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Friday, April 24, 2015

Remembering Gallipoli

Heroes who 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 far away 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. -- Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, first president of the Republic of Turkey

Tomorrow (April 26) is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, a day that commemorates the tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died in the battle of Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915 and early 1916.

The Australian cemetery at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey
I visited one of the Australian cemeteries (at Lone Pine) during a trip to Turkey last month. I also visited a nearby Turkish military cemetery. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a 100-year-old trench on the Allied side of the road. Although the battle of Gallipoli is pretty much unknown to most Americans, I had heard of it, having watched the Mel Gibson movie 'Gallipoli' many years ago. Still, the magnitude of the carnage has shocked me.

  • The United Kingdom and Ireland suffered 73,486 casualties. 
  • Australia: 28,150. 
  • France, 27,000 dead and wounded. 
  • New Zealand: 7,991. 
  • India 4,4479. 
  • Newfoundland: 142. 
  • Allies: 141,457.
  • Ottoman Empire: 251,309.
  • Total dead: 130,842. 
  • Total wounded: 262,014. 
  • Total casualties on both sides: 392,856

This battle was one of great historic significance, as it laid the groundwork for the Turkish war of
An Ottoman Turkish cemetery at Gallipoli
independence and the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923, led by Mustafa Kamal, a distinguished commander at Gallipoli. It is considered to be one of the greatest Ottoman victories of World War I. It also is reported to mark the birth of the national consciousness of both Australia and New Zealand. So this often overlooked battle was a momentous one, indeed.

I am glad we stopped at the Turkish cemetery. Although the Ottoman Empire, of which the country that was to become Turkey in 1923 was a part, was the enemy of the Allied forces in World War I, and although I don't know Turkish and therefore was unable to read the words on the memorial wall, I didn't need to understand Turkish to read the names engraved on the markers, or to see how young most of the soldiers were. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit these sites, to learn about them first-hand and to pay my respects to some of those who died there. It was a sobering experience even 100 years after the battle that robbed so many of their futures.

What struck me most was the realization that these thousands of young men, no matter their country of origin, left behind families who mourned them. They were somebody's son, husband, brother or father. Turkish, French, Indian or Australian, their families would never see them or talk to them again. Many were buried in unmarked graves, or they were buried at sea. Most were very young.

Nearly 400,000 young men were killed or wounded during the battle of Gallipoli. The Ottoman Turks held onto the land that cost so many lives, and the Allied attempt to defeat the Ottoman Empire failed to knock the empire out of the war. One hundred years later, does this battle really matter?

ANZAC Day is a major holiday in Australia and New Zealand. Groups of Turkish soldiers visited the Turkish cemetery when I was there. Turkey is hosting a high-level commemoration today, attended by Britain's Prince Charles and the president of Turkey, among others. I am saddened by the loss of life, the slaughter, that took place at Gallipoli, but heartened to see that the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought and died in Gallipoli -- on both sides of the battle -- have not been forgotten. May all who fought and died there rest in peace.