I t was in school that I first read about the several battles of Gallipoli (April 25, 1915 to January 9, 1916). One of the essays included in the prescribed Rapid Reader was on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1880-1938). It was Kemal’s valour which was extolled by the writer. Later, I was amazed by the description in college text books about the fierce battles which ultimately resulted in great loss to both sides. The Allies lost more than 250,000 soldiers. The loss to the Ottoman empire was equally high. However, the real importance of Gallipoli dawned on me only when I paid a day long visit to the nicely preserved battle fields in April, 2012. I also realized the lessons which Gallipoli can provide to all of us.
Gallipoli is the small peninsula on the eastern edge of the continent of Europe abutting on the narrow Dardanelles Strait, which connects the Aegean and the Marmara Seas. Beyond that the Marmara and the Black Seas are linked up by the narrower Bosphorus Strait. Ships from the Mediterranean Sea had to pass through these channels in order to reach the then important Russian ports of Sochi, Rostov, Sevastopol, Odessa and others. Sevastopol and Odessa are now in Ukraine.
The First World War (1914-1919) started with fighting between two opposite sides called the Allied Powers and the Central Powers. The Allied Powers consisted of the British Empire and France. The Central Powers consisted of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. Later, many other nations joined the War on either side. In Gallipoli Australians and New Zealanders were more numerous on the British Empire side. They were called the ANZACs. Similarly, the Turks were more numerous on the Ottoman side, during the battles in Gallipoli.
The strategy for attack in Gallipoli had been formulated by Winston Churchill who happened to be the First Lord of the Admiralty of the United Kingdom at that time. His plan was to attack Turkey through the Dardanelles Strait. This, he hoped, would force open a passage through the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Russian side. In Churchill’s estimation the Ottoman Army was weak and the plan would be accomplished within a short period of time. But the British grossly underestimated the Turks. As remarked by the eminent historian Martin Gilbert “the low British estimate of Turkish fighting abilities had led Kitchener (British Commander–in–Chief) to comment caustically that Australian and New Zealand troops would be quite adequate for the task of what he called ‘a cruise in the Marmara’.” But the Turks, “inspired and cajoled by their own Mustafa Kemal, were able to keep the invading force pinned down”. Ultimately, “ill-luck and error, followed by the unexpected vigour of the Turkish defenders, shattered the Allied dream of a turning point that would bring them both victory in the field and territory on the map”. As a consequence Winston Churchill had to resign.
However, when the First World War ended the Allied powers completely dismantled the Ottoman Empire. In the peace negotiations there were as many as 32 Allied nations representing 75 percent of the world’s population. But the Central Powers were not invited nor consulted. When the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 between the Allied Powers and Germany the conditions imposed were harsh. Germany signed the Treaty under protest because the Treaty took away their foreign possessions and also imposed the unbearable reparations of £6,600 millions. In the case of the Ottoman Empire all its possessions outside Turkey were taken away. This included the Arab Lands, and the islands of the Aegean, Cyprus, Rhodes and the Dodecanes. A big exchange between Turkish and Greek populations took place which left considerable bitterness between the two races. Turkey was also to be dismembered. But in 1924 Kemal staged a coup, abolished the Caliphate and prevented Turkey’s breakup. Then he himself became the President (read Dictator) of a Secular Democratic Republic of Turkey. Kemal, who had imbibed the ideals of the Young Turk movement, westernised and modernised Turkey. A contemporary of Kemal urged the Turks “to belong to the Turkish nation, the Moslem religion and the European civilization”. (Roberts : History of the World). This principle was followed by the Turks who made Kemal the “Ataturk” or the father of the nation.
In Gallipoli I visited the battle fields, the trenches, the memorials, the cemeteries and the wooded areas in the plains and in the slopes of the hills. I found that these and the landing grounds of the Allied Army as well as the old harbours are quite well maintained. The atmosphere is serene. The scenes of fierce fighting are in memory only. But the sites are “today almost hauntingly beautiful with the wooded landscape scattered with memorials to the war”. I was taken to many such fields including, of course, to Chunuk Bair. In 1915, Mustafa Kemal, who was then a Commander in the Ottoman Army, had shown his mettle by himself reaching the crest of Chunuk Bair with only 200 soldiers and holding it against a huge Australian force because “Kemal knew that if the crest was not held the whole position on the peninsula could be lost”. Earlier, he had chastised a Turkish Army detachment which was retreating when an advancing Australian force was spotted. Kemal told the Turks: “If you have not any ammunitions at least you have your bayonets”. The Turks returned and were able to hold back the Australians with the help of reinforcements which arrived later. Similar happenings saved Turkey on a number of other occasions.
In the cemeteries I saw the names of many soldiers, including those of the Indian jawans of the British Army, who had died in action. I saw the main battle fields of ANZAC Cove, Lone Pine, the Neck, Johnston’s Jolly and a few others. I also saw the Kaba Tepe Gallipoli Museum which is well maintained. The Australian, the New Zealand and the ANZAC memorials are quite big. Nationals of Australia and New Zealand visit these memorials all the year around. But on April 24 every year, a very large number of people come from those countries to celebrate the landing. The Turkish Government makes special arrangements by providing all the necessary facilities including an improvised amphitheatre with plastic chairs arranged in wooden galleries, where thousands of people can sit. In one memorial Turkish soldiers are remembered. There are huge statues to mark their sacrifice. One statue shows a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Australian to hospital. The entire peninsula is actually dotted with memorials and cemeteries which are lighted up very well. There are trenches which are quite big. Some of these are fortified. Others had been hewn out of soft stones. These are more enduring. In some cases the trenches are linked by passage-ways. Trees have been planted everywhere. These provide shade for the memorials and the cemeteries.
There are many lessons which can be learnt from Gallipoli. A visit to an area where half a million soldiers were killed in less than one year and where both the parties to the combat had shown uncommon valour and bravery as well as gentlemanly behaviour, has its own lessons. But people who have visited Gallipoli will think twice before subscribing to any wars in future. On random reading I came across a passage in the writings of Bertrand Russell which runs as follows: “You must not kill your neighbour, whom perhaps you genuinely hate, but by a little propaganda this hate can be transferred to some foreign nations, against whom all your murderous impulses become patriotic heroism” (“Russell’s Best”). Russell held the view that “peace can never be permanently secured until the education of children is changed. Warlike heroes such as Nelson, Wellington, Napoleon, Pershing, Eisenhower should not be glorified”. He also advised that “in the teaching of history there should be no undue emphasis upon one’s own country. The history of wars should be a small part of what is taught”. For holding such views Russell was publicly disgraced. Russell had written a pamphlet “in protest against the sentencing of a conscientious objector” to the First World War. For this he was fined £100. On another occasion he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. “His pacifistic views crystallised when he said that neither the Allies nor the Central Powers could solve any problem by means of war”. People who visit Gallipoli perhaps come back with feelings of abhorrence of war after looking at the graves and learning the details. They may not, however, agree with Russell’s views about the teaching of history.
It is in tourism, that Gallipoli can provide many lessons. The entire peninsula has been fully planned. Roads, paths, harbours, shops for essentials and other infrastructure have been built. Out of 30 million tourists who come to Turkey annually the majority visit Gallipoli at least once. Therefore, the infrastructure has to be adequate and of high quality. Turkey has provided all this. India can learn from Turkey’s experience.
H N Das
(The writer was Chief Secretary, Assam, during 1990-95)