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Echoes of Gallipoli

By Russell Grenning - posted Monday, 25 June 2018

It might not sit all that comfortably with our solemn commemoration of Anzac Day on 25 April every year but the simple fact is that the disastrous 1915 Allied invasion of Ottoman Turkey – then an ally of Germany – was little more than a minor skirmish in the bloody carnage of World War I.

While the enduring ANZAC tradition was forged at Gallipoli where 11,500 Australian and New Zealand troops lost their lives in this heroic but futile campaign, it was quickly forgotten in Europe. Neither the British nor the French, who also had troops there, wanted to remember failure and the war went on more for three more savage years.

What perhaps is sometimes overlooked is that Turkey also still remembers Gallipoli. It was, after all, an attempted invasion of their country and it was, for them, a victory.


Now one hundred and three years later, this recalled campaign is a flash point in relations between Turkey and Europe.

Last 25 April, while Australia and New Zealand remembered our fallen in all wars with parades and church services, images emerged of children in Islamic mosques in Vienna playing dead and covered with Turkish flags. While the Austrian Arab Religious Community which runs six mosques in the country called this event "highly regrettable", it enraged the Austrian Government which responded swiftly.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that the Turkish nationalist mosque was being shut down and the Arab Religious Community was being dissolved. In 2015, the Austrian Government passed the so-called "Islamic law" which banned foreign funding of religious groups and which introduced a duty for Muslims in Austria to have "a positive fundamental view towards state and society".

"Parallel societies, political Islam and tendencies toward radicalisation have no place in our country," Kurz said.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan who has been adopting an increasingly strict Islamic policy for domestic political reasons announced, "These measures taken by the Austrian Chancellor are, I fear, leading towards a war between the cross and the crescent." If this reference to a potential conflict between Christianity and Islam wasn't clear enough. Erdogan said, "You do this and we sit idle? It means we will take steps too" and added, "The western world should get their act together."

Erdogan was Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 before becoming President and he is the leader of the dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP).


In May, 2005, he visited Israel and in 2007 the Israeli President visited Turkey – the first and only time Israel and a Muslim-majority country have had such cordial relations – but this friendliness was fleeting and in 2017 he denounced Israel as a "terrorist state". In March, 2017, he said to Turks in Europe, "Make not three but five children because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you" and if he expected this to send shivers down the collective backbone of Europe then he would not have been disappointed.



Under Erdogan, the Gallipoli re-enactment ritual has become more and more significantly an Islamic celebration. It was renamed the Loyalty March for the 57th Regiment and follows the eight km from the then regiment's base to the Gallipoli highlands. It was this regiment of the Ottoman Army led by Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later Ataturk ("The Father of Turks"), and the founder of modern Turkey, that prevented a Turkish defeat at Gallipoli.

Local university students first organised this commemoration in 2006 partly in response to the increasing numbers of Australian and New Zealand young people on the battlefield for Anzac Day. In 2005, the previous year, the Australian and New Zealand pilgrimage reached its zenith with about 17,000 participants. Within three years, there were 6,000 participants in the Turkish commemoration and numbers have grown considerably since.

Erdogan quickly recognised the domestic political benefits for his party and assumed control of it, His government began funding the cost of travel and living expenses of participants through the Ministry of Youth and Sports and it took over official registration and program coordination. The government has put emphasis on assisting youth from stronghold areas of Erdogan's party and he describes them as the "pious generation".

To further strengthen the fundamentalist Islamic tone of their celebrations, the government has imposed mandatory prayer sessions at the beginning and end of the march which it claims simulates the actions of the ordinary men of the 57th Regiment. There is also an increased recognition of individual martyrs through a focus on firsthand accounts of the religious zeal of Turkish soldiers fighting against an infidel invader of their homeland.

We have our Gallipoli heroes such as Simpson (and his donkey) so, understandably, do the Turks.

There were an estimated 250,000 – 350,000 Turkish casualties at Gallipoli and they remained in mass graves after the war reflecting the stigma of Ottoman history in republican Turkey. Turkey became a republic after the overthrow of the last Sultan Mehmet V1 Vahdittin in 1922.

There are three major memorials to British and ANZAC troops at Gallipoli, the Helles Memorial, Lone Pine Cemetery and the Chunuk Blair Cemetery. 

However, since 2005, eleven cemeteries have been built for the Turkish fallen and they have become popular sites for prayer for the one million plus Turkish visitors to the battlefield every year and another fifteen are proposed along with plans for accompanying outdoor mosques.

Erdogan and his government know that they cannot completely obliterate the history and memory of republican Turkey and its founder Ataturk, the heroic leader of the victorious 57th Regiment. The republic was founded as a secular state which Turkey remains at least in theory if not entirely in practice.






But while having children re-enacting World War I events and playing dead in a place of worship is alien to western minds, it is extremely widespread in Turkey.

For example, in the city of Kirikkale in 2012, kindergarten children aged between three and six were made to don military costumes and wave around toy guns to commemorate the 97th anniversary of Gallipoli and Turkish media reported that "the martyred students were covered with Turkish flags."

In January 2017, a memorial hailing the sacrifices made by the ANZACS at Gallipoli was destroyed by the Turkish Government. This memorial contained words by modern Turkey's founding father Ataturk comparing the fallen ANZAC "Johnnies" to the Ottoman "Mehmets" he had commanded and giving them his blessing to be buried on Turkish soil.

Ataturk said in 1935 on the 20th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, "Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. ..You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway 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."

Now these words have been scratched out. The Turkish Government at the time tried to pretend that this had happened as part of a refurbishment of the site but they have never been restored.

Peter Stanley, a professor of history at the University of New South Wales, said, "It's not always apparent to Australian visitors to Gallipoli who tend to focus on the ANZAC story. But another, Turkish, battle has been going on for the past decade at least between the formerly universally accepted Ataturk interpretation and the increasingly strong Islamist view."

Professor Stanley said that since the Erdogan Government had come to power the new Visitors Centre at Gallipoli which is run by the Turkish Government depicts Turkish dead as "martyrs" dying in a fight against Christian invaders.

In 1915 just before the failed attack at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and the most fervent advocate of what became an unmitigated disaster, wrote to a friend, " A good army of 50,000 and sea power – that is the end of the Turkish menace."

However, a massive British-French naval force and more than half a million Allied troops could not succeed against the "Turkish menace" and now that menace has emerged once again.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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