Gallipolli: An epic sense of history
As I gazed down at the moonlit waves softly lapping against the sandy shore I reflected that this was an unusual place to spend a honeymoon.
It was night time by the time we retired to the balcony of the two-storey guesthouse overlooking the Aegean Sea after a day’s sight-seeing and, glass of wine in hand, it had been a relaxing evening watching the lights of the ships far out at sea glide past in the dark.
But sitting there with my new wife, whom I had married just a week before, I thought about how we ended up in this beautiful but tragic place.
There is a little graveyard further along the beach full of headstones with Irish names, the last resting place of those who were killed here in April 1915
We were staying in a guesthouse on the shores of Sedd el Bahr bay, the scene of so much carnage 100 years earlier when the men from my own home town of Dublin had landed at this exact spot during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of World War One.
There is a little graveyard further along the beach full of headstones with Irish names, the last resting place of those who were killed here in April 1915 when they came ashore under sweeping Turkish machine gun and artillery fire.
V Beach cemetery contains the bodies of some 700 soldiers who landed at Cape Helles on that fateful early spring morning as part of the Allied effort to capture Constantinople and knock Germany’s ally, Turkey out of the war.
Beautiful graveyards are a feature of the Gallipolli peninsula
But as they struggled to row ashore many of them were mown down in their little ship boats before they had even set foot on dry land. The few survivors managed to crawl under a gentle slope to take cover from the murderous fire from the machine guns and artillery on the heights above them.
There are headstones for some of the 200 fatalities that have been identified, including one for Robert Ludlow, formerly of Magdaline Terrace in Galway; one for a Captain Walford who won Britain’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, and one for Petty Officer William Medhurst, a young sailor who rowed the soldiers of the Royal Dublin and Royal Munster fusiliers on to the beach at Sedd-el-Bahr.
The battlefield today looks remarkably similar to how it was 100 years ago, apart from this guesthouse that sits incongruously in the middle of the beach and the little graveyard where most of the lads who landed here now lie.
Not a stone’s throw away from the balcony of our bedroom is where the River Clyde came ashore, a Trojan horse of an old steamer that had carried the men of the Dublin and Munster regiments to their doom. When the soldiers emerged from holes cut into the sides of the ship they stepped into hell.
Relics of the fighting are dotted around the peninsula
Hundreds were cut down and the dozens of memorials scattered across the Gallipoli peninsula tell of their sacrifice and that of the British, Australian New Zealand, French, Indian and of course, Turkish soldiers who fought and died here.
But the story of the Irish involvement was not that well known outside Gallipoli, until President Mary McAleese visited the battlefields March 2010 and more recently in April last year when President Michael D Higgins attended the 100th year commemorations.
I had visited the peninsula before these high-profile visits, during my honeymoon, and while it has a tragic history it is beyond doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
It is also an epic location. The dark green hills on the peninsula slope down to the glistening Aegean which separates it from the mainland across the water where lies more history, including the ruins of the fabled city of Troy where the original Trojan Horse had first appeared.
We had planned to stay only a few days exploring the peninsula after arriving in Istanbul but after leaving there to travel further along the coast we found that it was to Gallipoli that we would later return.
Trenches remain on the old battlefield
Even though we had spent almost a week in Istanbul and could have spent a lot more time there it was time to hit the road. Renting a car to drive out of the city was a challenge that we didn’t feel up to so one of the car rental agents drove us out to the outskirts and away from the chaotic traffic before we took the wheel.
Once free of the suburbs we very quickly headed out into the sparse wastes of Thrace where the road to Gallipoli turns south.
As the road twists and turns through the rich green hills the peninsula gradually narrows until you can see the sea on both sides.
Not two hours’ drive from Istanbul and we were in a world far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
It was here that we settled for another week exploring the old battlefields and visiting some of the grand monuments erected in honour of the men here who gave their lives here in a struggle that went on for nine painful months
One of the most moving locations is ANZAC Cove, a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of young Aussies and New Zealanders who come here to pay tribute to their forefathers every year.
A monument is engraved with the words of the founding father of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who fought here as a commander of Ottoman forces at the Dardanelles.
‘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… 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’.