With God on their side

by Trevor Richards / 09 April, 2015
The legend of Gallipoli is being challenged by Turks who want their country to have a more Islamic identity.
The armistice in Gallipoli in May 1915 to allow both sides to bury their dead – New Zealanders in the foreground and Turks in the distance. Photo/Malone Family Collection London from No Better Death, Exisle Publishing

Gallipoli was no ordinary battle. It temporarily ended the career of one of Britain’s most famous 20th-century politicians and helped forge a national identity for two recently established nation states on the other side of the world.

But a hundred years after New Zealand troops set foot on the Gallipoli peninsula, a new battle, this time for its legacy, is under way. The Gallipoli story is powerful not only in New Zealand but also in Turkey, so much so that 100 years on, the reasons for Turkish success are being fought over and reinterpreted by those in Turkey seeking to advance an Islamist agenda.

Arriving on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 2012, I wasn’t expecting to be greatly surprised by anything. After all, the Anzac-Gallipoli story is well known, something New Zealanders grow up with. But there was something new and disturbing.

A plaque for Anzac troops at Chunuk Bair. Photo/Getty Images

One thing we were not prepared for was the number of Turks visiting the sites. On the early evening drive to the peninsula, there were probably more than 100 tour buses returning to Istanbul with day trippers.

We had arrived in Turkey with the notion that the Turkish hero of the Gallipoli campaign was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president, who made his military reputation at Chunuk Bair, the site of one of the major New Zealand battles of the August 1915 offensive.

Having captured and held Chunuk Bair on August 8, the New Zealand forces were relieved by British forces. On the night of August 9/10, Atatürk, then known as Mustafa Kemal, recaptured Chunuk Bair.

The New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair is tall, imposing, austere. A few metres away stands a towering statue of President Atatürk. His pose is relaxed, ever vigilant. Historians are in general agreement that he was a brilliant leader – decisive, with a superb grasp of strategy.

Yet when we visited the house he lived in at the time of the Gallipoli campaign, we were the only visitors. None of the thousands of Turkish day trippers were anywhere in sight. When we had coffee with our guide and the man who looks after the Atatürk House, a disturbing story began to emerge.

The day bus trips to Gallipoli are being funded by conservative and pro-Islamist groups. Neither the organisers nor the participants have any interest in including a visit to the house of Turkey’s first president on their itinerary. Their agenda is Islamist; Atatürk’s was avowedly secular. It is all part of a shift towards a more Ottoman, more Islamic perception of Turkey’s identity.

It was noticeable that the women travelling on these buses were veiled and conservatively dressed. Many visit and pray at the Turkish memorial at Chunuk Bair.

Turkish tourists at Gallipoli in front of one of the five enormous tablets symbolising an outstretched “hand of God”, who tour guides now say intervened on the side of the Ottomans. Photo/Trevor Richards


None of the 14,000 New Zealanders who landed on the Gallipoli peninsula a century ago this month could have had any idea of the long-term significance of what they were about to face.

Four hours by road from Istanbul, the peninsula sits between the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea – rugged, remote and pretty. More than 130 publications have been written in English about this conflict. There have been feature films and television documentaries. It has inspired paintings, drawings and sculptures. The courage, bravery, determination and tenacity of New Zealand and Australian soldiers, among others at Gallipoli, have become the stuff of legend.

Anzac Cove (renamed by the Turkish Government in 1985) is on the Aegean side of the peninsula. It is here that around 3100 New Zealanders landed on April 25, 1915. More than 100 were killed here on the first day. Most have no known grave.

The war cemetery at Anzac Cove, one of 31 on the peninsula, is lovely. Soft and lush mowed green grass with several long rows of small creamy white headstones slopes down towards the sandy shore – something beautiful and tranquil out of such tragic waste.

Close by is a Turkish memorial. On it are words Atatürk sent in 1934 to an official Australian, New Zealand and British party visiting Anzac Cove: “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 us where they lie side by side, here in this country of ours.”

Chunuk Bair is about 6km away up a steepish bitumen road. The New Zealand assault on Chunuk Bair was successful, but at a staggering cost. At one point in the battle, only 70 men, out of 760 from the Wellington Battalion, were holding the line. The remainder had either been killed or seriously wounded.

Private Reginald Davies, a member of the Wellington Battalion, who was taken prisoner at Chunuk Bair, recalls the intensity of the fighting: “Private Surgenor was hit in the head somewhere, but kept on firing with his face streaming with blood, until he got another hit in the head, which dazed him for a while and knocked him back in the trench. This time I thought he was killed, but he partly came to after and loaded rifles for me to fire. At that time I was using three rifles and each was burning hot … On the right of my position I was able to see about thirty yards of trench in which all our men were wounded or dead.”

In the course of the battle, the commander of the Wellington Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone, was told by his British Army superior to launch a daylight assault. Malone thought it far more sensible to wait until night. The response he is said to have given was to the point: “We are not taking orders from you people … my men are not going to commit suicide.” Was this one of the first of many times that, incrementally, New Zealanders ceased to regard themselves as a colony?

When the Wellington Battalion captured the hill at Chunuk Bair, it was the first and only time during the Gallipoli campaign that the Dardanelles, the original objective of the campaign, could be seen by any of the Allied forces.

Turkish tourists at Gallipoli. Photo/Trevor Richards


The reasons for the Gallipoli campaign are not hard to trace. When war was declared on August 4, 1914, jingoistic confidence was rampant in Britain. For many, the concern was to get to the front in time to see some action before it was all over. The popular belief was that it would be finished in a flash and everyone would be home in time for Christmas.

But by Christmas 1914, the UK and France had suffered almost a million casualties along the 500 miles of the Western Front. Ambitious and frustrated, the UK’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, asked Prime Minster Herbert Henry Asquith, “Are there not other alternatives than sending out armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”

Churchill promoted a plan both ambitious and daring. He believed that in one bold stroke, it could win the war. It involved opening up a second front, defeating the Ottoman Empire, a major German ally, and opening up a sea route to Britain’s ally Russia. The first step was to take the Gallipoli peninsula.

The attack on Gallipoli began on the morning of February 19, 1915, with a British and French naval bombardment. But there were problems from the start. Allied commanders were hesitant and at times incompetent. The British War Office refused to give Churchill all of the troops requested. The land battle for Gallipoli, which started as a slaughter, became a stalemate no different from that being suffered on the Western Front. It ended on January 9, 1916, with the allies finally withdrawing from the peninsula in total defeat.

Of the 14,000 New Zealanders who fought on the Gallipoli peninsula, 5212 were injured and 2779 were killed over a period of 240 days. Australian fatalities totalled 8709. Upwards of 19,000 were injured. The total number of British Empire forces killed totalled 33,072, including 1358 Indians; 9800 French also perished.

The Turks lost an estimated 87,000. Atatürk, at the time the commander of the 57th Turkish Infantry Regiment, had told his troops early on the morning of April 25, “Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.” Most were either killed or wounded. (As a mark of respect, there is today no 57th regiment in the Turkish army.)

A British royal commission concluded that the operation was ill-conceived. Churchill was sacked and demoted. In November 1915, aged 41, he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers and from December 25, 1915, to May 7, 1916, commanded the 6th Battalion of the regiment near Ypres on the Western Front. He returned to Westminster in 1917 as Munitions Minister, but Gallipoli was to continue to haunt him. “Remember the Dardanelles” would greet him for years to come when he stood to speak in Parliament.

Churchill survived this mauling from many of his political contemporaries and arose, phoenix-like, to become probably World War II’s most inspiring political leader.

Images of Gallipoli hero and first Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Photo/Trevor Richards


In New Zealand and Australia, it was a different story. The Dardanelles were not only remembered but glorified. And the glorification was not long in coming. In New Zealand, five days after the landings, government offices were given a half-day holiday, flags flew and patriotic meetings were held. The mood in New Zealand throughout the Gallipoli campaign was one of national pride. The ultimate failure of the campaign only seemed to increase public support for what New Zealanders were doing so far from home.

In 1916, Anzac Day was gazetted as a half-day commemorative holiday. By 1921, it had become a full public holiday. During the 1920s and 1930s, enthusiasm for Anzac Day went up and down. Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War II saw public support grow. In the years following the end of hostilities, support for the day became increasingly inter-generational; veterans of both world wars paraded together.

More recently, following a slump in popularity marked by divisive protests in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Anzac Day has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Today, 100 years after Gallipoli, war and its impact remain important major threads in the fabric of New Zealand’s increasingly complex national identity.

What’s more, the New Zealand sacrifices on the peninsula helped saved the lives of New Zealand troops in Italy nearly 30 years later. In 1944, Bernard Freyberg was the commander of New Zealand troops at Monte Cassino, the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Italian campaign. At Gallipoli, in his mid-twenties, he had won the Distinguished Service Order for swimming ashore and setting flares in an attempt to divert the attention of the Turks from the main landing site. But more significantly, he had seen slaughter, on both the peninsula and the Western Front.

Freyberg was directly responsible to the New Zealand Government, with a right of veto over the use of his New Zealand troops. Neither he nor the Government wanted any repeats of Gallipoli. When the bitter close-quarters fighting at Monte Cassino claimed 1000 casualties, Freyberg bypassed the chain of Allied Command and went directly to New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who gave him permission to pull the New Zealand troops back before casualties reached unacceptable levels.


The New Zealand memorial at Chunuk Bair. Photo/Trevor Richards

The impact of Gallipoli on the Turks has been just as profound as it was on New Zealanders. Six months after the end of the war, military hero Atatürk began a nationalist revolution, organising opposition to the settlement imposed by the victorious allies. By 1921, he had established a provisional government in Ankara. The Ottoman Sultanate was abolished in 1922, and in October 1923 Turkey became a secular republic with Atatürk as its first president, a post he was to hold until his death in 1938. It was in 1935, when surnames were introduced in Turkey, that the President was given the exclusive name Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks”.

Fast forward 80 years, and at a national political level, the Republican People’s Party, the secularist social-democrat party of Atatürk, is in opposition and the more conservative, Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party is in power. In governing circles, the role played by Atatürk in 1915 is being downplayed. To many Turkish Islamists, Atatürk was just another insignificant actor in the Gallipoli campaign.

Conservative politicians are trying, with apparent success, to claim that in 1915, Turkish soldiers were fired up by their belief in Islam and that they were fighting some holy crusade. It is true that the Ottoman Empire Sultan, Mehmed V, had declared a jihad in 1914, calling on all Muslims to battle against Britain and her allies, but few Muslims had responded to the call.

Atatürk’s call was to defend the motherland. Allah was not a part of his equation. “I have no religion,” he once said, “and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea.” He was a believer in the teachings of science. Superstition, he said, must go.

He also had definite views on women and their role in society. He once asked: “Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible for humankind to grow by the improvement of only one part, while the other part is ignored?”

This belief is very much at odds with the views of the current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who told a women’s conference in Istanbul last year that men and women cannot be put on an equal footing “because it is against nature”.

For those wishing to establish a more Islamic Turkish state, the country’s first president is a major thorn in their side. They hope by killing the Atatürk Gallipoli “legend”, they will also help kill the secularism he was so committed to.

Nearly 80 years after his death, Atatürk and the principles he stood for are under a well-funded, powerful, determined Islamist attack. Twenty years ago, the common answer to the question “who saved us in 1915?” would have been Atatürk. Today, the answer is increasingly likely to be God. But despite the campaign being waged against Atatürk, revisionist agendas cannot extinguish history quite that quickly – or can they? Whether Mustafa Kemal Atatürk will once again be victorious is anything but certain.

Trevor Richards is a New Zealander living in Paris. He visited Gallipoli on April 14-17, 2012.


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