The Gelibolu peninsula

Burdened with a grim military history, but nonetheless endowed with fine scenery and beaches, the slender Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsula – roughly 60km long and from 4km to 18km wide – forms the northwest side of the Dardanelles, the straits that connect the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara. Site of the 1915 Gallipoli landings, the peninsula is scattered with memorials, both Allied and Turkish.

The World War I battlefields and cemeteries are a moving sight, the past violence made all the more poignant by the present beauty of the landscape, which consists of fertile rolling country interspersed with thick scrub and pine forest that’s alive with birds. Much of the flatter land is farmed, and every year ploughing still turns up 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, built in the early 1920s and mostly designed by Scottish architect Sir John Burnet, replaced and consolidated the makeshift graveyards of 1915. Over half the deceased were never found or identified, however – hence the massive cenotaphs.

The battlefields and cemeteries are also popular with Turkish visitors – up to two million annually – who arrive on massive pilgrimages often organized by municipalities run by the nationalistic-leaning AK Party, especially in May and late September. These religious tourists 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, Mustapha Kemal, later Atatürk.

Central inland sites

A one-way road, roughly following what was the front line, leads uphill from the Kabatepe Information Centre to the former strongholds (now cemeteries) scattered around Çonkbayırı hill.

Beside the road, a massive statue depicts a purported incident from the first day of landings – a Turk carrying a wounded Australian officer back to his lines – supposedly witnessed by another officer who later, as Lord Casey, became Governor-General of Australia. However, Casey didn’t mention the incident in his memoirs, and wasn’t even at that sector of the lines, so the statue is best viewed as an allegory of the chivalry that (sometimes) prevailed in the campaign.

Just beyond is Lone Pine (Kanlı Sırt), lowest strategic position on the ridge and the largest graveyard-cum-memorial to those buried unmarked or at sea. Action here was considered a sideshow to the main August 6–9 offensive further up Çonkbayırı; 28,000 men died in four days at the two points. Just up from Lone Pine is the Mehmetcik memorial to the Turkish soldiers who perished, while at Johnston’s Jolly (named after an artillery officer who liked to “jolly the Turks up” with his gun) there’s a heavily eroded section of trench beneath the pine trees. Most of the trenches on display are reconstructions; the originals are hidden and little visited. British/Anzac ones followed a zigzag course, while the Turks adopted the German dogtooth pattern. All along the ridge, opposing trenches lay within a few metres of each other; the modern road corresponds to the no-man’s-land in between.

Further along, on the right, is the 57th Turkish Regiment cemetery, whose men Mustafa Kemal ordered to their deaths, thus buying time for reinforcements to arrive. Here the religious aspect of the campaign for contemporary Turks is made clear, with an inscription eulogizing martyrdom and a small open-air prayer area. Just beyond, a left fork leads to The Nek – the scene of the futile charge and massacre of the Australian Light Horse Brigade at the conclusion of Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli.

To the right, the main road continues uphill past Baby 700 cemetery – marking the furthest Allied advance on April 25 – and to the massive New Zealand memorial obelisk and the five-monolith Turkish memorial atop Çonkbayırı hill (Chunuk Bair). An inscription chronicles Kemal’s organization of successful resistance to the August Allied attacks, and marks the spot where Atatürk’s pocket-watch stopped a fragment of shrapnel, thus saving his life.

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 the British 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 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 Australians 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 at northerly Cape Suvla was followed by ferocious assaults on the summit in the middle of August, which the Turks repulsed. Otherwise the confrontation consisted of stagnant trench warfare; neither side had sufficient artillery to gain a decisive advantage. Finally, in November 1915, the Allies gave up. The last troops left 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; 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. Claims that the Allied top brass regarded Anzac “colonials” as expendable cannon fodder – a major thesis of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli – 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 that Australia and New Zealand had 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.

Southern peninsula sites

Beyond the rural hamlet of Alçitepe, at the entrance to the southern section of the peninsula, assorted cemeteries, consequences of the landing at Cape Helles, and the huge British Cape Helles Memorial, lie scattered towards Seddülbahir. The views are magnificent, with abundant Ottoman fortifications hinting at the age-old importance of he place. Tucked between the medieval bulwarks is the V Beach of the Allied expedition, behind which lies the biggest of the local British cemeteries.

There’s not much to ALÇITEPE, other than a museum and a few souvenir stands. War graves in the immediate vicinity, however, include the British Pink Farm cemetery, named after the reddish soil on which the site lies, and the Turkish Sargı Yeri cemetery.

The small Salim Mutlu War Museum houses the private collection of the late Salim Mutlu, a local farmer who turned his house into a museum to display objects found in the battlefields by fellow farmers. While slightly amateurish and a bit rustic, the collection affords an insight into the sheer amount of artillery that was let loose during the 1915 battle.

The sleepy village of SEDDÜLBAHİR, at the far southern tip of the peninsula, consists of a few basic pansiyons and restaurants, and an Ottoman-era fortress overlooking a quaint harbour. A fine specimen of Ottoman military architecture from the early modern era, the fortress – like its sister fortress, Kumkale, across the Dardanelles on the opposite shore – was built in 1658 by the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV, Hadice Turhan Sultan.

A southeast turning just before Seddülbahir leads to the striking French Cemetery, above the sandy Morto Bay, with its massive ossuaries, rows of black metal crosses (with North and West African troops disproportionately represented), and memorial to the sailors of the Bouvet, sunk on March 18, 1915. At the end of this road, the 41.7m-high Çanakkale Şehitler Anıtı, or Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial, which resembles a stark, four-legged footstool, commemorates all the Ottoman dead.

Visiting the battlefields and cemeteries

Whether you visit the battlefields independently or on a tour, Çanakkale, and Eceabat in the south of the peninsula, make the best bases; modern Gelibolu town at the northern end of the peninsula is too far away.

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.

It’s also possible to visit the sites 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 mountain bikes in Eceabat, but some roads are steep, and secondary tracks can be rough and muddy in winter.

Guided tours

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. All tours from Çanakkale or Ecebat tend to cost the same (around TL90 per head), be the same length (5hr; in the afternoon), and visit identical sites, usually including 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.

Crowded House

Huseyin Avni Sok 4, Eceabat t0286 814 1565, By far the best of the conventional tours. For an additional TL35, they offer a morning’s add-on of snorkelling over the Milo, an Allied ship scuttled in Suvla Bay.

Hassle Free Travel Agency

Çanakkale t0286 213 5969, This recommended operator offers the standard tours from Çanakkale, and offers return tours from İstanbul.

Kenan Çelik

Çanakkale t0532 738 6675, If you have your own transport, consider hiring the best private guide to the battlefields. An instructor at Çanakkale’s university, Kenan leads full- and multi-day tours as well as the usual itineraries.

The west-coast sites

The logical first stop on a tour of the west coast’s Gelibolu sites, the Kabatepe Information Centre and Museum, 9km northwest of Eceabat (daily 9am–1pm & 2–6pm; TL3), contains archive photos, maps, weapons, trenching tools, uniforms, mess-kits, personal effects – like touching letters home – and a few human remains, including a Turkish skull with a bullet lodged in it.

The first sites along the coast road north of the Centre are the Beach, Shrapnel Valley and Shell Green cemeteries – the latter 300m inland up a steep track, suitable only for 4WD vehicles. Shrapnel Valley was the one perilous supply line up-valley from what’s now the Beach Cemetery to the trenches.

These are followed by Anzac Cove and Arıburnu, site of the first, bungled Anzac landing and location of the dawn service on Anzac Day. At both, memorials bear Atatürk’s famous conciliatory quotation concerning the Allied dead, which begins: “Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.” Looking inland, you’ll see the murderous badlands – including the eroded pinnacle overhead nicknamed “The Sphinx” by the hapless Australians – that gave the defenders such an advantage. Beyond Anzac Cove, the terrain flattens out and the four other cemeteries (Canterbury, No. 2 Outpost, New Zealand No. 2 Outpost and Embarkation Pier) are more dispersed.

Good dirt tracks lead north from Arıburnu to the beaches and salt lake at Cape Suvla, today renamed Kemikli Burnu (“bone-strewn headland”), location of four more cemeteries of August casualties, mostly English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.

Anzac Day

Anzac Day, April 25, is the busiest day of the year on the peninsula. Up to 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders arrive to commemorate the Allied defeat. During the preceding days, Eceabat and Çanakkale fill with visitors: tours can be organized locally or through travel agents 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. Most visitors show up much earlier to camp out, as the police close all roads around the grave sites to traffic from 3am, and earlier for anniversary years. The service used to be relatively informal, but these days antipodean diplomats and government ministers attend, and the ceremony 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 morning’s ceremonies resume – wreath-laying at the British, French and Turkish memorials, and more services at the Australian memorial at Lone Pine and New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair.

For most visitors, being at Gallipoli on Anzac Day is a solemn affair – many come to commemorate ancestors who lost their lives. Alcohol is strictly banned at the Dawn Service – and indeed, year-round at all the cemeteries and memorials.

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updated 26.04.2021

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