James Ruggia | April 03, 2015 3:58 PM ET
Poppies for Gallipoli
At a time when so many battles are being commemorated, from the Battle of Nations to the Battle of Waterloo, one battle stands out above the rest this year. April 25 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, fought not far from where the Achaean forces of Agamemnon attacked Troy some 3,300 years ago. Gallipoli played a major role in establishing new identities for three separate countries. For the Turks, it brought the young commander Mustafa Kemal into prominence. Kemal rallied the forces of a collapsing Ottoman Empire to fend off an invasion of the Turkish homeland and in the process created Turkish nationalism. Just eight years later, Kemal, now Atatürk (Father Turk), would establish the Turkish Republic out of that spirit.
For the defeated Anzac Force of Australians and New Zealanders, the awakening was much more bitter. They learned in the bloodiest way that they’d ceded too much sovereignty to the British high command, which used the Anzac soldiers as cannon fodder at Gallipoli. It was a break from the mother country that never fully healed.
Perhaps the strangest understanding to emerge from Gallipoli was the kinship that grew between the combatants. In a sense, both armies had been led by naive leaders into a fight in which they were proxies for the real combatants: Anzac for Great Britain and Turkey for their German allies. At one point in the fight at Gallipoli, white flags were raised on both sides so that Anzac and the Turks could bury their dead. That moment is beautifully captured in the song by Scottish balladeer Eric Bogle, “And the band played Waltzing Matilda /When we stopped to bury our slain/ We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs/And it started all over again.”
It was a moment that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk didn’t forget when he became president of the new Turkish Republic he founded. In 1934 he reached out to the Anzac families that lost loved ones at Gallipoli, with his own poem, “Mothers/ Who sent sons from far away countries/ Wipe away your tears/ Your sons are now lying in our bosom/ And are in peace/ After having lost their lives on this land they have/ Become our sons as well.”
On April 25 they will be holding services at Gallipoli. Those services are being overseen by the Australian and New Zealand governments. On Aug. 6, a second ceremony will take place at the Lone Pine Cemetery in Gallipoli. With casualty numbers in the hundreds of thousands, it’s easier to count the dead at Gallipoli, about 45,000 Anzac soldiers and 65,000 Turkish soldiers.
The larger Gallipoli Campaign began on March 18, 1915 and lasted until January 9, 1916. Led by the Allies’ First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the Allied mission was an utter failure. The purpose of the campaign was to retake Constantinople (Istanbul) and control the Dardanelle Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Churchill would later say that the failed beach landing at Gallipoli provided lessons that led to the successful beach landings at Normandy during WWII.
From Auckland, New Zealand to Perth, Australia, Anzac Day is commemorated in the same spirit that Americans commemorate Memorial Day. You can usually find an editorial in the newspapers urging people to eschew the barbecues and remember the solemnity of the occasion. In places like the Western Australian town of Albany, from whence the Anzac Expeditionary Force departed in 1914, there will be a Ceremonial Sunset Commemorative Service, a free public concert by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the Princess Royal Harbour Lights and fireworks. In Melbourne, 200,000 hand-crafted poppies were knitted by Lynn Berry, Margaret Knight and thousands of others for the battalion that Berry's father fought in. "It'll be about one kilometer of poppies by the time we're finished," said Berry, and they’ll be displayed at the city’s Federation Square on Anzac Day.
On April 24, Hollywood will weigh in with the U.S. opening of The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut. The film is about an Australian father who lost two sons in the battle and who visits the site in 1919. The film will have to be superb to even match 1981’s classic film, Gallipoli.
Last June marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, an act that ignited the First World War. In Belgium they’re preparing re-enactments to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo just two years after Leipzig commemorated the Bicentennial of the Battle of Nations. As a species, we’ve become very adept at celebrating battles and that’s a good thing because there are so many of them. So on April 25, think about the lives lost on both sides of the battle at Gallipoli and buy a poppy for the dead that paid so dearly.
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