Gallipoli Revisited

Manning Clark famously said that the first investment any historian should make was a good pair of boots. Nothing could be more pertinent to the military historian or aficionado intending to visit the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Much has been made of the crowds of backpackers making their secular pilgrimage to this hallowed ground. Certainly few arrive with relief maps or photocopies of the battlefield maps from the official histories in their kit, though some doubtless carry copies of Cupper and Taylor’s informative battlefield guide. Most will follow the much-travelled road from Eceabat (formerly Maidos, a village virtually razed by naval gunfire during the campaign) to the visitors’ centre at Kabatepe.

Kabatepe immediately raises questions to the inquiring military mind. It was a Turkish observation post at the time of the Allied invasion. The position offers a superb view of the coast along the strip known as Brighton Beach, the officially designated landing spot. Anzac Cove is not visible from this position. For those drawn to the theory that the Anzacs were not landed at the wrong beach this view offers the first salivating morsel.

From Kabatepe you can drive along the coastal road all the way to Fisherman’s Hut and the North Beach. On a clear day the Island of Imbros rises boldly against the horizon to the west. The tranquillity of the place belies the awful slaughter that befell some of the 7th Battalion on the morning of the landing when they came under fire from Turkish machine-guns. A walk north past the Commonwealth War Grave Cottages and workshop will take you to a number of small cemeteries and lead you into the area of the August offensive.

As in all Commonwealth war grave cemeteries, visitors can gaze upon the headstones of young soldiers and read the heartfelt epitaphs. Some are pithy while others are couched in the Imperial dogma of a bygone era. It is easy to slip into a clichéd melancholia about the folly of war.

The dominating feature of the landscape in this part of the battlefield is the escarpment known to the soldiers as the Sphinx. Its features have clearly been eroded over time. Impossible to climb, it stands glowering like a stony sentinel. Soldiers moving in the northern sector would have marked their positions from it. Equally formidable to the eye is the position of Russell’s Top and Plugge’s Plateau. Together, they look like a giant anvil or axe head cleaved into the ground and worn down in the middle from one too many strikes.

Anzac Cove is littered with refuse washed up from the Aegean Sea as well as rubbish discarded by Turkish and Australian visitors. Walking close to the bluffs that lead up to the road, it is impossible to gain a sense of proportion about the height or the ground beyond. The road, of course, did not exist 88 years ago. In the early hours of 25 April 1915, invaders and defenders alike would have flailed blindly in the dark as they tried to make sense of the ground over which they fought. Hell Spit marks the southern point of the cove and is the site of Beach Cemetery where Simpson, the bloke with the donkey, lies among others. Visitors can clamber from here back to the main road and across to Shrapnel Gully or move further south and visit Shell Green, site of the famous cricket match at Anzac.

The walk up to Shell Green is instructive. A feature of the ground is the orange clay, and rain makes many of the paths pasty and spongy. Of course these are easily managed in the tractor treads of modern-day walking boots. The soldiers in 1915 were less well equipped. The straight-leather-soled boots they wore were not ideal for climbing. It is likely that they were confronted with similar conditions. The operations had been delayed two days due to inclement weather and it rained again on the evening of the first day’s fighting. You notice as you walk over the rain-affected ground that your foot actually depresses the clay, leaving significant imprints. The men would have preferred this as the ground when dry is sprinkled with loose, sandy gravel that can make the steeper grades quite slippery.

Those on the Anzac tour buses will doubtless be subjected to the obligatory pose with the cricket bat to re-enact the famous photograph of the game played at Shell Green, although the cemetery rather restricts your ability to hook and pull with conviction. From the Green you can walk up the artillery road along the back of Holly Ridge to the Lone Pine cemetery. It is worth pausing a short distance into the climb and letting others in your group forge ahead. As you watch them winding ever upward you can easily envisage your colleagues as representative of the columns of reinforcements, ammunition and water carriers that regularly made the arduous journey.

Gaze northward again and you will be struck by just how well the Australian war artists captured the colour of the place. The drab olives and ochres of the shrubs and the grey and blue hues of the water and sky are perfectly represented. Another striking feature of the ground is the way the contours of the hills are lost against those beyond them. To the untrained eye it would have been exceedingly difficult to distinguish where one hill finished and another began because, depending on the angle, they can look like a seamless mass. You can imagine soldiers being sent off to support lines in the distance only to find themselves confronted by unexpected ravines and gullies.

At Lone Pine you find yourself at a position central to the celebration of Australian achievement at Gallipoli. Most people congregate in the cemetery, ambling down the serried ranks of the fallen and posing beneath the enormous edifice of the Australian memorial. It is difficult to grasp the exact nature of the trench system there. The Turkish lines are still visible along the east and south walls of the cemetery. They are now just shallow, overgrown gutters but are worth wandering over. The land still occasionally reveals the past in tangible ways—a backpacker a few days after me found the identity disc of an Australian soldier.

Stand on the tongue of land behind the Lone Pine memorial and you will see it branch to your right to form Pine Ridge, a position gained then lost by the Australians on the first afternoon’s fighting. Look north and east and you can only conclude the Turks were mad to try to wrest their lost trenches back with repeated assaults. While the Turks held the Nek and line across Baby 700, the Australian position was effectively contained. Australian possession of Lone Pine offered little advantage to any further movement. The broad valley between Pine Ridge and Gun Ridge, the heights of Mortar Ridge and the Turkish guns on Scrubby Knoll all made any attempted Australian advance a highly improbable venture.
The Nek was one of the pivotal positions at Anzac, and the scene of Australia’s gallant 600 immortalised in the film Gallipoli. Stepping out the distance between the lines (basically the length of the cemetery) only reinforces the madness of the venture. Push through the bushes to the left and you will be rewarded with magnificent views of the northern part of the Anzac position extending all the way to Suvla. The infamous Salt Lake still shimmers—though that belongs to the British story with which few Australians are conversant.

The area controlled by the Common­wealth War Graves Commission is essentially that held by the Allies prior to the evacuation. Outside this area, on the heights of Hill 971, Chunuk Bair and Battleship Hill, the ground has been well and truly claimed by the Turkish nation. In fact, the number of Turks visiting the region was a surprise. Oddly, some Australians have expressed resentment at the erection of Turkish statues. It seems that for some, the honouring of the participation of the Turkish mehmet who fought and died in greater numbers than their uninvited guests is somehow seen as triumphal and insulting to Australian sensibilities.

These Turkish-controlled heights offer more food for thought. Looking down the ridges the area presents itself as a deceptively smooth sloping tabletop. Anzac Cove is not visible. Lone Pine is easily spotted but looks a million miles away. You quickly conclude that capture of the heights was entirely beyond reach, for either an inexperienced or a well-trained force. The myriad gullies and ravines and razorbacks are not particularly visible to the naked eye when dotted with shrubbery. Soldiers gazing over this landscape from a distance could be fooled as to its friendliness. I was on a subsequent day when I opted for a solo trip along the north-eastern spur of Battleship Hill, a position reached by Captain Tulloch and a few other hardy souls on the first day. What looked like a pleasant stroll soon assumed nightmarish proportions. The scrub is thick and prickly, the ground undulating. You soon make numerous detours and are unexpectedly confronted by sheer drops on the western face of this portion of land. It is the same all over, really. After floundering helplessly for an hour I headed back to the main road, with multiple scratches over my arms and legs and a tad dehydrated by the warm sun. I wondered at what point I would have given up, as numbers of Australians did all those years ago, and lain doggo, deciding I was buggered and had done enough for the moment. It is exhausting enough unencumbered by kit, but to do it under fire and without the access of sealed roads must have been quite another undertaking.

It is from these commanding Turkish positions that you can glimpse the Straits. Even in the unlikely event that the Allies had managed to capture these heights, a cursory examination of the ground beyond suggests that the campaign would hardly have been a fait accompli. There were still plenty of positions where resolute defenders could dig in and make a damn nuisance of themselves.

For most visitors this will mark the extent of their visit to Anzac. More complete tours will take in the fighting at Cape Helles, which is essential to grasping the full concept of the campaign. Be sure to demand to be let out along the Seddulbehir road so you can inspect the ground where the Australian 2nd Brigade advanced astride Kanli Dere in the only Australian attack outside of the Anzac position. This failed advance toward the ultimately unattainable and militarily useless position of Achi Baba proved another costly act of folly.

Of course, for this self-admitted military nut one day was never going to be enough. Having previously arranged through the War Graves Commission to stay in the visitors’ quarters at Fisherman’s Hut, I cut loose from my touring party and caught a morning ferry from Canakkale to Eceabat. In my excitement I forgot to buy film for my camera and hopped into the seatbeltless and cigarette-smoke-filled taxi for the 15km journey back to Anzac.

Armed with my maps I headed over to No. 3 Outpost with the intention of walking inland. After picking my way along the razorbacked crest that runs east from the Outpost’s position, I stopped to take in the views. From here the Turks could clearly see any Australians moving off the North Beach. Equally, as you gaze toward the Sphinx you realise you would be a sitting duck if the enemy held the ground to the south above as the Australians eventually did. Resuming my journey I was suddenly confronted with a 20-foot stretch of ridgeline, perhaps a foot wide at best, from which the sides fell like sheer walls to the gullies below. I hesitated, weighing up the possibilities, then decided discretion was the better part of valour and began to retrace my steps.

A glance at my watch revealed I had been advancing for about half an hour and had made only a few hundred yards. I decided to quicken my pace and finding a suitable decline scrambled down the face of the ridge to the dere below. Here I felt suddenly transported to the Australian bush. Dry grass brushed chest-high as I was consumed by buzzing insects. The soil was cracked and parched, the shrubs and bracken stiff and uncompromising. A cleanly chopped section of a snake played host to an army of ants. The sight sent me into a frantic goose-stepping Cleese-like retreat to the safety of higher ground.
Turkish snipers were one thing, Turkish vipers another.

My second foray led me to the western base of Walker’s Ridge with the intention of making Russell’s Top. The ascent was relatively easy at first, but again I was defeated by some badly eroded sections of the ridge. Sitting down on the reverse slope I pondered the difficulty of the Anzac position. Turks on the low ridges from where I had just come would have been easy prey with a rifle; equally I was open to attack from the Turk positions to the north-east and would have been forced to take cover on the reverse slope of Walker’s Ridge. This haven provided protection for thousands of Australian soldiers. The view into Mule Gully from here is spectacular. Certain death for any unfortunate who lost his footing, but the rock formations below and the sheer walls of the Sphinx are Grand Canyon-esque.

To the traveller wandering alone, the defensive position seems quite large. However, when you try to imagine the logistics of cramming in over 20,000 men plus all the paraphernalia and stores
associated with a grand military exercise, it is almost inconceivable that the position accommodated so many.

My third field trip for the day was to walk up Shrapnel Gully to Monash Gully. It was just like the photographs that had occupied my mind for so many years. Once more I found myself on the second ridge and made my way to the Nek, then along Russell’s Top. Again magnificent views presented themselves to the north, west and east but my attention was drawn to the depressed knob of ground below at the head of Monash Gully. This was Pope’s Hill on which the Australian line hinged. It was open to Turkish fire from many directions. It ranked as one of the worst hot spots at Anzac and you can
easily see why.

From Russell’s Top and the Nek I footed it to the reconstructed Turkish trenches on Battleship Hill close to where Major Kindon and Captain Lalor had advanced, not far from Tulloch’s position. On the journey back I descended into Monash Gully, passing the 4th Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, and went back to the beach. Quite exhausted and having consumed my water supply, I trudged along the beach, cooling my overheated ankles in the ocean before walking along the cove. Somehow, despite my near-stupor,
I was drawn to the tink of metal on the smooth pebbles at the water’s edge. I looked down and was uplifted by the sight of a .303 shell lolling in the shallows—a holy trinket delivered by the gods of war to make the trip worthwhile.

I slept the sleep of the dead that night and awoke to head off to the northern portion again to trace Monash’s ill-fated advance in the second offensive. I was fortunate to meet Mike and Joe, two serious pilgrims—Joe was visiting for the fifth time if I remember correctly—who were winding up a ten-day visit to the battlefield. Here I was, knackered after two days and nearly half Joe’s age too! They were a refreshing tonic to jaded spirits. Mike, a jovial bear of a man, gave me a roll of film to offset the pain of my earlier stupidity.

Bidding them adieu I set off toward Bauchop’s Hill where I unearthed an old twisted piece of metal—tractor or bomb I could not tell. Unfortunately I did not have a decent map of this area and was soon stumbling through thick grass and intractable foliage, forced into detour after detour. Once in the deres it is difficult to find your bearings as the heights are often lost to view despite their obvious monolithic presence. I kept veering north and east, changes of direction constantly forced on me by the terrain. I had
hopelessly confounded myself (and in the daylight too).


I returned well satisfied that I had unravelled some of the mysteries of the Anzac position. There is much more to see. I wondered about the thoughts of the many backpackers as they departed the area. Did they just stare at the headstones and recoil at the folly of war? If so, let us make it a compulsory field trip for all Australians. Or does visiting this place affirm in some way their identity as Australians? Or is Gallipoli simply an event, a tourist attraction and a cheap destination offering the opportunity to party with your own in a different place?

As one who does not see Gallipoli as the birth of our nation, as one who extracts no personal sense of nationalistic fervour from the Gallipoli campaign and as one who resists the drawcard of the mythical digger as the defining model of our national identity, I experienced no epiphany. Others may well do. Yet the place is important because it remains one of the best-preserved campaign areas in military history.

The joy for the military aficionado is that Gallipoli still offers an uncrowded and unhurried discovery tour if you have the time. The relative remoteness of Anzac to any major towns may preserve it long into the future. However, increased numbers of Australian and New Zealand visitors, coupled with the Turkish realisation of its tourist potential, could quickly erode the area’s appeal. Unsightly Boomerang cafés, Anzac hotels and Kangaroo, Koala, Kookaburra and Kiwi whatevers have already sprung up in Eceabat and Canakkale. I am prone to my own moments of parochialism but seeing the Australian flag and national symbolism promoted in a landscape so far away made me cringe. It is pitched at the most banal form of Australian identity. It was a feeling akin to seeing a McDonald’s sign in the most exotic and remote location left on earth. I hope such displays will remain contained some distance from the battlefield area. 

Dale Blair is the author of Dinkum Diggers: An Australian Battalion at War (MUP, 2001) and visited Gallipoli for the first time in October 2002.
Photographs used with permission of the Australian War Memorial, with thanks to Ian Kelly.

 

 

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