Photography, travel, visual distraction

Turkey’s War

with 2 comments

One of the interesting things about visiting the Gallipoli peninsula was seeing the many different ways in which the battle gets appropriated by Turkish nationalism. The victory of the Ottoman army is seen as the first step on the path of independence, the defeat of the allied forces here making way for the defeat of invading and occupying armies elsewhere. Of course, the battle in Gallipoli was fought well before the independence struggle was ever launched (it ended in 1916, whereas the War of Independence began only in 1919 — the precise date, as every Turk learns, is the day Mustafa Kemal arrived in Samsun, May 16 1919), and was a victory for the Ottoman Empire. The Sultanate was abolished in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, who was commanding the troops in the independence struggle, and with that came the end of the Empire. The Republic itself very pointedly blamed all the country’s ills on the corrupt, degenerate Ottomans, so why the Empire’s victory is celebrated with so much emotion, pomp and vigour is an open question, but hey, that’s probably just nitpicking.

Mustafa Kemal’s statue at the sight where he commanded the 57th Infantry Regiment against the ANZAC troops. It was also here that he was hit by shrapnel but saved by the pocket watch he kept in his breast pocket.

What really connects Gallipoli with the War of Independence is the figure of Mustafa Kemal. Lieutent-Colonel Kemal was the front-line commander of the 19th Division and was instrumental to the Ottoman success at Gallipoli. Of particular importance was the counter-attack he led against the invading ANZAC troops in April of 1915. It’s the stuff of legend in Turkey. Kemal told the 57th Infantry Regiment —

I do not order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places.

Every soldier of the regiment was either killed in action or wounded. Today, there is no 57th regiment in the Turkish army as a sign of respect. While Kemal was watching the fighting, he was also hit by a piece of shrapnel but saved by the pocket watch he kept in his breast pocket. The site where he was hit is marked by his statue and the area where the battle is fought a site of pilgrimage for Turks. While we were there, we saw people stand in front of the graves of the soldiers who died here and pray.

One of the many legends about the Turkish flag, and its brilliant red date back to Gallipoli. It is said the battle fields had become red with the blood of the soldiers. When the moon came out it reflected in the pool of blood. The flag represents this – a sign of respect and remembrance for the soldiers who died fighting for this country. It’s an incredibly moving story, at least for someone like me, but then I have a soft spot for this kind of Kemalist nationalism, but no one seems to remember that those soldiers were not fighting for Turkey, but for the Empire and its Sultan. Small detail.

The ‘Dur Yolcu!’ sign seen from Çanakkale.

In Gallipoli, the memory of the battle is everywhere. This is, of course, necessarily the case because of the very physical reminders of the campaign — the trenches, the graves, empty pill boxes, shrapnel and weaponry that are still discovered today — but there has also been a concerted effort to memorialise the battle. In Çanakkale, the city on the Asian side of the Dardanelles, a massive sign has been carved onto a hillside that is visible as one crosses the straits or from the European shore. It simply says in red ’18 Mart 1915′. That was the date the allies started their naval assault on the straits. The local university in the town is also called 18th March University. Near Kilitbahir on the European shore of the straits a similar sign has the following words

Dur yolcu!
Bilmeden gelip bastığın,
Bu toprak, bir devrin battığı yerdir.

The words are a fragment from a poem by Necmettin Halil Onan. Stop traveller, it says, this land that you unknowingly tread on once witnessed the end of an era. The complete verse is translated along these lines –

Stop wayfarer! Unbeknownst to you this ground
You come and tread on, is where an epoch lies;
Bend down and lend your ear, for this silent mound
Is the place where the heart of a nation sighs.

Busts of the commanders of the Ottoman Army on Eceabat’s waterfront.

Turkey paid a huge price for its victory in Gallipoli. According to one estimate some 87,000 dead and 1,64,000 wounded. It is actually incredibly moving to see that the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought there, from all the commanders of the army to the ordinary soldiers and even the enemy, have been memorialised and have not been forgotten. Many of the Turks involved in the Gallipoli campaign — not just Kemal but also other military figures like Cemal Gürsel, Fevzi Çakmak, İsmail Cevat Çobanlı, Fahrettin Altay among others — played major roles in the War of Independence and the early Republican period. It might be easy to draw inference that they were fighting in Gallipoli for Turkey, but this battle was not about that.


Written by szerlem

May 27, 2012 at 16:30

Posted in Photography, Travel, War

2 Responses

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  1. It’s remarkable how the same campaign is also part of the “nationalist mythology” (for want of a better term) of the losing side too, in the form of ANZAC Day and the ANZAC spirit etc. I wonder how many battles are remembered so strongly by the losing side, the only other one that comes to mind readily is the Battle of Kosovo, oddly enough also from Turkish history. Good post, thanks much.


    May 29, 2012 at 01:56

    • The ANZAC memorialisation of the war is really very interesting. While we were there our cab driver told us that if you ever ask they Aussies if they want to see the British landing beaches or memorials, they usually absolutely refuse! There is also a very strong memorialisation of the ANZAC troops on the part of the Turks — I don’t think in any war have the enemy been so openly embraced. I was speaking to someone about it and they said it was strange how the performances of Gallipoli — we won, we won on the part of the Turks and we lost, we lost on the ANZAC side — really play into each other. I should also mention that even in memoirs (I have read mostly ANZAC ones) written at the time of the war there is not as much “othering” of the enemy troops. The Turks are mostly seen as honourable and fair fighters and not as the embodiment of evil, which from what I have read seems to be a more common trope when referring to the German enemy.


      May 29, 2012 at 08:09

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