Voyage Between the Wars

Some peaceful recreation on a journey from Gallipoli to Troy, where the echoes of war never die

Dec 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

WE BEACH BESIDE A PILLBOX that has fallen into the water. We've seen many of them along the coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula: blocks of concrete with walls four feet thick and one deep hole for the muzzle of the machine gun. They are from World War II, not World War I, but already the waves have worn away the sand beneath them and they have tumbled like boulders into the turquoise sea.

Jon and I leap from our boat and drag it out of the surf, our thighs pushing against the warm water. On the beach we change into dry shoes and set off climbing. The brine dries white on our dark faces and arms.

It is rough country, like much of western Turkey. A tangle of gulches and bluffs, the brush like bales of barbed wire. Most of the trenches of 1915 have caved in and disappeared, but we occasionally find troughs that contour left or right. Somehow the ferocity and fear are still palpable. It is impossible to tell if these were Turkish or Allied trenches, or perhaps frontline trenches separated by only seven or eight yards that changed hands over and over until the no-man's-land was piled high with the dead, so that a night's truce was called and the mounds cleared away under the starlight to make room for more slaughter in the morning.

There are small graveyards everywhere, hundreds of them, simple plots chopped from the quilled brush and leveled. We walk from one to the next on goat trails beneath a gleamy Aegean sky. We rarely speak. It is difficult to find something to say that means anything. Unlike on other battlefields, here many of the men were buried together, with their comrades, where they fell.

In one of these cemeteries there were buried 378 soldiers, sailors, and marines of the British Empire who died on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Of these, the graves of 359 are known.

19 MAY 1915, AGE 22

29 JUNE 1915, AGE 25

Plaque after plaque, row after row, filling small cemetery after cemetery, as orderly as they stood up from their trenches and charged into certain, tautological death. It is irreconcilable. It takes us hours, working our way from the beachhead up the implausible ridges, battlefield to battlefield: Hell Spit, Shrapnel Valley, Plugge's Plateau, Russell's Top, The Nek, Baby 700. After a while it becomes almost too much

"You'd think they would have at least tried a flank-ing maneuver," I finally say, lamely.

"I would have thought," replies Jon, "that after 100,000 casualties, they would have tried any other maneuver whatsoever."

We circle back down to our boat, passing through equally crowded Turkish cemeteries.

Between the orders to attack and die, orders that came from men whom the soldiers never saw and thus could never respect, gifts were tossed back and forth. The Turks would loft over tomatoes or figs, the Allied soldiers pitched back grenades of bully beef and cigarettes. The Turks were marched to Gallipoli to defend their homeland from infidel invaders; the English and Aussies and New Zealanders, shipped to Turkey to defeat the barbarians who had joined the German invaders. And after they had watched each other die, as young men die, heroically and terrorized and pinioned by the absurdity of the battle, bodies torn through and flopped into the dirt, after they had heard men crying for help and then nothing, this propaganda vanished and they became strange blood brothers whom fate had pitted against each other, and thus men they would kill, but not hate.

There is a graveyard in the cove where we left our kayak. It is called Anzac Cove ("Anzac" was an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Allied Corps). Some of the most macabre, most futile, most inhuman fighting in the history of man took place here between April 25, 1915, and January 8, 1916, when the last British-led troops departed. This is part of the inscription carved into a stone monument there: "There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You the mothers, who sent your 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." —Mustafa Kemal

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!