Where an epoch lies

Gallipoli is perhaps the most infamous battle of the First World War. It is also the first place the Newfoundland Regiment saw action in that war. Why then was it such a key location, and why were the Newfoundlanders there?

On a hot, still, summer afternoon, the eastern Mediterranean appropriately turquoise, it is hard to imagine the Gelibolu Peninsula as a place of brutal violence.

From the top of Chunuk Bair the view is one of farms and trees, low hills, the lagoon of Suvla Bay, thin spits of coastline and the Aegean beyond. If it wasn’t for the queued-up coaches and the chatter of tourists it would be a perspective of peace.

This, though, is Gallipoli (as we English-speakers better know it) and its name is synonymous with death; of the horrors of 1915, when a commonwealth of Allied troops was despatched here to try and capture this westernmost sliver of Turkey. A commonwealth that included the Dominion of Newfoundland.

Almost a century on, I came to Turkey for an ichnological conference in Çanakkale, the harbour town best-known for its proximity to Troy. However, Gallipoli lies just a short boat trip across the Dardanelles. There was no way I could travel so far, get so close, and not go and see it. I snuck out of the talks and headed for the ferry port.

Stop, wayfarer!

Overlooking the straits, a sign in Turkish is etched into the hillside:

Dur yolcu, it announces.

Bilmeden gelip bastýöýn,

Bu toprak, bir devrin battýöý yerdir.

It surely loses something in paraphrasing, but the best translation I could find rendered it into English as follows:

Stop wayfarer!

Unbeknownst to you,

This ground you come and tread on, is where an epoch lies.

The landmark specifically commemorates the Turkish thwarting of the Allied naval bombardment of Çanakkale and the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915, which marked the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign.

So why was the capture of the peninsula deemed so important to the Allied Forces, and how did the Newfoundland Regiment end up fighting there alongside Maoris, Frenchmen and Indians, against an Ottoman Army toward which they had no historic enmity?

Where geology and politics collide

It was global geopolitics of the most literal kind. Thanks to plate tectonics, this part of the world – Thrace – has been a strategic location for much of human history, marking the physical boundary between Europe and Asia. Gallipoli’s strategic importance was immense.

Its landscape is founded on mostly marine sediments, such as deep-sea turbidites, laid down a few tens of millions of years ago when the Mediterranean was part of the much larger Tethys Ocean. Shoved up above sea-level by subsequent tectonic uplift and wrenched apart by faults, these rocks now form the dissected landscape and narrow waterways the Allies tried to conquer.

The military mission was Winston Churchill’s idea. For a man so lauded for his role in repelling Hitler in the Second World War, it is sobering to note his culpability in one of the greatest calamities of the First. His notion was that claiming Gallipoli and controlling the Dardanelles would secure a sea route to Russia, force the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and stretch German resources to breaking point.

If the sea shelling of the Dardanelles was a failure, though, the land assault that followed was truly a disaster.

The geology of Gallipoli had been little-considered (as discussed in this Battlefield Detectives video) and it would prove a crucial oversight. Steep, irregular hills rising swiftly from the sea made most attempts to conquer the peninsula futile. The Turks held the high ground, the Allies clung to the shoreline, and together they blew each other to smithereens.

Suvla Bay, where the Newfoundland Regiment landed and first saw action in September 1915. Photo by Liam Herringshaw.
Suvla Bay, where the Newfoundland Regiment landed and first saw action in September 1915. Photo by Liam Herringshaw.

More than 21,000 British soldiers perished, nearly 10,000 French, almost 9,000 Australians, over 2,500 New Zealanders and at least a thousand men from India. And though the Turks held the peninsula, over 55,000 (and perhaps as many as 87,000) of their men died. Like so much of World War One, there were no winners.

To those figures of astonishing carnage, the deaths of 40 members of the Newfoundland Regiment pale, but not into insignificance. They arrived at Suvla Bay in September 1915, after the landings of April 25th and the August Offensive had resulted only in stalemate.

The Newfoundlanders found themselves tasked with trying to hold the Allied line. Though they would hardly have thought it, they were trying to conquer a terrain remarkably similar to – though much younger than – western Newfoundland. A continental collision zone in more ways than one.

After a couple of months of snipers and sporadic fighting, the regiment had seen 30 of its men killed, and 10 more succumb to sickness. Then the weather turned. A severe storm hit in November, followed by harsh winter. Exposed, frostbitten and immobilized, the Allies finally made the decision to retreat.

The Newfoundland Regiment helped evacuate Suvla Bay, then got moved south to clear the Franco-British base at Cape Helles. Both times, they provided the rearguard, and the operations were the Allies’ only successes, with no further casualties.

Gallipoli was abandoned, leaving the Turks to claim victory, though probably with little joy. The Newfoundlanders’ reward for their hardiness and courage was to be moved to the Western Front, and the horrors of Beaumont Hamel.

A place of memory

Now, as the centenary approaches, Gallipoli finds itself a place of pilgrimage, particularly for Australians, New Zealanders and Turks, but also curious tourists such as myself. In the height of summer the battlefields are awash with visitors.

I joined a trip to the main ANZAC sites, with a young Antipodean contingent who spent much of their time grinning for photographs. At first it seemed disrespectful, but then I found myself wondering: How is one supposed to respond meaningfully to something impossibly sad? Perhaps larking about is just as appropriate as sombre contemplation. When they weren’t in fear of their lives, plenty of the 20-something soldiers would surely have been doing the same.

Killichnia trenches near Lone Pine on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo by Liam Herringshaw.
Killichnia trenches near Lone Pine on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo by Liam Herringshaw.

Inevitably, my take was geological. Finding a piece of marine sandstone riddled with fossil crustacean burrows seemed apposite, given the network of tunnels the armies had dug into the hillsides. Up on the ridges of the peninsula, meanwhile, the trenches remain, from which combatants threw bombs at each other from a distance as little as a few metres.

Left behind as an awful reminder, these networks, hollows and craters are what geologist Jan Zalasziewicz dubs ‘killichnia’. Traces of war and murder; a uniquely human feature for the future fossil record.

On the shoreline at ANZAC Cove, I picked up a waterworn piece of jasper. I may be a geologist, but I try not to hang on to every beach pebble I find. Most quickly lose their meaning after a few days on a shelf at home.

This one couldn’t, though. Heart-shaped, blood red and strangely cold, it seemed a fitting memento. I made an exception, and kept it.

Dur Yolcu memorial: http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/2visiting/turkish_stop.html
BBC History – Battle for Gallipoli: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/battle_gallipoli.shtml
New Zealand Battle for Chunuk Bair: http://www.anzac.govt.nz/gallipoliguide/chunukbair.html
Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Gallipoli: http://www.rnfldr.ca/history.aspx?item=41

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