Explore The North Aegean
Burdened with a grim military history but endowed with some fine scenery and beaches, the slender Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsula – roughly 60km in length and between 4km and 18km wide – forms the northwest side of the Dardanelles, the straits connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara. Site of the 1915 Gallipoli landings, the peninsula contains a sobering series of memorials and cemeteries, both Allied and Turkish.
The World War I battlefields and cemeteries scattered around the Gelibolu peninsula are a moving sight, the past violence made all the more poignant by the present beauty of the landscape. The whole area is now either fertile rolling country, or cloaked in thick scrub and pine forest alive with birds, making it difficult to imagine the carnage of 1915. Much of the flatter land is farmed, and ploughing still turns up pieces of rusting equipment, fragments of shrapnel, human bones and even unexploded munitions. The entire area southwest of Eceabat and Kabatepe is a national historical park, which means no camping, picnicking, fire-lighting, foliage-plucking or second-home development beyond the few existing villages. The Allied cemeteries and memorials were built in the early 1920s, mostly designed by Scottish architect Sir John Burnet; they replaced and consolidated the makeshift graveyards of 1915, though over half the deceased were never found or identified – thus the massive cenotaphs. Since the ascendance of the AK Party in 2002, the battlefields and cemeteries have also become conspicuously popular with Turkish visitors – up to two million annually – who arrive on massive pilgrimages organized by AK-run municipalities, especially in May and late September. These religious tourists specifically venerate the Turkish fallen as şehitler, or martyrs for Islam – in pointed contrast to the secularist narrative spun around the eight-month Gallipoli campaign, which made famous a previously unknown lieutenant-colonel, Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk.Read More
The battlefields and cemeteries
The battlefields and cemeteries
Whether visiting the battlefields independently, or on a tour, Çanakkale, or Eceabat in the south of the peninsula, are the best places to base yourself. Modern Gelibolu town at the northern end of the peninsula is too remote to be of much practical use as a base.
The numerous open-air sites have no admission fees or fixed opening hours. Even with your own transport, you’ll need a day – two for enthusiasts – to see the major cemeteries and cenotaphs. You’ll also want time to wander a little, take in the natural beauty and, in season, swim. Outside the villages of Eceabat and Seddülbahir there are few amenities, so lunch stops must be carefully planned.
Independent visits to the sites can also be made using a combination of minibus rides and walking. Minibuses run from Eceabat to Kabatepe dock via the Kabatepe Information Centre/Museum, and from Eceabat to Kilitbahir. From the information centre, you can walk around the main sites just north within a couple of hours. At Kilitbahir, minibuses meet the Çanakkale car ferries in summer and take passengers to Seddülbahir via Alçıtepe, from where you can tour the surrounding cemeteries and memorials on foot. It’s also usually possible to rent montain bikes in Eceabat, but some roads are steep, and secondary tracks can be rough and muddy in winter.
There’s little to choose between the many mainstream companies that offer guided tours of the battlefields – all are supposed to have licensed, English-speaking guides with a thorough knowledge of the sites. Tours all cost the same, are the same length and visit identical sites, usually preceded by a screening of the 1987 documentary, The Fatal Shore and/or Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, and sometimes a picnic lunch. Itineraries, with a strong Anzac emphasis, don’t stray much from a core area just north of the park boundary and visit – in this order – the Kabatepe Museum, several beach cemeteries nearby, the Lone Pine cemetery, Johnston’s Jolly, the Turkish 57th Regiment cemetery, The Nek and Çonkbayırı hill.
The Gallipoli Campaign
The Gallipoli Campaign
Soon after World War I began, the Allies realized that Russia could not be supplied by sea, nor a Balkan front opened against the Central Powers, unless Ottoman Turkey was eliminated. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that the quickest way to accomplish this would be to force the Dardanelles with a fleet and bombard İstanbul into submission. A combined Anglo-French armada made several, repulsed attempts on the straits during November 1914, before returning in earnest on March 18, 1915, when they reached 10km up the waterway before striking numerous Turkish mines, losing several vessels and hundreds of crew.
The Allied fleet retreated and regrouped on the Greek island of Límnos to prepare an amphibious assault on Turkish positions along the peninsula. The plan involved an Anglo-French landing at Cape Helles, Seddülbahir and Morto Bay at the mouth of the straits, and a simultaneous Anzac (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) assault at Kabatepe beach, 13km north. The Australians landed first at dawn on April 25, 1915, with the British and French landing an hour afterwards, followed by the New Zealanders later in the day.
This hare-brained scheme ran into trouble immediately. Anglo-French brigades at the southernmost cape were pinned down by Turkish fire and the French contingent was virtually annihilated; after two days they had only penetrated 6.5km inland, just before Krithia (Alçıtepe) village, and never got any further. The fate of the Anzac landing was even more horrific: owing to a drifting signal buoy, the Aussies and Kiwis disembarked not on the broad sands of Kabatepe, with gentle terrain inland, but at a cramped cove by Arıburnu, 2km north, overlooked by Turkish-held cliffs. Despite heavy casualties (around 2000 on the first day alone), the Ans advanced inland, as the Turks initially retreated. The next day, they threatened the Turkish stronghold of Çonkbayırı, where lieutenant-colonel Mustafa Kemal told his poorly equipped, illiterate troops: “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.” Turkish reinforcements soon arrived, and the Anzac force never made it further than 800m inland.
A supplementary British landing occurred at northerly Cape Suvla, followed by ferocious assaults on the summit in the middle of August, which the Turks repulsed. Otherwise the confrontation consisted of stagnant trench warfare, with neither side having sufficient artillery to gain a decisive advantage. Finally, in November 1915, the Allies gave up, with the last troops leaving Seddülbahir on January 9, 1916. Churchill’s career went into temporary eclipse, while that of Mustafa Kemal was only just beginning.
The reasons for the Allied defeat are many. In addition to the chanciness of the basic strategy, the incompetence of the Allied commanders – who often countermanded each other’s orders or failed to press advantages with reinforcements – was significant. Much credit for the successful Turkish resistance goes to Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, whose role in the two Turkish victories at Çonkbayırı is legendary (countrywide, he’s depicted hunched over in silhouette, patrolling that ridge). Enjoying a charmed life, he narrowly escaped death on several occasions and, aside from his tactical skills, succeeded – by threats, persuasion or example – in rekindling morale among often outgunned and outnumbered Ottoman infantrymen.
At various times, half a million men were deployed at Gallipoli; of these over fifty percent were killed, wounded or missing. Allied deaths totalled around 46,000 while the Turkish dead are estimated at 86,000. Fatal casualties among the Anzacs in particular – around 11,500 – were severe compared to the island-nations’ populations, but would be dwarfed by the 48,000 or so Anzacs killed on the western front later in the war. Some claims (and a major thesis of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli) that the Allied top brass regarded only Anzac “colonials” as expendable cannon fodder don’t bear scrutiny; two Irish battalions suffered over fifty percent casualties on the first day and the 42nd Manchester Division was almost completely wiped out. However, this baptism by blood had several long-term effects: a sense of Australia and New Zealand having come of age as sovereign countries; the designation of April 25 as Anzac Day, a solemn holiday in Australia and New Zealand; and a healthy antipodean scepticism about joining international adventures – though both countries were press-ganged by the US into sending troops to Vietnam.
Anzac Day, April 25, is the busiest day of the year on the peninsula, when up to 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders arrive to commemorate the Allied defeat. In the days leading up to the 25th, Eceabat and Çanakkale fill with visitors: tours can be organized locally or from just about any travel agent in İstanbul, while all UK-based overland companies include Anzac Day in their itineraries.
The day begins with the 5.30am Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, though most people show up much earlier to camp out, as the police close all roads around the grave sites to traffic from 3am. The service used to be relatively informal, but since the late 1990s antipodean diplomats and government ministers attend and the ceremony now features official speeches, prayers and a member of the Australian or New Zealand forces playing a poignant “Last Post” at sunrise. An hour’s breakfast break follows before the rest of the morning’s ceremonies resume – wreath-laying at the British, French and Turkish memorials, and more services at the Australian memorial at Lone Pine and the New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair.
For most people, being at Gallipoli on Anzac Day is a solemn affair – many are here to commemorate ancestors who lost their lives during World War I. However, there have been a few violent confrontations between drunken backpackers and right-wing Turks in the past. As a result, alcohol is now strictly banned at the Dawn Service – and indeed, all year round at any of the cemeteries or memorials.