the journey in remembrance of their ancestors.
Almost all the Anzac visitors have now left the peninsula, leaving behind memorial wreaths laid at the foot of the main cenotaph. We looked around in the rain while the specially erected stands were being dismantled and packed away until next year.
There are some 35 war graves cemeteries here with the British ones mainly concentrated to the south of the peninsula which we will investigate tomorrow. Most are quite small areas of mown grass often overlooking the sea and shaded by mulberry trees. The plaques in remembrance are laid out amidst flower beds. Often there is no known grave, which is why there are several different cenotaphs. So many plaques simply say a particular person is believed to be buried in this cemetery. It was only after the armistice that the Allies were able to gather many of the bodies together for burial, so very many of the dead were never found or never identified. Hundreds more died on the torpedoed ships that lie, still today, deep on the seabed of the Dardanelles.
The entire area is a scrubby heathland of pine trees, heather and Mediterranean shrubs. The soil is sandy and stony. Landings would have been effected onto shallow beaches such as Anzac Cove with the hillside rising steeply to higher ground, defended by Turkish forces dug-in amongst the unassailable rocky cliffs known as the badlands. Small wonder the invading forces never made more than a kilometre or so inland. For nine months the fighting continued with shells, grenades and trench warfare with fixed bayonets. There are the remains of trenches still to be seen amongst the pine trees. Areas were given nicknames by the Allied soldiers – Shell Green because it was bombed so consistently by the Turks, the Sphinx because of the shape of the cliff and Bone Hill for obvious reasons.
It was impossible not to feel moved by the sight, but also not to feel a sense of anger. Everything about the First World War seems so futile and pointless. Young men from places as diverse as the Antipodes, the French colonies of West Africa, Ireland and Ceylon have died here on the beaches of this beautiful, remote peninsula in Turkey as a direct result of flaring hostilities in the Balkans and a hair-brained Anglo-French scheme to defeat Germany by forcing Turkey out of the war, leaving the way clear to attack from the Russian front.
There were several coach loads of Turkish visitors on the narrow, one way route around the cemeteries. Having visited Anzac Cove and Lone Pine cemetery we sought out a Turkish cemetery and cenotaph. They too are laid out very tastefully amidst flowers and green lawns. The monuments all looked very new. Visiting them seems to have become something of a cult for Turkish people in recent times. Outside the entrances were souvenir stalls selling Turkish flags and replica Turkish trench caps.
Later in the campaign, when no significant inroads had been made into the peninsula by the Allies, the British attempted a final landing, up in the north-west at Cape Suvla. It is a remote and isolated spot reached by what was, until very recently, a dirt road. We drove up there where we stopped for a picnic lunch. We saw nobody, having the lonely, windswept headland to ourselves with just the sound of the sea on the rocks and the wheeling gulls overhead. It would not have been an easy landing place and the British were easily repulsed.
Shortly after, the campaign was abandoned and the Allied troops withdrew, leaving the Turks victorious. All their monuments speak proudly of this glorious success and speak of the Turkish dead as martyrs for their country.
The commander of the Turkish forces, Mustafa Kemal, is commemorated with gigantic statues at the Turkish cemeteries. At Çonkbayırı, the highest point of the peninsula, are a Turkish cenotaph and a monument to him stating that on this spot he defied death when a shard of shrapnel was deflected from his heart by his pocket watch. It has become part of Turkish legend.
On the peninsula we have found the most beautiful scenery anywhere we have yet seen in Turkey. In complete contrast to its tragic past it is sublimely peaceful with sandy coves, off-shore fishing boats, a scrubland filled with flowers and scented herbs and woodlands of pine forests alive with the permanent sound of birdsong.
Wednesday 4th May 2011, Gallipoli, Turkey
Today has been generally wet, making walking around the grassy cemeteries a very soggy and muddy affair. This morning we went down to the southern part of the peninsula where the British and French forces landed on 25th April 1915 at the same time that the Anzacs were landing in the north-west. The British cemeteries, like those of the Australians and New Zealanders are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are very tastefully laid out with a cenotaph and neat rows of inscribed stones recalling the name, rank, regiment, date of death and age of each buried soldier. At the bottom there is frequently a family message of endearment; all are very moving, frequently stating how loved they were by wives, children and parents.
Standing alone with our umbrellas in the silence, overawed by the enormity and futility of the slaughter, we could not help but smile at the message on one young man's grave. Presumably inscribed by somebody who did not understand English, an error in punctuation meant that it read "Our noble loved one is at peace from wife and children"! Probably none of his family has ever managed to visit or surely it would have been rectified!
All these Allied cemeteries we had to ourselves. There were countless coaches of Turkish visitors but they were concentrated entirely around their own monuments, cenotaphs and burial places. We have since learnt that many of these visits are free, paid for by the Turkish government, anxious that people from isolated villages in Anatolia and elsewhere are made aware of their heritage and what the nation owes to the leadership of Kemal Atatürk.
At Cape Helles stands the huge monument to the British and Commonwealth war dead where thousands of names are inscribed. These are the names of those who either have no known grave or who are buried at sea. Apart from English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh regiments, there are also those from Canada, India and Ceylon and all parts of the Commonwealth at that time. There were even names of Indian Muslim mule drivers recorded. They would have done vital work carrying supplies up from the ships under cover of darkness and carrying the wounded away from the front line.
We made a point of visiting several of the Turkish sites including the one at Seddülbahir.
We have been surprised at the razzmatazz going on there. Souvenir stalls sell baseball caps, models of the wooden horse of Troy and tee-shirts with the head of Kemal Atatürk. Young Turks stand before every memorial to have their photos taken while girls wear headscarves made from the Turkish flag and people swarm about amongst the memorial stones like ants. Often it seems that there are different coaches for men and women. They certainly walk around in large, separate groups. At lunch time thousands of them descended from their coaches at the massive arch commemorating the victorious Turks and the almost deification of their general, leader and reformer Kemal Atatürk. Down below stalls had been set up and visitors queued for Turkish pizzas and cola which they consumed, packed elbow to elbow in the rain at long benches beneath the pine trees beside the sea.
One particularly interesting thing I have discovered is that until the reforms of Atatürk in the 1920s, the Turkish people did not have family names. Thus all the graves are inscribed for example, Osman oğlu Ali (Osman son of Ali). This, along with the reform of writing, must have radically changed the Turkish way of life. We do wonder how many people today are capable of reading the beautiful Arabic script still to be seen over the many marble fountains to be found in towns across the country. Perhaps though, it is still understood by educated Turks as it must be necessary to enable a proper study of the Koran.
While there are numerous smaller British cemeteries scattered around the area, the French war dead are gathered together in one large high-walled cemetery. The attendant asked us when we arrived if we were French but as he could speak neither English nor French he waved us in and returned to his little house in the corner of the cemetery.
There are some 18,000 young men buried here. There are 2,240 identified burials plus a further 15,000 unknown soldiers in five ossuaries. The graves are all marked by identical iron crosses bearing a metal plaque with the name of the soldier. They look very perfunctory and we were surprised that so many of the dead were obviously from French occupied North and West Africa so presumably not necessarily Christian. In that case, marking their grave with a cross might well be inappropriate. We did find one grave with an obviously Jewish name where the arms had been removed from the cross.
Leaving the battlefields behind we drove across to Kilitbahir on the eastern side of the peninsula. At this point the Dardanelles is at its narrowest so the village occupies a very strategic site. There is a massive 15th century defensive castle there matching a similar one across in Çanakkale. Between them they could control and defend the waterway. The castle is well preserved but forbidding with unguarded staircases leading up to the battlements. It was still raining with slippery mud everywhere. The attendant warned us not to climb the walls in such conditions - a Turkish visitor had recently fallen to his death - and because of that, he allowed me in free "as a gift to the lady".
Beyond the castle is the 19th century fort with thick defensive walls and gun emplacements overlooking the Dardanelles. Today the sea road runs right through the middle of the fort though previously it passed through the village slightly to the north. Down beside the harbour we watched with glee as a Turkish tour bus got itself jammed under the low arched bridge leading into the fort! Why it had come that way is a mystery as the bridge is obviously too low and narrow.
We were really hungry but there were only a couple of possible eating places. The one we chose assumed all we wanted was the toilet so showed us in there straight away! We found this funny so rubbed our tummies and made eating gestures which fortunately made them laugh. They proudly produced an "English" menu offering such traditional fare as "crushing with pap" while to drink they offered a nice glass of "turnip". Curious as we were to discover what these dishes were we played safe and opted for Turkish ravioli for Ian, which came with yogurt and spicy sauce. It was very nice. I had chicken pieces cooked on a wooden skewer with baked peppers, rice and salad. Forgoing the turnip drink we opted for glasses of çay (tea) to finish.
Climbing from the little fishing harbour up to the village afterwards we discovered some battered old cobbled alleyways lined with battered old traditional Turkish cottages. Everything was rundown but very much lived in. Men were gathered around the central cafe and dogs and cats snuffled in the wet verges. A small group of women passed us and without a word simply handed each of us a cake from a large basket they were carrying between them! We've picked up a smattering of words by now so brought them all into practice to say "Thank you, greetings, thank you, goodbye, thank you". The cakes were rather like doughnuts without the sugar and jam. They were still warm. As we stood holding them watching the ladies disappear up the street, the man from the grocery shop came out, also clutching one he'd been given, and signed to us to eat them while they were still warm. We all tucked in together!
Later we drove along the coast to Eceabat for some shopping. The man in the greengrocer's handed me a bag which I filled with carrots, aubergines, green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers a couple of bananas and a lettuce. He weighed the entire lot on the scales together and charged me 8.50 lirasi for the lot (about £3.40). Entering the butcher’s shop we found it full of men obviously not buying meat, but we couldn't work out what they actually were doing. They all waited silently while the butcher served us with chicken breasts and as we left the hubbub of conversation resumed. Finally, in a dark little general store (Turkey's version of "open all hours") we purchased yogurt and bread before returning to Modestine and "home" to the campsite to listen to the rain pounding on the roof as we drank wine and waited for remoska to invent something unusual from the assorted vegetables we'd bought back for her. She did pretty well, even using up our Devon grown garlic and our last Corfu lemon to create a sort of sweet and sour chicken with noodles.
Thursday 5th May 2011, Gallipoli, Turkey
Sometimes our days work out very differently than we anticipate. Today was one such day. This morning John and Linda said farewell. They have high hopes of finding a way to cross into Asian Turkey with their campervan to visit Turkish friends down in Izmir. For us it doesn't seem worth the hassle, much as we'd like to visit Pergamon and Bursa. We will simply spend a little longer making our way northwards through Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
We decided to return by ferry to Çanakkale for the day, leaving Modestine behind with her wheels safely on European soil. No dolphins to amuse us today but a pleasant ride across the Dardanelles for £1 each including a glass of tea to while away the time.
On the quayside in Çanakkale we discovered the massive wooden horse used in the film Troystarring Brad Pitt, made here in 2004. After filming, the company presented it as a gift to the city of Çanakkale. Well what else could they practically use it for?
We were looking forward to treating ourselves to a typically Turkish lunch such as we'd tasted in Istanbul. There are very many restaurants in the town but sadly, many that we saw sold only kebabs and pizza. Recalling several little restaurants in the back streets we made our way from the main shopping streets down towards the sea near the fort.
Passing the mosque we found the courtyard full of people sitting on benches around the walls eating something interesting. We looked on with curiosity, hoping to discover what was happening. Immediately several men beckoned us over while one rushed off to get us some food! Unfortunately almost nobody spoke a word of English but we decided we'd just have to go with the flow. Plates loaded with chicken, rice and chick peas covered with yogurt were passed to us. When we tried to pay we were made to understand that it was free! People shook hands and told us their names, squashing up on the benches to make room for us. With just a few of words of English between them they all wanted to know where we were from, but nobody seemed able to tell us why we were sitting outside a mosque with friendly people we didn't know eating free food – and Ian panicking in case he forgot and ate using his left hand which is apparently impolite. Eventually they finished eating and drifted away leaving us still eating. Somebody else joined us on the bench and asked the usual question of where we came from. He was in his late 40s and spoke good English. He was only too happy to answer our questions. Today is Thanksgiving Day here when families remember their departed relatives and a local restaurant had provided the food for free to celebrate. It was being distributed from huge cauldrons at the mosque. Our new friend told us his name was Sammy and he'd studied in England in his youth and now worked sometimes as a personal guide around the sites of Gallipoli. He introduced us to his mother, a lovely Muslim lady wearing the traditional headscarf. Her name was Fatma. She spoke no English but smiled a great deal and was warm and friendly. We all finished eating and as we were still busy asking questions Sammy suggested we all go for tea down beside the nearby naval dock. Here we chatted for a good hour together.
Moored nearby was a reproduction of the Turkish mine-laying ship the Nusrat that had so effectively prevented the warships of the Allied fleet from entering the Dardanelles. Fatma said she'd never been on board and Sammy said it was officially closed today but he was a friend of the director of the naval museum and could arrange for us to visit. So we all went on board where the crew showed us around deck to see the mines and to explain how they were laid on the seabed, then took us down steep ladders within the ship to see the living quarters of the crew. As a result of a recent illness Sammy walked with great difficulty so waited on deck while we and Fatma went below. She is becoming elderly and walked with a stick so I was entrusted to carry her bag for her and one of the Turkish sailors almost carried her down the ladder but she was determined to see everything.
Both mother and son were wonderfully hospitable even suggesting we should leave the campsite and go to stay with them in their flat in Çanakkale! I wonder how often such a warm welcome would greet overseas visitors in Britain. They were just so amazingly open and friendly. We expressed our gratitude but explained we would be moving out of the area tomorrow, heading north. When at last our visit to the warship was over and we made our goodbyes Fatma asked whether we had children and what our ages were. Sammy of course translated for us. She them said, very charmingly, that she had thought we were her children but now realised we were in fact her brother and sister! We have promised to contact them should we ever again visit Çanakkale.
After that we wandered around the town in something of a daze, trying to take in the fact that we had been treated to such amazing hospitality by the people of Çanakkale for no other reason than that it is in their nature. We did discover the covered bazaar and managed to buy several little things we'd expected to buy in the Istanbul bazaar but had felt too hassled to do so. Here we were left in peace to choose our miniature wooden horse and packets of Turkish delight. The prices were perfectly reasonable so no need to bargain. In Istanbul the prices were deliberately marked up so tourists could beat the stallholders down and imagine they'd got a bargain.
Later, with an hour until the return ferry, we found a cake shop where we indulged in choux pastry filled with cream and smothered in chocolate sauce served with another glass of tea. Then, on the ferry back, as we sadly left Asia behind for the last time, a couple of fellow Turkish passengers handed each of us a glass of tea as a token of friendship! We feel quite overwhelmed by so much kindness from strangers. It's something that has happened to us far more frequently than we deserve as we have been travelling around Europe since our retirement.
Back here on the campsite we've now met an English motorcyclist on his way to Siberia! Presumably once he gets there he'll turn around and drive back again. We are beginning to take such crazy activities from fellow campers in our stride now. He hasn't even bothered to get insurance, simply buying it at the border of each country as he passes through. Tomorrow he has to go back to Istanbul for the second time to try to pick up his visa to enter Iran.