We had only been in Turkey for a few days when the Gallipoli campaign was mentioned. We were sitting at a shaded picnic table about to eat lunch and two men came over to offer us some green melon that they had thoughtfully sliced into mouth-sized chunks. After they had finished their own lunch they returned to offer us cigarettes and show off heart and lung surgery scars caused by smoking. We had pulled out a map to contemplate the vast expanse of Turkey ahead of us and and after hearing we were from New Zealand one of our visitors unfolded it further, pointing to the Dardanelles channel with the ash end of his cigarette. He made noises of bombs going off, and we understood from his mime that his ancestors had fought there.
A tangent to my already sketchy knowledge of the Gallipoli campaign un-blurred a little and I could hardly believe my ignorance. Of course there was another side involved. While attendance at ANZAC day parades, stories of camaraderie with Australian troops, regular ANZAC biscuit baking sessions and distant war stories had filled my childhood, it was this vast landscape which was at stake. As important as this war was to New Zealand and Australian history, it literally shaped the future of Turkey.
The man in front of us pointed at the area on the map again with a still lit cigarette, asking if we would go. We instantly replied in the affirmative. As we cycled on, into encounter after encounter of open hospitality, we felt like it was our duty to pay our respects to this place which was common in our history.
Five weeks later, we are barrelling down a highway in an air conditioned coach in the early morning. It is a world away from cycle touring and we are 330 kilometres from Istanbul in just a few hours. Its miserable and raining out there, so we’re happy to fall asleep against the steamed up bus windows. Our only stops are at gas stations, before the sun finally comes out from behind the clouds around lunch time. As we meet the other passengers it is no surprise that Kiwis and Australians are in the majority on the bus tour.
The sun is strong on the Gallipoli peninsula and a Turkish family is picnicking at tables beside the beach upon which New Zealand troops were meant to land. As I stare out at the water I can’t help but think this could be New Zealand. The spell is broken when our guide pulls out a map of the peninsula and overlays the tranquillity with a bloody history full of errors and mistakes, that lead to both sides losing thousands of lives.
As we walk around the memorials on this humbling and reflective day the futility of this campaign is brought alive to us. We walk among trenches which were so close that the Turkish and ANZAC troops used to trade cigarettes and food, and spend evenings singing songs to each other before being given orders to open fire. Our guide picks up shrapnel, finding a bullet which has met another bullet mid-flight and it seems an apt symbol. We’ve met many Turkish people whose welcome has become even more warm after discovering the country we’ve come from. Because our two countries fought over this land, our history has been fused together.
We visit the Turkish memorial where there are a few more tourist buses idling while their contents wander the grounds. Our guide explains that the government pays for every child to visit the peninsula and more people come to pay their respects each year.
Visitors pose next to a modern statute of Hüseyin Kaçmaz, the last surviving Turkish soldier from the campaign who died in 1994. He is posed with his granddaughter who is holding flowers.
At the end of the afternoon’s tour we are are driven to the last memorial site, a place called Chunuk Bair which is a strategic lookout situated at the top of the highest point of the peninsula. I’m no historian, but understand it was under Turkish control for almost all of the campaign, giving them a strategic advantage. This was also the location of a New Zealand war memorial, built here in respect to a New Zealand expeditionary group who succeeded in taking the top for a few hours.
The next morning we wandered around the ancient city of Troy. Twenty kilometres further South, this was once the entranceway to the same waterway, a different era but again a place that is thick with the scars of past battles. We touched slabs of ornate marble pulled out of ancient civilisations and tried to imagine the world that would have existed here.
Before making the journey back to Istanbul we spent the afternoon drifting around the seaside town of Canakkale. The town is situated opposite the Gallipoli Peninsula and across the water you can see a stark reminder of the conflict. A Turkish poem has been painted onto the hills. It translates as:
Stop wayfarer ! Unbeknownst to you this ground
You come and tread on, is where an epoch lies;
Bend down and lend your ear, for this silent mound
Is the place where the heart of a nation sighs.