Voyage Between the Wars

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


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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

WE ARE SEA-KAYAKING through history. My partner is a big man from Casper, Wyoming, named Jon Huss. I called him at the suggestion of an astute neighbor who said, cryptically, “Jon is the guy for this journey.” We'd never met.

I called Jon up and told him I wanted to kayak down the Dardanelles, circle the Gallipoli Peninsula, and then cross over to Troy, and that I had no idea if it was possible. Did he want to go?

The Dardanelles is that improbably thin strait that cleaves Asia from Europe. Thirty-eight miles long, varying in width from four miles to less than a mile, it connects the Sea of Marmara (and farther north, beyond the Bosporus, the Black Sea) to the Aegean. The Aegean becomes the Mediterranean, once the portal to new worlds.

From spices and slaves and silk to oil and automobiles, the Dardanelles has been one of the most significant shipping lanes on earth since there were ships. Which makes it strategic, and thus the nexus of one war after another for the last 3,000 years. Troy, scene of one of the greatest tragedies, or triumphs, of ancient history, lies four miles southeast of the mouth of the Dardanelles in Asia. The Gallipoli Peninsula, scene of one of the greatest tragedies, or triumphs, of the 20th century, lies in Europe, four miles across the strait.

“The Hellespont,” Jon told me. “That's what the ancient Greeks called it. It's where Xerxes built a bridge of boats and, according to Herodotus, marched across an army of two million to invade Greece and conquer Athens. But the Athenians were defending their homeland, and they routed the Persians at the battle of Salamis.”

Jon, a 43-year-old civil attorney in the midst of an extended sabbatical devoted to adventure, had read Herodotus's The Histories in Greek. One of his favorite books from boyhood chronicled the 19th-century excavation of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. He also happened to be a veteran kayaker.

I said that I would be leaving in 72 hours. He rang back in two to say that he'd booked his ticket. We flew to Istanbul and bused south to the fishing port of Gelibolu, near the top of the Dardanelles on the European side. We assembled our nylon-and-aluminum tandem kayak in the town square. A crowd carried our craft to the water.

I'd read that there was an implacable current gushing down the Dardanelles. During World War I an Allied submarine had been trapped in one of its eddies, spotted by a German plane, and shelled into oblivion. Gales had shattered boats a hundred times the size of ours on the rocky shores. The wind sometimes blew 50 knots down the channel.

“We'll find out,” said Jon.

Six-foot-four and still built like the rower he had been at the University of Pennsylvania, Jon sat in the bow. He was the self-described “hammer,” and I, in the stern, was the helmsman. We clicked paddles only a few times before hitting a rhythm that would last the whole trip.

Down the center of the strait was the two-way traffic of the colossal cargo ships. We were in the seafaring equivalent of a bike lane. We stayed well to the right of the channel, but still, whenever one of these behemoths plowed past, two minutes later a three-foot wave would hurl us sideways.

Paddling hard, assisted by the ferocious tailwind and strong current, we could sometimes outpace sailboats. One afternoon, caught up in the joy of carving through the water, we inadvertently veered into the shipping lane. A supertanker, bulldozing down right behind us, blasted her bullhorn and sent us hightailing it back toward the shoreline. In the Narrows of the strait, where the water is funneled in tightly and practically roars, we found ourselves, as Jon put it, “surfing the banana”—shooting our frumpy, too-flexible vessel down the faces of big waves. We ran the Dardanelles in three days.

But rounding the horn and coming back up the peninsula was another story. The wind and current now became our enemies. They pushed us too far offshore, and we found ourselves battling six- to eight-foot swells. Jon never changed his calm, steady stroke. He would turn his head just before he was smacked in the face by a wave. Sometimes our aluminum-boned boat would get high-centered and make the most horrible cracking sound. Once, when the kayak groaned and then shrieked as if it were about to break in two, Jon suggested, “You might want to bring 'er a little closer to shore.”

The boating was great sport, but it was also something more. The history of the Dardanelles is a maritime epic. Every battle ever fought there was fought over control of the seaway. Every war was a war over the water. It seemed fitting to explore such history by boat; the scars on the land had largely healed, but the sea was still the same sea, the same incandescent blue waves that soldiers had seen and smelled and touched through the ages. Several times a day we pulled up onto a famous beachhead and hiked off to a battlefield or a castle or a monument to take another class in the classical history of war.

The entire Gallipoli campaign—directed by Churchill, then Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty—was one massive flanking maneuver. Force the Dardanelles, take Constantinople, push on through to the Black Sea, reinforce the Russians, and induce the Germans to fight on two fronts. On paper it was a good plan. It might have put an early end to World War I and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. If the British generals had not been incompetent or cowardly. If communications had been better. If the Turks hadn't been so willing to die for their country. If an unknown commander named Mustafa Kemal—later to become Atatürk Kemal, father of modern Turkey, its George Washington, his bust in every village—hadn't been so ruthless and so right. Instead, the Gallipoli campaign was an Allied disaster in which some 50,000 soldiers were killed and more than 200,000 wounded. Churchill, discredited and nearly disgraced, was demoted and sent to fight on the Western Front. In helping to plan the successful landing at Normandy nearly 30 years later, Churchill remembered the terrible lessons of Gallipoli.

But Gallipoli was a tragedy only to the losers. To the Turks, it was the beginning of their war of independence against foreign domination, the birth throes of the modern Turkish state.

AFTER A WEEK OF boating from one tough lesson to the next in Europe—from Cape Helles and Y Beach to Anzac Cove and Sulva Bay—it was time to go to Asia.

To traverse the strait we couldn't cut directly across the mouth; the current is so strong we would have been pushed out to sea. Studying the charts, we decided to paddle back up the western coastline for three miles and then strike out eastward at an acute angle to the flow.

We stayed out of the main channel, weaving through the islands of rock close to shore. Our arms worked the soft water along the edges while our eyes watched the freighters churning up and down the Dardanelles, trying to gauge their speed and pick a moment to shoot through a gap in the traffic.

When the time came we swept out and the current caught us and we paddled with purpose, slicing off the tops of the waves. Ten minutes later we made it across the path of a Russian container ship heading south. By the time we reached the northbound traffic lane, there was a ship charging up the strait. I didn't alter our bearing.

“I'd say,” said Jon, turning around to look at me, “that we're on a collision course.”

“I think we can make it.”

The ship was coming up fast, but I still thought we were going to pull it off and just slip by, but then the ship was somehow almost above us. Frothy white waves were curling back from the enormous prow. I slammed the rudder and the boat peeled hard to starboard.

“Thank you,” said Jon, as we watched the leviathan pass to port and braced for the wake.

After another ten minutes, surfing every fifth crest, we reached Asia and beached beside a military installation at the mouth of the Dardanelles. Too late, we noticed the barbed wire and guards in towers and giant concrete bulwarks set in the sea with warnings painted in Turkish in big red letters. The moment we stood up—drenched from head to toe, with our bare hairy legs and droopy spray skirts making us look like ballerinas in drag—the whistles started blowing. The men in the guard towers were waving their machine guns at us. We tried stepping left or right to appease them, but they kept frantically blowing their whistles and waving their weapons. We decided to stay right where we were.

Eventually a mustachioed commander, escorted by several soldiers, came out to have a little talk with us. He had an interpreter. Naturally he wanted to know what the hell we thought we were doing. We told him we were just boating. Just tourists. He studied us, two drippy guys with goofy grins. He studied our unconventional spy boat.

“Can you read that?” The commander and his interpreter pointed to the big red letters on the concrete embankment.

We shook our heads like two kids in first grade.

“That says, 'It is prohibited to come within 600 meters of this post.' If you come within 600 meters you will be fired upon. Do you know where you are?”

We shook our heads again.

“You are at zero meters!” The commander smiled. “Now,” the interpreter translated, “are you hungry?”

Two soldiers carrying metal trays came striding out to the beach. Lentils in hamburger gravy, yogurt with strips of cucumber, feta torte, a pear, bread, a metal pitcher of water. We were enjoined to eat.

The commander wanted to know our plans. We're on our way to Troy, we said. Fair enough. After lunch he escorted us through the gates of his fortress, Jon and I looking askance at all the ordnance. We were taken to a jeep, given a lift to a village just outside the site of ancient Troy, and told to be back at 5 p.m. for a return ride to the base.

Troy is one fortress built upon the ruins of a past fortress, built upon the ruins of a past fortress…going back 5,000 years. There is a huge wooden replica of the Trojan horse at the entrance. Remember the Iliad? The Trojans are tricked into believing that the wooden horse left by the apparently defeated and departing Greeks is honestly a gift to their gods, and they wheel it right through the gates. Of course the stallion contains warriors who slip out of its belly that night, signal their waiting comrades by setting fire to the city, retrieve the beautiful queen Helen, and win the war. According to Homer, a Greek.

Our scheduled ride appeared and we were driven back through the checkpoints. We said our farewells and walked right through the heart of the base and out the other side to our sea horse.

IN THE EVENING we stroke up the Dardanelles into dusk. The sky and the water move past through curtains of purple. Just as it gets too dark to continue, a tiny harbor appears. We slide in through the seawalls. There is no village here, just a silent collection of small fishing boats. We are hailed across the black water.

We paddle over to find five old men sitting in the stern of a tiny vessel. They are having dinner together. They tie our boat to theirs and pull us into their company. They squeeze together to make room and the boat rocks. A swaying lightbulb illuminates their faces like a campfire. Again Jon and I are fed. We break out our shipwreck rations: three tall cans of Troy beer. They want to know all about our voyage. We tell them the tale with the aid of a Turkish dictionary and arm movements that represent the water in its different moods. They nod knowingly. It turns out they are all retired sailors, all once officers in the Turkish navy. Now they are doing what old sailors do in the lucky, less heroic times of history: fishing. They sleep with their wives and slip out to their little boats at dawn, sometimes with a son or a niece, troll into the Dardanelles and fish all day, and then gather together and eat the fish in the harbor in the night under the stars in a boat until the next war.

The sailors want to know where we are sleeping.

“Camping,” says Jon, making a tepee with his fingers.

So they guide us in the dark past the line of little boats along the stone wharf to the shore, where there is an invisible flat place to lie down, and then say goodnight.

In the morning we will strike out up the Dardanelles. We will be paddling against a four-knot current into a 20-knot headwind. There will be white-caps crashing onto our bow. We will look over at the shore, and although we are paddling with all our strength we'll seem to be standing still. And yet, Jon and I will pass all the way up through the Narrows by noon. I am mystified by this.

At dawn we wake to find that we have been sleeping beneath the barrel of a ten-inch cannon set inside a pillbox.