Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Dardanelles

The approach to Istanbul from the Mediterranean is via passage through the Dardanelles Strait (connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara). This is an extremely busy waterway and we had to get permission to enter early (during the evening instead of night). One plus of missing out on Mykonos, I guess.

The Dardanelles waterway is bounded by peninsulas - on the Eastern shore by Asia; on the Western shore by Europe. It is hugely significant to the Australians and New Zealanders because of the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 / 1916 in which their troops were heavily involved

After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Australian (and New Zealand) men got caught up in the tremendous enthusiasm to become involved – adventure and support of King and Country. They signed up in droves. Famous units included the Lighthorse (mounted cavalry with superior riding skills) and miners from Broken Hill and other major areas (hence ‘diggers’)

They expected to land and fight in Europe against the Germans (the Western Front) but the first troops dispatched were instead landed in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. While en route a Turkish Army had been marched under difficult circumstances through the Sinai Desert and had attacked the Suez Canal. British, Indian and these ANZACS (as they came to be known) defeated the Turks and in follow up battles the Australians took Beersheba and in fact spearheaded the taking of Damascus.

In the meanwhile the war on the Western Front had achieved stalemate with the allies facing the Germans from trenches that ran from Belgium to Switzerland. Churchill came up with a strategy to break this stalemate by attacking Turkey at the Dardanelles and, if successful, driving through the Balkans and joining with Russia to attack Austro-Hungary from behind.

In a nutshell, the Gallipoli Campaign was a strategic failure and a disaster for the allies. French, British and ANZAC troops landed on beaches on the Asian and European peninsulas, succeeded in gaining a foothold but then failed to exploit their positions or make any real headway. Turkish resistance was determined and fierce. Allied leadership was probably wanting. The result was that the allies suffered over 200,000 casualties out of the over 450,000 troops they landed (with similar outcomes for the Turks).

The subsequent results of this campaign are interesting – on one hand the ANZACS have become forged in Australian and New Zealand consciousness, Australia developed a national identity and the concept of ‘mateship’ was cemented. Gallipoli is dotted with war cemeteries, monuments and parks for both sides and has become a place of pilgrimage for visiting Aussies.

Turkey became a secular Muslim nation (now at risk) under Ataturk after the war. During Gallipoli, Ataturk, then known as Mustapha Kamal was a senior officer in the Turkish Army. During the initial Allied assault, as his troops were retreating without ammunition he famously stopped them with the words – “ You are not here to fight; you are here to die!” at which they turned, fixed bayonets, and stopped the advance in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.

The Australian troops who survived and were evacuated from Gallipoli went on to fight on the Western Front where they again experienced terrible times and losses. The ANZACS subsequently have been active participants in all the campaigns of WW II, Korea, Vietnam and various peace-keeping missions with a tradition founded here in Turkey

After leaving Istanbul the ship held a memorial and wreath-laying ceremony off the beaches of ANZAC cove (where the landings took place in 1915).

The decks were packed. Speakers included the Captain, senior crew and a priest and the passenger choir (led by our friend David) sang the hymns and National anthems. Very moving.

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