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Volume 35, Number 6November/December 1984

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The Ghosts at Gallipoli

Written by Malcolm P. Stevens
Photographs courtesy of Imperial War Museum
Additional reporting by Marcia R. Stevens

I never knew my maternal grandfather and I cannot remember when I heard, for the first time, that he was killed at Gallipoli in the First World War. Nevertheless, it is a memory that has been with me since childhood. Later, I saw a letter in which he told of his imminent embarkation for Gallipoli and said he would not want to be taken prisoner because he had heard the Turks were "a fierce race of men." But that letter, along with old photographs and other mementos, disappeared over the years. All I really had left were his medals.

As it turned out, I eventually went to Turkey myself and spent some enjoyable years there as a professor at Robert College on the campus now occupied by Boğaziçi University (See Aramco World , March-April 1984). I even traveled through the Gallipoli area and across the Dardanelles. At that time, however, I was on my way to Troy, Bergama and other archeological sites and did not feel I could afford the time to go searching for ghosts in old battlegrounds and military cemeteries. By then, I guess, I had forgotten grandfather and his medals.

In 1983, however, having come to regret that decision, I set out for Suvla Bay - where my grandfather lies in an unmarked grave - at what the Turks call "Gelibolu," or Gallipoli. On the eve of Gallipoli's 70th anniversary, it was time to go, ghosts or not.

In the company of my wife and younger son, I went first to Istanbul to meet Guniz and Ahmet Büyüktur, chemistry and engineering professors respectively, at Boğaziçi and Istanbul Technical Universities. Like me, Ahmet had a ghost at Gallipoli; he had lost an uncle in its defense.

In preparation for our journey, my family and I had read extensively about the campaign: books, published diaries, even the History of the South Wales Borderers, the unit with which Private Charles A. Beresford - my grandfather - had fought. But no reading of military history can prepare you for the contrasting beauty of that strategic corner of Turkey.

Bordered on the west by the Gulf of Saros and on the east by the Dardanelles - the ancient Hellespont- the Gallipoli peninsula extends some 80 kilometers (50 miles) in a southwesterly direction. At its narrowest point in the north it is a mere five kilometers (three miles) wide, broadens to a width of about 20 kilometers (12 miles) then narrows again near Eceabat before tapering down to the southernmost point of Cape Helles.

Viewed at dusk from the waterfront of Çanakkale (Chanak), across the straits, Gallipoli is a succession of purple-brown hills silhouetted against an auburn sky, the deceptively calm waters painted gold by reflected sunset. And from the turquoise Gulf of Saros to the west, the peninsula appears as a land of steep hills interlaced with ravines, and dominated by the Sari Bayir (Bair) range rising almost 600 meters (1,000 feet). Up close, though, you can see that the peninsula is ideal for defense, with the hills reaching up precipitously from narrow strips of beach and the terrain covered with dense thorny scrub.

In ancient times, Gallipoli and the Dardanelles witnessed Agamemnon's 10-year siege of Troy. In the fifth century B.C., Xerxes built a bridge of boats to let his armies cross the narrows in his war with the Greeks, and nearly two centuries later Alexander the Great led his forces across in pursuit of the Persians. In the 13th century it was the Crusaders who passed through enroute to Jerusalem, and in 1358 the Ottoman Turks enroute to Europe. During the Napoleonic wars the area was again the scene of conflict, and still again when the British Army passed through on its way to the Crimea. Finally, in the early days of the First World War, it became the focus of the Anglo-French operation to open up supply routes to Russia - what Churchill thought would be "the soft underbelly of Europe."

Arif Saltuk, a prominent Istanbul businessman, vividly recalls the opening of that campaign. On December 13, 1914, he saw the Turkish ship Mes'udiye torpedoed by a British submarine and still remembers the feverish attempts to save the sailors trapped in the hull. Two months later - in February, 1915 - he heard the roar of guns again as British battleships began bombarding the Turkish forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles, a preliminary to the Allied landings.

On March 18, the Turks turned back a squadron of British and French warships attempting to force the narrows, and the Allies, believing that the Dardanelles could not be breached with ships alone, committed land forces; on April 25,1915, the British landed at Cape Helles, the French at Kum Kale, and Australians and New Zealanders at a spot that came to be known as "Anzac Cove" on the western side of the peninsula, "Anzac" standing for Australian New Zealand Army Corps.

Our landing was in the Cape Helles area of Gallipoli, specifically at the half-moon curve of Morto Bay, for it was at Eski Hisarlik at the east end of the bay that the main body of South Wales Borderers went ashore. Today, from the vine-covered terrace of the Abide Motel in the central curve of the bay you can clearly see the impressive Turkish monument astride the hill taken by the Borderers in their initial assault. The motel's name "Abide" in fact means "monument." Erected to commemorate the successful defense of the peninsula, the massive stone structure dominates the landscape and is visible for miles; at night it is bathed in the orange glow of sodium floodlights and beneath it is a small military museum, whose guests book lists such visitors as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Princess Anne.

Beyond the western tip of Morto Bay, is a more modest British memorial: a stone obelisk almost 30 meters (100 feet) tall surrounded by a wall faced with stone tablets bearing the names of the 20,504 British soldiers and sailors who died in the campaign but who have no known graves. Despite the number, I had no difficulty locating my grandfather's name under the heading of the South Wales Borderers, one in a litany of empire: Australian Light Horse, 93rd Burma Infantry, New Zealand Infantry Brigade, 66th Punjabis, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Assam Military Police and so on.

Below the monument is V Beach, where troops attempting to land were slaughtered by rifle and machine gun fire, their blood turning the sea red for a distance of 45 meters (50 yards) out from shore. Nearby too are old bunkers and gun emplacements and the grave of Yahir Chavush (Sergeant Yahir) who died defending the beach - along with 63 of his hopelessly outnumbered Turkish comrades.

This south-western extremity of Gallipoli is much less mountainous than the central part; it is relatively flat from the gently sloping heights of Acı (Achi) Baba overlooking the town of Acıtepe - now the site of an excellent private war museum. There is still the dense thorny underbrush - passable only through a network of goat trails and the ravines to carry off the rains of winter - but there are also orchards and fields of wheat and barley which, in the freshness of spring, might almost be mistaken for the countryside of England. And there are the cemeteries.

The beach cemeteries, and the single French cemetery which overlooks Morto Bay, are the most distinctive reminders of the ferocity of the Gallipoli fighting, an alien presence belying the tranquility of their bucolic surroundings. Under the terms of the armistice following the war, the British army re-entered the peninsula and consolidated the known graves, placing them as closely as possible to the locations where the casualties occurred. There are five British cemeteries near Cape Helles, some named for topographical features - Twelve Tree Copse, Beach, Pink Farm - others for battle areas - Lancashire Landing, Redoubt. Lancashire Landing and Beach are at the tip of the peninsula and contain those who died in the initial landings; the others contain those who died in he fruitless attempts to capture Acı Baba.

In England during the early days of the "Great War," there was a tremendous outpouring of patriotic zeal, and many of those heading for Gallipoli considered themselves embarking on a glorious crusade. No single individual epitomized this feeling more than the handsome young poet Rupert Brooke who wrote the famous lines

If I should die think only this of me;

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.

Unhappily for Brooke, who wanted so desperately to be a part of the campaign, he died of complications arising from sunstroke on the eve of embarkation for the battle and was buried on the island of Sykros; yet nowhere on earth do those words, which inspired the British through two world wars, seem more appropriate than at the Gallipoli cemeteries, where, remote from the homeland that sent them out to die, the British and their Anzac cousins lie row upon row, thousands strong.

Each cemetery is enclosed within stone walls and is entered through a wooden gate which opens silently on well-oiled iron hinges. Polished metal plaques provide data on the numbers buried and the fighting that occurred in the immediate vicinity. Unlike the military cemeteries of western Europe with their upright headstones, these at Gallipoli have recumbent stones as a safeguard against earthquake damage. A team of Turkish gardeners employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which administers the cemeteries from an office in Canakkale, uses many of the indigenous trees, shrubs and wildflowers in landscaping, and the overall effect is one of tastefulness and peace. The headstones bear the name, age and regiment of the men who are known to lie there and in many cases an inscription, provided by the commission: "Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out"

Further north, the topography changes dramatically - with precipitous crags towering over the beachheads. On the day of the landing the Australian and New Zealand forces fought their way clear to the ridge of Sarı Bayır range, and though unable to hold it established the Anzac reputation for bravery. Here the cemeteries are far more numerous - 22 of them - generally much smaller, with names that bring to mind the campaign's battles : Quinn's Post, Shrapnel Valley, Embarkation Pier.

Most are close to the road but others, like Baby 700, named for a hill, or The Farm, can be reached only by traversing narrow footpaths or steep tracks accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles, where the ubiquitous Gallipoli tortoises move laboriously in search of some tasty weeds. There are also the Australian Memorial at Lone Pine and the New Zealand Memorial at Çunuk Bayırı, the latter being the highest point of advance by New Zealand forces. Also at Çunuk Bayırı are reconstructed Turkish trenches, a small Turkish cemetery and an impressive new victory monument.

Incredibly, the Turkish and Anzac trenches were separated at this point by a distance no more than the width of the narrow asphalt road that now winds across the summit of the Sarı Bayırı range. From Çunuk Bayırı there is a superb view overlooking the Dardanelles on the one side and the Gulf of Saros on the other, including Suvla Bay to the north. Çunuk Bayırı was the key to control of the peninsula, and it was the Turkish stand at this point under the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal later Ataturk - that sealed the Allies' fate, and, by catapulting Mustafa Kemal into prominence, changed the history of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and Middle East.

Hiking over the rugged terrain of tile Anzac area, I tried to recreate the drama and futility of the fighting, the roar of exploding shells, the whine of bullets and the screams of the wounded, but found it impossible. Although we found vestiges of the battles overgrown trenches and dugouts, rusty billy cans, bullets and pieces of shrapnel the abundance of yellow flowers, purple thistles, wild thyme and scarlet poppies, the endless song of the birds, and the transparent blue of the water below made war here seem unthinkable.

We ended our tour at Suvla Bay. it was here on August 6, 1915, that the British opened a new beachhead in an attempt to break the stalemate at Cape Helles. Fresh troops were brought in from England and veterans of the Cape Helles fighting, including the 2nd Battalion, South Wales Borderers, were redeployed here from the south. To divert attention from the Suvla landings, an intense assault was made on the Anzac front (an action dramatized in a recent Australian film entitled Gallipoli), but inexplicably the British forces were not ordered immediately to take the surrounding hills before the Turkish defenders had time to regroup. When, under the cover of intense artillery barrages, they finally moved out in force across the dry salt lake just inland from the bay (under water during our visit), they were prevented from advancing far enough to link up with the Anzac front.

The last major battle of the Gallipoli campaign took place on the afternoon of August 21 an assault on strategic high ground called "Scimitar Hill." Through an unseasonable gray mist that obscured the topographical details of their objective, the British troops advanced, and as darkness settled in, they went charging over the crest of the hill. Before the night was over, however, they had been forced to withdraw with the South Wales Borderers losing a third of their men, among them Private Charles A. Beresford, my grandfather.

Walking over Scimitar Hill, almost 70 years after, I found no ghosts from Gallipoli. But talking to a farmer, whom we drove home when his tractor suffered a flat tire, it occurred to me that my grandfather, a simple coal miner from South Wales, would probably have had much in common with this rugged, friendly villager.

In studying the Gallipoli campaign and subsequently visiting the scenes of battle, we were left with several impressions: the beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of its inhabitants. But the ones standing out have to do with the kinship that grew up between the opposing forces. They suffered equally from the awful flies, the choking dust, the thirst, and the stench of carrion. They became comrades in their shared misery, exchanging gifts during the many cease-fires to bury the dead and dispelling any hatreds and prejudices they might have nurtured at the beginning of the campaign. As the late Lieutenant Colonel R.F.E. Laidlaw, of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, wrote in his diary, "one could almost sense a friendly feeling between the Turks and ourselves and it seemed altogether wrong, as it was, that we should be there simply to kill each other. One could feel that in the enemy trenches there were human beings also and that they, too, had their hopes and feelings, their longing for their quiet homes and families and their wish to be out of it all."

Before leaving Gallipoli we paid one last visit to Çunuk Bayırı and as I looked down through the hazy sunshine at Suvla Bay and the surrounding hills where grandfather spent his final hours, I thought of my friends in Istanbul, and of Ahmet's uncle, sacrificed, like my grandfather, to global politics, and I wondered if there was any significance in the death of a poor Welsh coal miner when measured against the thousands on both sides. Before I could decide, it was time to return to Istanbul so, as I retraced my steps through the Çunuk Bayırı cemetery, I consoled myself with one simple thought: that Private Charles A. Beresford, late of the South Wales Borderers, lives on among these monuments, and that he might take comfort in knowing that his grandson has made peace with the "fierce race of men" that he feared 70 years ago.

Malcolm Stevens taught chemistry in Istanbul and Beirut. He and his wife, Marcia, write works of historical interest.


Gallipoli – A Campaign
Written by Marcia R. Stevens and Malcolm P. Stevens

Historians generally agree that if the Gallipoli campaign of World War I had been an Allied success, it might have changed history.

By late 1914 the Western Front had already settled into the grim stalemate of trench warfare and the Allies' casualties were approaching an unprecedented one million men. Influential voices in the British government and military, notably First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and First Sea Lord Fisher were convinced that the appalling loss of life would continue indefinitely unless the Allies undertook a decisive military thrust through Turkey, a German ally, to relieve the pressure, and, above all, open a supply route to Russia so that Russian troops would stay in the war.

It was thus that at 8:00 a.m. on February 19, 1915, British battleships began a long-range bombardment of Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles - the strait giving access to Istanbul - and sent minesweepers into the strait to clear the way for battleships to shell Chanak (Canakkale). It soon became obvious, however, that the battle was not going to be won with the fleet alone. Accordingly, a heterogenous expeditionary force of British, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, French and Senegalese - some 120,000 strong - was assembled to land on both sides of the strait. But the British loaded their transport ships in such a way that guns and munitions, needed immediately upon landing, were buried beneath tents and other supplies, and while the ships were sent back to Egypt for reloading, with a subsequent delay of six weeks, the Turks were able to reorganize their defenses.

Troops were finally committed on April 25: British troops at five places in the Cape Helles area, a Trench force at Kum Kale, and Australian and New Zealand troops (the Anzacs) - swept off course by uncharted currents - at An Burnu where they had to scale steep cliffs to establish a foothold.

Ironically, General Liman Von Sanders, the German commander in charge of the Turks, had not expected the attacks to come where they did; rather he was convinced the Allies would land at Bolayir at the narrow neck of the peninsula, and he had deployed his forces accordingly. But a relatively obscure Turkish lieutenant-colonel named Mustafa Kemal, correctly predicted the Allies' strategy, and halted the Anzac advance at An Burnu.

When it became clear they could not take the peninsula with the forces at hand, the British decided on a new assault further north. In August, reinforcements were landed on the Anzac beachhead and fresh landings took place at Suvla Bay. But again the commanders failed to follow up their initial advantage, and Kemal's forces retained control.

Both sides eventually tired of the brutal campaign. Conditions were appalling: poor food, lack of water, plagues of flies, disease, intense heat during day and, as autumn gave way to winter, bitter cold at night; and always the deadly shrapnel from artillery barrages. At last the British did one of the few things in the entire campaign well - they withdrew. In mid-December the Suvla and Anzac beachheads were evacuated under cover of darkness over a period of several days. It was a remarkable accomplishment, thousands evacuated without a single casualty, and without the knowledge of the Turkish defenders. Incredibly, they accomplished the same feat again in early January, 1916, at Cape Helles. After 10 months and 500,000 Allied and Turkish casualties, the campaign was over.

In the west, the inquiries into the disaster tarnished or destroyed reputations. Churchill, for example, went into political obscurity until World War II. And in Russia, anger against the war inflamed by the Gallipoli failure continued to grow, culminating, at last, in the Russian Revolution.

In the Middle East, the Gallipoli campaign raised Mustafa Kemal to a position of prominence and set the stage for his meteoric rise to power. Within a few short years he had cemented the territorial integrity of modern Turkey and, as Kemal Ataturk, became one of the great leaders in the Middle East, and, on the world stage, one of the giants of the 20th century.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the November/December 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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