An integral part of Anzac Day Services in Australia and New Zealand during the past nine decades has been a reading of the elegy inspired by the sonnet, “For the Fallen,” by the Oxford educated Laurence Binyon (1869-1943):
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Sailing north through the Dardanelles, the straits that separate the Asian side of Turkey from the European, one can make out on the starboard side (right) the ruins of Troy, made famous in Homer’s Odyssey. On the port side (left) stand prominent monuments of the Turks, the French, and the British, each honoring an unknown soldier lost in the Gallipoli Campaign.
The land is literally pockmarked with numberless trenches. It is here that hundreds of thousands of troops — Turkish and Allied — faced each other in 1915. The preponderant numbers on the Allied side comprised the Australian and New Zealand troops, mobilized into the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” or “ANZAC.” When it was all over, a half million young men, approximately evenly divided between the two sides, had been wounded or killed. The smoke of battle — bullets and cannon shells — turned the sky opaque at midday.
Perhaps because of the shared misery, the two sides came to respect each other to the point where, it is said, a daily coffee and smoke break would take place, allowing the soldiers to climb out of their bunkers in relative safety. But when they returned, if as much as a hand showed, it would be shot off. No doubt, this was rare. Indeed, another story has it that Turkish soldiers threw small boxes of hand-rolled cigarettes from their trenches to the soldiers occupying enemy trenches. The ANZAC soldiers threw tins of their food in exchange. The Turks opened and tasted the canned food, then threw them back.
Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, originally masterminded the scheme to sail up the Dardanelles, take control of Istanbul, and then strike at Germany from its “soft underbelly.” The campaign failed and resulted in Churchill losing his job.
In 1930, fourteen years after the cessation of hostilities in the Gallipoli campaign, the President of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had received a letter from mothers of the fallen ANZACS, requesting permission to visit the graves of their sons. Ataturk sat down and penned a deeply comforting letter to the women:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well. — Kemal Ataturk.”
Ataturk’s poignant message is inscribed in the Turkish Memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Gallipoli, and inscribed also at the Ataturk Memorials in Canberra, Australia and in Wellington, New Zealand. It is no wonder that in distant Australia and New Zealand, there is still a sense of kinship for Atatürk and the Turks — enemies, but fellow witnesses to the unspeakable horrors of trench warfare — and, conversely, a resentment of the British politicians who sent a generation of their young men to fight and die in a land half-a-world away. For the Turks, the Australians, and the New Zealanders, Gallipoli would forever be regarded as the moment when they gained their national identities.