Category Archives: Strambini


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.

Anzac Cove, 2013

Anzac Cove, 2013

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.

IMG_1512It 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).


Gallipoli Houses

Gallipoli Houses

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.

Watson's Pier, Anzac Cove

Watson’s Pier, Anzac Cove


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.

"... they have become our sons as well".

“… they have become our sons as well”.

IMG_1503As 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.

IMG_1529Lunch was a welcome respite, from both the heat and the challenges of history. Gozleme, ayran and coffee for five, under the grapevines at a roadside café, was great value at TL90 (about $50).

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.

IMG_1513We 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.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 12.28.17 PMAfter 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.

IMG_1553As 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.

Lone Pine

Lone Pine

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.

IMG_1577The 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.

If you are in Turkey, we definitely recommend a visit to the Gallipoli battlefields. Avoid weekends, Anzac Day, and probably all of 2015!IMG_1524




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A goat track to the Holy Grail…

Our journey to Belemedik and Hacikiri was the last frontier of our travels on the caravan road.  Tiny isolated villages that most Turks hadn’t even heard of, but for us our holy grail, our Tate Modern.  These little towns had been the sites of the camps where Sgt. Maurice Delpratt spent most of his time as a POW, working on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.

First we had to get from Afyon to Adana, nearly 600 kilometres away in central Turkey, and another city that tourists don’t frequent.

Screen Shot MAP2013-07-31 at 2.06.50 PM

Left to right – Afyon, Belemedik, Hacikiri, Adana.

We had originally planned to go by train, on the Toros Ekspresi, that would take us (slowly) across the Taurus Mountains, through the tunnels built by the POWs and across the stunning Varda Viaduct.

Regrettably our travel agent’s predictions of unreliable trains proved correct, and we had to make the journey with Rafet and our trusty Mercedes camel.  This made Rafet happy; allowed us to experience several more white-knuckle experiences of Turkey’s insane traffic; and allowed us to stop in Konya, one of the country’s most conservative and religious cities.

On the caravan road

On the caravan road

On balance, the road trip was probably more pleasant than the train, and certainly faster, though we can’t say that Rumi’s tomb and the Mevlana Museum really justifies a detour to Konya.  Many devout Turkish tourists clearly disagree.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 2.28.32 PM

Turkish school gilrs visiting the Mevlana Müzesi

As we approached Adana, we discovered that the Merc didn’t have a highway toll-reader, so we had to use the back roads, and fully depend on Rafet’s “ask a passer-by” method of navigation.  This became even less amusing as he tried to find our hotel.  Like at Afyon, our overly-cautious travel agent had opted for a “tourist” hotel, and once again it was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and hard to find.

Next morning we were up early to catch the train back to Belemedik, since the local Ekspresi was running.  This took us over the Varda Viaduct, to the tiny Hacikiri station, and right through the series of tunnels built through to Belemedik by the POWs.


Jan aboard the Toros Ekspresi from Adana to Belemedik

This was very exciting, and we were truly awed by the enormity of the task facing the tunnellers.  There is nothing much between Hacikiri and Belemedik other than mountain, so the railway track between the two construction camps is virtually one huge tunnel, deep inside the rock.


We were met at Belemedik by Rafet, who had driven up from Adana.  Belemedik today comprises just the railway station and a few houses, and Rafet was clearly struggling to understand WTF was going on.  However we insisted on exploring every dirt track (you couldn’t call them roads), and were rewarded when we finally found the ruins of the old construction camp.


The Belemedik camp was the regional admin centre for the construction of the railway, and the German and Swiss engineers and managers lived there.  As well as barracks, offices and stores, the camp had major infrastructure like a hospital, church and mosque, and luxuries such as a cinema.  Some of the luckier POWs were held there, but most POWs were sent on to smaller and far more rudimentary work camps, like Hacikiri.

Maurice played a part-quartermaster role at Hacikiri, and often came up to Belemedik to collect mail, Red Cross parcels and probably the pay for the men.  The Turks decided (correctly) that the rugged and isolated location made escape all but impossible; the Germans decided to treat the POWs like employees – if they didn’t work they got no pay, which meant they couldn’t buy food to live.

While most are all but ruins, we found quite a few stone buildings that were part of the Belemedik camp, including what seemed to be the hospital, some barracks, some houses, the water-well and what was probably an explosives store.



With a bit of local help, we also found the memorials to both Turkish and German workers killed in the huge construction project.  The remains of Allied POWs were moved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the like.

We finished our visit with a picnic near the station, and then it was off to Pozanti, the only sizeable town nearby.


Picnic lunch at Belemedik with the station master’s wife

It was here that we discovered that Rafet thought we were driving on to Cappadocia that afternoon.  That was what his itinerary clearly showed, despite the fact that we had stressed repeatedly to our travel agent that we needed two nights in Pozanti to ensure we had plenty of time to explore Belemedik and Hacikiri.  Honestly, which bit of “these will be the most important two days for us, and the main purpose of our visit to Turkey” didn’t they get?

After some heated phone calls by the side of the road, and the third in a chain of agencies chastised by the other two for getting it wrong, we headed off to our hotel, fortunately booked by the first agency.

The hotel complex was the curiously named Pendosis Vacation Village – why anyone would want to “vacation” at Pozanti is a mystery to us.  But there was more – it soon became apparent that Pendosis was a contender for the “Fawlty Towers of Turkey” grand prize.

Pendosis was the original Roman name for this highway town, and the new namesake is a grandiose imitation of a Roman village – scattered villas, cobbled paths (some in need of repair), and lots of old-looking “artifacts” strewn about by an incompetent relative or a drunken landscape architect.  Even though the complex is only a few years old, many parts appear to have never been finished, and many things weren’t working properly.  The Spa & Wellness Centre now only comprises the signs directing hapless visitors to an empty building, the swimming pools were murky, and the grounds had hardly any working lights.


Fortunately, the rooms were actually comfortable, with commanding views of the Taurus Mountains, the staff were nice and the food was quite good.  The meals were served on a charming outdoor terrace on the edge of the hill, with similar views.


As the most remote place we planned to visit, the way to Hacikiri was always going to be a challenge.

Helen had a few screenshots of Google Maps, but Rafet was not a great believer in maps.  He had been questioning the locals about the road, resulting in conflicting (and hence worrying) directions.  Finally Rafet found a local who had actually been to Hacikiri recently, and soon we were off on the Google Road – the maps were right!

As we climbed up into the mountains, and the roads became dirt, and the dirt roads became goat tracks, and the signage disappeared, we realized that all past versions had but been pale imitations.  This definitely was the fabled Road to the Tate Modern.




Definitely on the road to the Tate Modern…

We saw goats; we saw peasants on donkeys; we wound round tortuous corners; we had to choose turnings (without signposts) by intuition; and then, suddenly, we were at the Varda Viaduct.


Even Rafet was impressed, and even more so when Helen assured him that the shack we could see on the other side of the ravine was in fact a teahouse.


There is no way to play down the impact of the bridge.  It is stunning – as an engineering marvel of one hundred years ago; as a still-in-use railway bridge that we had passed over in the train; and simply as an object of great beauty.

Bridging this deep ravine was the most challenging element of the rail project, and it alone took eleven years to complete.  Once the Varda bridge had been built, the twelve-kilometre tunnel from Hacikiri to Belemedik was then the last great challenge.

After suitable admiration of the bridge, we drove around to the enterprising teahouse, overlooking the bridge on the Hacikiri side.  Then it was time to go the last five hundred metres of our long journey from Australia, to the village of Hacikiri.


There is very little left at Hacikiri from 1915 and the POWs; just a few railway buildings, some stone ruins similar to those at Belemedik, and of course the major memento – the railway tunnels that the POWs built.


The mouth of the 12 km tunnel from Hacikiri to Belemedik

Unlike Belemedik, most traces of the camp at Hacikiri had disappeared.  As we pondered the men’s unwilling, dangerous and malaria-ridden lives there, we wondered if their circumstances ever allowed the prisoners to appreciate their stunning surroundings.


Interestingly, Hacikiri has a small mosque and a few other public buildings, and quite a few more houses than Belemedik.  Presumably this is to do with its proximity to good farmland, and to its much shorter (though rugged) road access to neighbouring towns and to Adana.


After nearly three years at Hacikiri, Helen’s grandfather made it back to Afyon in 1918 for the Armistice, and then Smyrna (now Izmir) to catch a ship back to London and then home.

The journey of John’s grandfather was less tortuous and much shorter, though his presence at Gallipoli did cost him an eye.

But we give thanks, to the prisoner and to the wounded man, for it is those circumstances, most unpleasant for them at the time, that brought both Maurice and Ernest home safely, and eventually brought us into this amazing world.

No more war !!

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Filed under Delpratt, POW history, Strambini, Travel