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A Battlefield in Bayram


The outskirts of Canakkale formed a criss-cross of deserted roads. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a clever idea to visit the Gallipoli battlefields and war graves during the Bayram public holiday. Guessing which way to the town centre, I walked out of the bus station and turned right into Ataturk Caddesi.

Gallipoli locally known as the Gelibolu Peninsular is in the north-west of Turkey where a narrow strait called the Dardanelles (formerly Hellespont) links the Aegean Sea to the Marmara. It made its name or, rather, had its name made for it – during World War One when First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, saw the Dardanelles as a means of taking Istanbul, opening up a supply route to Russia, and creating a Balkan front from which to attack Germany. The final assault on 25th April 1915, a two-pronged Anglo-French and ANZAC amphibious landing, dragged on for eight months and proved a profound failure. The ANZACs, in particular, found themselves fighting from a hopeless position and suffered proportionally the highest losses.

‘Yes, we have no tours,’ said the man in the travel agent’s.

The 15 minute hike into town had been in the right direction, and had probably done me good after sitting for six hours on the bus from Istanbul. The first pansiyon I’d found turned out cheap and well-furnished. It was getting to the battlegrounds that was proving difficult.

‘The sign in your window says daily tours.’

The travel agent stroked his moustache. ‘You are the only foreigner in town. Why did you come in Bayram?’

A good question. As I got up to leave, the man called me back.

‘Tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock.’

‘You mean there is a tour?’

He smiled. ‘I’ll try to arrange something.’

The following morning, I got to the travel agent’s five minutes early. The shop was locked and the streets again deserted except for a tall grey-haired man, smoking a cigarette, sitting on a low wall on the opposite side of the road. He peered at me through half-closed eyes.

‘You are David?’

‘Yes.’

‘Let’s go.’

He introduced himself as Hakan, the tour bus driver. Normally, with his minibus full of customers, Hakan worked as button-lipped sidekick to the English-speaking tour guide. However, with only one punter to look after for this day only he found himself lumbered with both jobs.

During the choppy ten minute ferry ride across the Dardanelles to Kilitbahir, Hakan explained in plodding but adequate English he was a fisherman by trade. He pointed at the low sweeping coastline as we neared the peninsular. ‘My home.’ A rugged place to call home, comprised of shingle beaches, thick khaki-coloured scrub and pine forests filled with noisy bird-life. It’s only when you start driving round, happening across graveyard upon graveyard and memorial upon memorial that you really begin to appreciate the birdsong’s air of stubborn optimism.

Much of the Gelibolu Peninsular has been designated a national historical park, and is protected from agricultural and urban development. Apart from the graves and memorials, the place comes across as a wasteland a fitting enough tribute, when you think of it, to the futility of a battle in which ANZACs were pitted against Turks, neither with a grudge against the other, with the total dead numbering around 160,000.

One result of the events of 1915 is the close ties that have since developed between Turkey and Australia and New Zealand. This was evident in the way Hakan spoke of the battle and hung his head at the sight of ANZAC graves. It was also plain to see in the number of bars and pansiyons bearing ANZAC insignia and sponsorship deals. The trenches where the two sides faced off are still there, some of them only a few yards apart. In a battle as ferocious and bloody as Gallipoli, there developed a sense among the combatants that they were all mired in the same hell-on-earth together. The Turkish commander, Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk) summed up the sentiment as well as anybody:

You the mothers who sent their sons from far away, 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 are our sons as well.

On the way back to Kilitbahir, Hakan and I stopped off at a privately-run battle museum in Seddulbahir. Over the years, the owner a pal of Hakan’s has put together an extensive collection of memorabilia. Fragments of cheerful, never-to-be-delivered letters placed cleverly alongside an Australian skull with a bullet still lodged inside the brainpan summarised the horror pretty well.

When we got to Kilitbahir the sun was dying. Hakan suggested I dine with him and his friends in a seafront bar-cum-restaurant. A jovial bunch, they treated me to more grilled sardines than I could possibly eat, while I paid for the beer which they seemingly couldn’t drink enough of. One of the men, a three foot dwarf the best fisherman of the lot, according to Hakan even performed a little impromptu dance either that or he needed to go to the toilet very badly.

‘You had a good time?’ Cigarette in mouth, Hakan looked out on the gently-lapping sea. We’d just managed to haul ourselves away from the bar and catch the evening’s last ferry back to Canakkale.

‘Yes, thanks.’

‘Why did you come here in Bayram?’

I could have said to be alone because that’s how death takes us, and graveyards don’t give up their mysteries to people on group tours. I could have played to his ego and said for the opportunity to socialise with local characters such as Hakan and his fisherman pals. I could have said many things. But I kept my mouth shut. The truth was I hadn’t planned it this way. I’d simply come. And paid my inadequate respects. And was pleased that I’d come.

Practical Information

Turkey has a lot to offer. It’s a good idea to include a one or two day visit to Gallipoli as part a longer trip to Istanbul and down the east coast to places such as Bursa, Ayvalik, Ephesus, etc.

You can also use Canakkale as a base for visiting the ruins of Troy, a short bus ride inland.

There is usually no problem finding accommodation in Canakkale. Most places are around the town centre, close to the waterfront. I stayed at a cheap pansiyon called the Kervansaray (around US $15 per night). It had a lot of character, a communal garden, private bathrooms, but was a bit dirty. They also offer unofficial tours of the battlefields. Other more upmarket places are available. Hotels can be reserved on: http://turkeyhotels.cjb.net/. A comprehensive regional index can be found at: http://www.hotelsofturkey.com/. Another site with hotel reviews is: http://www.all-turkey-hotels.com/.

Tours can be arranged at a number of travel agents around the town. Alternatively, if you have a car, get a map from the Tourist Information office on the main dock, and make your own tour.

Check out the following excellent Australian government websites for more information on Gallipoli: http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/ and http://www.gallipoli.gov.au/.

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