A year on
It is now a full year since our caravan crossed Turkey, and yet another Anzac Day has passed us by. We return to our blog to fill an important gap; to complete the missing section on our visit to the battlefields of Gallipoli.
This delay is, in part at least, because of the complexity of our response to the experience.
When we first started thinking about the idea of travelling to Turkey and visting the places where our grandfathers had been during the first world war, we were keen not to buy into any crass nationalism. We thought that we needed to visit Gallipoli, but that we would not stay too long or expect too much. After all, we did not count ourselves amongst the Australians who are journeying there in ever increasing numbers, wrapping themselves in the flag and trying to tap into some vague myth of heroism and Australia’s blooding as a nation in a real war. We did want to visit, but we were wary of all the baggage.
For a good discussion on the way our nation has glorified this particular military disaster, have a read of former-officer James Brown’s recent book Anzac’s Long Shadow.
Also, we had no idea of what Gallipoli would be like physically. We did not realize that the former battlefields are now a serene National Park; a beautiful yet rugged place, supporting modest sites of great significance, to both sides, from a now-distant conflict.
Then we reconnected with Bill Sellars, an Australian journalist and historian. Thirty years ago he had come across some letters in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra written by Australian prisoners of war who had been captured at Gallipoli. These included Helen’s grandfather, Maurice Delpratt. Bill looked up Delpratts in the phone book and wrote to Jan to seek permission to use her father’s letter in his work. Long story short, young Bill headed off on his first trip overseas to Turkey to find out more about these men that he had never heard mentioned in the context of Gallipoi. He sent some photos back to Jan from that trip, which she still has.
Back to early 2013, and Helen found Bill again via the Great War Forum on the internet. He had made his home in Turkey. His response to our request for any advice for our trip was immediate and generous. While he would normally recommend his friends, the excellent Turkish guides from Crowded House hotel in Eçeabat, for a general tour of the battlefields, Bill offered to show us around the battlefields himself, and take us to the place where Maurice Delpratt had been captured.
This started to change our view of the trip to Gallipoli.
John also provided Bill with information about his grandfather, Ernest Strambini and Bill thought he would be able to find out where he had been stationed and fought.
It turned out to be an outstanding visit. Bill gave us an exceptional tour of the battlefields, well beyond anything we could have imagined. Most memorably, Bill took us to the specific locations where Ernest Strambini and Maurice Delpratt fought, which turned out to be close in both location and timing. We are in his debt.
And so to the visit itself ……
We were collected very early from our apartment in Istanbul by the Crowded House mini-bus for our trip to the Gellibolu (Gallipoli) Peninsula. This was a drive of almost five hours, through the sprawling outer-suburbs of Istanbul, along the edge of the Sea of Marmara, and along the modern version of the route that Maurice Delpratt and the other POWs would have travelled (though in the other direction).
Bill met us in Eçeabat, and took us for a great seafood lunch on the waterfront. We were dropped at Gallipoli Houses, a beautiful village-style hotel right in the Gallipoli National Park. The rooms were great, the meals (and the Suvla Syrah) very good, and the village atmosphere was charming and quiet (interrupted only by the regular call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque).
Bill collected us the next day with his friend Anil, who drove us around the peninsula for the day, and helped with the commentary. It was a very hot, fine day, though made bearable by the sea breeze.
Bill took us first to Anzac Cove where we walked south along the beach, from Ari Burnu to Hell Spit, and past the (very basic) remains of Watson’s Pier, where Bill was confident both Maurice and Ernest would have landed, just days apart from each other, in May 1915. It was at Ari Burnu that we also encountered our first cemetery, the first of many for the day.
From the beach we saw the ugly intrusion caused by “Howard’s Way”, the new access road proposed by the Australian Government and built by Turkish authorities, but without a sound heritage assessment. While improved access was necessary, the method and the route chosen have imposed a modern stone wall along much of the beach at Anzac Cove, and apparently destroyed some historically significant sites as well.
We walked along the road above Anzac Cove, past the sign that reflects the generous decision by the Turks to rename the area as Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove), to the plaque quoting Attatürk (Mustafa Kemal, a key commander at Gallipoli and later President of the new Turkish Republic), and on to Beach Cemetery. Then we headed inland.
As we walked through Shrapnel Gully, the main supply route for men and equipment for the Anzacs, along an exposed gully dwarfed by soaring hills, and noting what they had called the place, it was staggering to realise what the men of both sides, including our grandfathers, had faced. Needless to say, there is a large cemetery at Shrapnel Gully.
We drove up Artillery Road to Lone Pine, site of one of the most intense battles of the campaign. The cemetery here is deceptive – most remains were never recovered, and so the majority of the dead are remembered by names on a large stone wall. Almost 2,500 Australians and around 6,000 Turks were killed or wounded in just a few days trying to take or hold Lone Pine, an area the size of a football field.
We set off on a long walk off the main path, down a firebreak that follows the ridge which had formed the southern boundary of the Australian line. In 1915, this was just scrub, with trenches only metres apart on either side. Remains of the trenches, and their alarming proximity to the enemy, are still clearly visible.
We came to Bolton’s Ridge, an area that would be indistinguishable from the locations on either side if we weren’t in Bill’s capable hands. Bolton’s Ridge was held by the 9th Battalion (from Queensland) which is where John’s grandfather Ernest Strambini would have been stationed.
A little further on, we came to Harris Ridge, which was more easily defined because this was the southern end of the Anzac line, and the ridge turned right and down, back towards Anzac Cove. Harris Ridge was held by the 5th Light Horse, also Queenslanders, and this is where Helen’s grandfather, Jan’s father, Maurice Delpratt would have been stationed.
After consulting Charles Bean’s official history of the conflict to confirm the location, Bill pointed to the steep drop that went down behind the Turkish lines to the Balkan Gunpits (named from an earlier conflict involving the Ottoman Empire) where Maurice was captured. By coincidence, we were there almost to the day he was captured, 98 years earlier.
As we walked along the track between the lines, Bill’s expert eye had spotted small pieces of shrapnel and shell casings, shards of rum jars and medicine bottles, and even a small piece of bone. At Harris Ridge, as if to prove his point that this was the end of the line, he found a sizeable remnant of rusty (British) barbed-wire.
It was moving to be right at the places where our grandfathers had fought. It was chilling to appreciate the intensity of the conflict in these tiny spaces, spaces so dense with fighting that relics were still visible after a hundred years and hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Back at Lone Pine, the road now follows Second Ridge, and past the series of posts on the cliffs that marked the Australian line – Johnston’s Jolly, Courtney’s Post, Steel’s Post and Quinn’s Post. Each location was the site of both relentless conflict and specific battles; each is marked by a cemetery. And though we didn’t visit them, the signs pointing off the road in the opposite direction were to just as many Turkish cemeteries.
Between Quinn’s Post and The Nek, we come to the main Turkish Memorial. The whole area is packed with visitors, Turkish tour buses and souvenir stands.
In a parallel of what happened in Australia, the grandchildren of Turkish veterans lead a resurgence in pride and interest in the Gallipoli campaign (for them, the Çannakule campaign). In fact our hosts at Gallipoli Houses advised against our coming on the weekend because of the large number of Turkish tourists that come then.
The Nek is most famous for the futile series of charges by Light Horsemen, dramatised in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli. Compared to many other battles, the 372 casualties was modest; what was shocking was the process. Four individual lines of men were ordered to charge, one after the other, across a tiny space about as big as a couple of tennis courts. The major assault on Chunuk Bair that this attack was supposed to provide a diversion for had stalled and, after the first wave, it was clear that the men were going to certain death, and to no avail. But still they went.
The view from The Nek, and even more so from Walker’s Ridge, the northern end of the Anzac line, was stunning – down the steep slopes past The Sphinx and Plugge’s Plateau to Anzac Cove, and from Walker’s north to Suvla Bay, the site of another shambles of the Gallipoli campaign.
We finished our tour at Chunuk Bair, the high-point of Gallipoli and hence the key military target, that was never attained by the Anzacs other than briefly by the New Zealanders. Both Attatürk and the Kiwis have monuments at the summit.
We returned home for a well-earned Efes beer, heart-felt thanks to Bill and Anil, and some serious contemplation.
With twelve months hindsight, not much has changed for us both.
This was a superb visit, made all the more special because of our personal connections and our personalized tour.
We must acknowledge the generosity and friendship of the Turkish people towards Australia and New Zealand. Despite the fact that soldiers from distant parts of the Commonwealth invaded their shores, today they share management of the battlefields with their former foes, and even recognize the names that the Anzacs gave to this small but significant part of their country.