Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Turkey Day 3: Gallipoli, Eceabat and Buses

I'm on a bus again! Buses in Turkey are nice. They have free refreshments and personal TV screens, though all the movies and television shows are in Turkish... They also come down the bus with some kind of perfumed liquid, which may be hand sanitiser or may be cooling liquid or may just be an attempt to make everyone smell nice (not that we don't smell nice. I hope). The bus trip from Istanbul was over five hours and we went past lots of Turkish flags, drove over some nice new roads and some old potholed roads and saw slabs of marble stacked up in heaps at the side of the road.

We got into Eceabat at about one o'clock and had lunch at the hotel: yoghurt soup, chicken stew and salad. The yoghurt soup was interesting. Once that was done we took a smaller bus out to Gallipoli, where Australian, New Zealand, Indian, French African, Irish and British troops held land for eight months in 1915.

We started at North Beach, where they now hold the Anzac Day memorial service. The beach slopes up to steep ridges and an outcrop of rock they called the Sphinx. Some landings were made here, but most were made at Anzac Cove, the next beach over. The area is full of memorials and cemeteries - over a hundred thousand soldiers died in the area over the eight months. It's so incredibly peaceful now - absolutely beautiful beaches and views out over the Aegean, birds singing and waves lapping the shore. The cemeteries are very well kept, with flowers between the stones and trees shading the graves.

Our guide was impressive. He used to be a university lecturer, but had been guiding Gallipoli tours for twenty-five years and knew all the battles date by date, blow by blow. Usually you hear about the landings and how they came before dawn and had to fight up the steep hills/cliff faces against heavy enemy fire. In fact, there were only eighty-six Turkish soldiers at the top of the hill, and the charge to the first ridge was over quite quickly with little loss of life on the Allied side. The battalions landed in a place that was thought to be unsuitable for landings, so it wasn't as heavily guarded as another beach where the British landed and sustained heavy casualties.

The point of the Gallipoli landings was to eventually control the Dardanelles and so the shipping route from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, opening a supply route to the Eastern Front. The entrance to the Dardanelles was heavily fortified, so the plan was to attack at Gallipoli and cross the twenty kilometres of peninsular to the Dardanelles inlet, bypassing the fortifications.

The remainder of the campaign, when the Turkish army was more prepared, was a long and bloody battle involving almost a million soldiers. The area is very hilly, and while the Anzacs and Allies held more land than I'd thought, it would have been very crowded with so many soldiers living in dugouts in the hills. At times the trenches of the front lines were less than two metres apart, and there are stories of people singing to each other across the lines, and one where a Turkish soldier carried a wounded Australian soldier back to the Allied line. You can still see the winding trenches (winding to minimise the effects of blasts blowing through), and the barbed wire poking out of the earth. They also had a system of tunnels that looked extremely claustrophobic.

The landscape reminded me a lot of the hills around Wellington: scrub presses close to the clay hillside and the stones show through where the hill falls away. It's quite a bit drier, but I could have been walking the tracks around Makara in late summer. Pretty affecting to compare the two, while the guide talked about the forays and defence of the two armies, and how many people had died fighting over this little piece of land. In the end, the Allies decided to retreat, and moved their hundred thousand troops out into the Aegean in one night. Allied commentators say that's the only part of the campaign that went well: not one casualty.

Back in Eceabat (by the way, c in Turkish is pronounced as if it's a j) we had dinner in a restaurant with a patio and grape vines for a roof. There were lots of mezze to try, and I had a good chicken kebab for a main. At one point a trio of cats had a disagreement beside our tables. We sampled some local Syrah at the hotel which was very good, and I stayed up much later than I should have considering I'd had five hours sleep the night before and had to get up at 6.45 the next morning.

I possibly may not have Internet for a bit. We shall see.

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