Our visit to the New Zealand National Museum was highlighted by touring their exhibit of Gallipoli.
I was somewhat familiar with the history of Gallipoli, and I knew that it had special meaning to the people of Australia. If you have never heard it, search on I Tunes for “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” which is all about Gallipoli from an Australian perspective. Here in New Zealand, we learned that the Kiwis hold their involvement at Gallipoli in the same passion and honor.
Gallipoli is at the opening of a narrow strait on the Dardanelles Peninsula. Cruising up this strait led to Constantinople, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill formulated a plan for a British fleet, with supporting ground troops, to break through the Turk mines in the water and cruise past enemy fortresses along the strait. Capturing Constantinople would effectively have knocked the Ottomans out of the war. The ships were unsuccessful which led to a secondary plan to land thousands of troops on the beaches below the Turk positions, work their way up the slopes, and capture the Turk supporting positions on the high ground. No one thought the Turks would put up much of a fight, but… Australian and New Zealand troops had been training for action on the European front, but were instead diverted to Gallipoli to make a supporting landing on the flank of the peninsula.
The siege turned into a stalemate. The allied forces could not push up the hills against a dedicated foe, so they had to hunker down in their trenches. The heat and dysentery killed almost as many soldiers as the Turks. Eight months later, Churchill had resigned and the allied troops were pulled off the peninsula. Nearly 150,000 men had been killed, and the siege was considered a major Ottoman victory.
Australia and New Zealand lost 15,000 men at Gallipoli… A relatively small number compared to England and the Turks. But this futile military endeavor in a faraway place unleashed a nationalism and consciousness. I have read about it, and I can’t say I truly understand it. The best I might be able to say it is that Gallipoli is the Aussie’s and Kiwi’s Alamo or Masada. They sacrificed of themselves to the tragedy of war, but found a national meaning.
I think the statement above from the General who, a few years later became Turkey’s first President, is the most fitting quote about the irony of war… Today, The dead on both sides are brothers.