Remembering Gallipoli, A WWI Battle That Shaped Today's Middle East
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Heads of state gathered in Western Turkey today to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, the Gallipoli Campaign. For nine months, Ottoman forces under German command clashed with Allied troops, led by Britain and France. The Allies eventually withdrew. The fighting left a half-million dead and wounded and changed the region forever. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the Turkish Coast.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: They call it ANZAC Day, for the Australia New Zealand Army Corps that landed here on April 25, 1915. But the seeds of the human slaughter on these beaches were sown five weeks earlier, when the supposedly invincible British Navy sent its warships to pound Ottoman forts guarding the strategic Dardanelles Strait. What they hadn't counted on were recently laid underwater mines that sank or grounded three ships in the space of a few hours. With that, the element of surprise was lost, and when the ANZAC troops finally came ashore more than a month later, the Ottoman army was dug in with machine guns at the ready. New Zealander Joseph Gasparich survived a battle at a place dubbed the Daisy Patch for the wildflowers that grew thick as a carpet. Decades later, he told New Zealand broadcaster Laurie Swindell that he was hit as the first wave of men crossed toward the enemy. Lying amid the flowers, he had a perfect view of the carnage that followed.
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JOSEPH GASPARICH: Another line of our chaps got up to follow us, and every one dropped. A third lot got up. One man cut across, and he was hit. He staggered across. Every other man was dropped. It was absolute murder - or suicide, whichever way you'd like to look at it. That was the Daisy Patch. That was the Daisy Patch.
HALUK ORAL: And it's eight-and-a-half months of hell for every side.
KENYON: Turkish academic Haluk Oral says the terrain was brutal, water was scarce, and despite heroic medics and nurses, battlefield mortality was high.
ORAL: If you look at the letters written by British or Australian soldiers, they are talking about how difficult to find the food or how dirty was the water. So the sickness, disease, for both sides was unbelievable.
KENYON: The plan, by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, had been audacious - to distract Germany from the Western front by opening up a second front at Gallipoli, forcing Berlin to divert forces to shore-up their Ottoman Allies. Instead, the initial gains by the ANZAC troops stalled into a blood-soaked stalemate, and cemeteries began to sprout on the beaches and fields of Gallipoli. Many visitors don't realize that it was the Ottoman forces who suffered the biggest losses, says a beefy, soft-spoken Turk who seems to know every detail of the nearly nine-month campaign. His name is Kenan Celik, a guide for dignitaries and historians who visit the peninsula. Celik points out the grave of Brigadier General William Scott-Moncrieff, killed in the Battle of Gully Ravine. It's remembered in the West as another heroic loss by the ANZAC forces. Celik says the Allies surged forward unexpectedly, seizing Turkish trenches until the frantic counterattack came.
KENAN CELIK: And then nearly eight days, the fighting went on. In the counterattacks we lost nearly 16,000 people. That was the most horrible fighting in Gallipoli. Lines were devastated by naval and gunfire - reduced Turkish trenches, you know, made them flat.
KENYON: Veterans of the campaign would later say there were no winners at Gallipoli, only survivors. But there were global consequences. England's dominance on the world stage would never be the same. Australia had its national baptism by fire, emerging from Britain's shadow. And Turks had a new hero, the young officer named Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, who would go on to establish something rare - a majority Muslim but secular nation state. A century later, former Ottoman lands are again convulsed in violence. Borders in Syria and Iraq are dissolving and great powers huddle in private meetings wondering what the future holds. With a weary smile, Kenan Celik recalls the words of Damat Ferid Pasha, one of the last Ottoman prime ministers. He issued this warning to European leaders in Paris in 1920 as they divided the empire into the spoils of war.
CELIK: And he said, keep Ottoman Empire as an umbrella over Middle East. If you don't - I say hundred years, you say 200 years - no peace in the Middle East.
KENYON: Ninety-five years later, that prediction is still going strong. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.