The Gallipoli Spirit Still Inspires Us

By Amb. N. Murat ERSAVCI *


IN less than a decade we will mark the centenary of the conflict at Gallipoli. The last survivors have gone to their rest. Yet each year in Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, ceremonies are still held to mark the anniversary and mourn the suffering and cruelty of war.

Even though the witnesses have gone, we see these events as sharply as if we had experienced them ourselves.

There is the bitterness of a futile invasion that cost about 500,000 lives and blighted a generation.

There are untold numbers of families, including my own, who to this day mourn a young member killed at Gallipoli. World War I was a war in which it was extraordinarily painful to be a combatant: everyone knows of the mud of Flanders and the trenches there, but the discomfort to both sides was at least as great at the Dardanelles (Canakkale, as we call it in Turkish.)

From the point of the Anzac troops who took part and of their families, it was also a meaningless conflict. Their lives were sacrificed in a cause that had little or no relevance to the countries from which they came. Yet they still carried out their duties in a heroic spirit that has won the admiration of later generations.

For Turkish people, the situation was the exact opposite. The struggle at Gallipoli was a matter of life or death. For the previous 100 years, the Western powers had been trying to partition the Ottoman Empire and their designs on it would have left little or no room for an independent Turkey. If the Gallipoli landings had succeeded, Turkey would quickly have lost its capital and control of the land and sea to the invaders.

It is pretty clear what would have followed such a disaster.

So it is perhaps less surprising that such a desperate national situation on the Turkish side gave rise to great heroism and saw the emergence of a remarkable military genius in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the future founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president, the first divisional commander at Gallipoli. Which of us can remember his command to his soldiers - "I order you to die" - without a shudder? Of course, in practice, millions of young men in World War I received exactly this order, but in the case of the soldiers at the Dardanelles they were not being asked to waste their lives. Without their sacrifice and Ataturk's leadership, I think it is unlikely that we would have a Turkish Republic today.

So during this terrible and pointless conflict, all three countries - Australia, Turkey and New Zealand - discovered deep reserves of courage and heroism in their soldiers and came of age as countries.

A few kilometres to the south of the area of the landings lies the site of ancient Troy. About 3000 years earlier, this same area witnessed another war that became an epic in human history, with the same mixture of brutality, nobility, heroism, suffering, and wretchedness. Only in our time, the numbers of those who paid with their lives was vastly greater.

Perhaps this epic heroism is the reason the Gallipoli campaign is one of those rare historical conflicts that brought reconciliation and a spirit of togetherness and peace in its aftermath. For, as everyone knows, within a few years of the end of World WarI in 1918 and the international recognition of the new Turkey that came with the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, there was a remarkable new attitude on both sides to the Gallipoli campaign. A spirit of mutual respect and understanding has bound Turks and Australians together ever since.

It is not just a matter of national pride. It is a spirit of respect for the sacrifice all those heroic young men made and a determination to show that later generations not only honour their memory; we are determined to build a better world as a memorial to them. And we do that by commemorating them together and sharing our pride and grief.

Things have been that way since at least the early 1930s when Ataturk, the former Gallipoli commander who was by then president of the Turkish Republic, urged the mothers of the fallen soldiers of Turkey's erstwhile enemies to wipe away their tears because they had become the sons of this country. It is a familiar quotation, but I suspect it is one that wakens at least a little emotion in all of us, no matter how often we hear it.

Is all this still relevant? Clearly it is. Gallipoli was a conflict between nations of different faiths. But the spirit of reconciliation, heroism and mutual respect with which we remember Gallipoli enables all involved to transcend a division that in other times and other places has been very deep and painful.

Second, Gallipoli also means inspiration for international co-operation. Various associations and groups in our countries work together each year in a rare spirit of goodwill and mutual harmony.

Finally, like all epics, Gallipoli shows us how to be noble and good, qualities we do not always hear much about in our hyperactive, modern, market-driven societies.

I am proud that the commemorations continue and that there is no sign that the Gallipoli spirit is flagging, even though the Gallipoli veterans are no longer among us. Long may it continue to do so. Those 500,000 men died largely in vain, yet something immensely valuable was born as a result. I salute the memory of all who fought on whatever side. May they rest in peace.

* Murat Ersavci is the ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Australia.

This article was published in The Australian on "Anzac Day" April 25 2008.