The encounter of former foes in Gallipoli

The encounter of former foes in Gallipoli

Richard Moore*
Later this month we will all commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Çanakkale or Gallipoli campaign. It will be a magnificent occasion with many heads of state from around the world attending at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s invitation.  HRH The Prince of Wales will represent HM The Queen and will be accompanied by HRH Prince Harry and the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.  Much pomp and ceremony will be on display, and rightly so. It is an important moment in history. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s magnanimous words of reconciliation – “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” – penned in 1934 will ring in our ears.

But, for me, the spirit of Gallipoli is encapsulated in a smaller scale, very personal, story. As a young man, and on my first posting to Turkey, I was asked to act as escort officer to the small group of British and Canadian veterans who represented the Royal British Legion at the 75th anniversary commemoration in 1990. They were joined by many ANZAC comrades. It was the last occasion the veterans of the conflict were able to attend.  On the Allied side, if I remember correctly, the youngest was 93 years old and the eldest 108. I found it a moving and humbling occasion. Many of the veterans were returning for the first time and it was a deeply emotional, and often painful, experience for them. I would look at the tranquil and beautiful landscape of the peninsula; they would see places where they had lost friends to a terrible death. There were many tears as they remembered.

Then, as now, it was a grand occasion. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, represented the United Kingdom. Then, as now, the centerpiece was a very impressive international ceremony hosted by the Turkish president. This was magnificent but there was one flaw – insufficient toilet facilities. The organizers had perhaps not remembered that old men need to go to the bathroom quite often!  As a result, after the ceremony, my elderly charges were uncomfortable and rather desperate.

Our next stop was V Beach, one of the main landing areas of the Allies. We were reaching a bladder crisis when we came into Seddul Bahr (Seddlülbahir) village, next to V Beach.  I saw a mosque and knowing that they always have immaculately clean toilets, I asked the coach driver to stop. I climbed down and spoke to the mosque caretaker who immediately, with true Turkish hospitality, ushered the old gentlemen into the toilets. The relief was immense!

While I was waiting for the veterans to re-emerge, I looked around me. Seddul Bahr was a small village. It was a sunny day and, at the end of the street, an old man was sitting on a bench with two youngsters on either side of him. Noticing the arrival of the coach, one of the youngsters approached and asked what was going on. I explained that I was accompanying a group of British and Canadian veterans who were visiting to commemorate their fallen comrades. He excitedly explained to me that the old man (his great-uncle I think) had fought the British in 1915. He then ran back to the bench and I could see him telling the old man. At this, the latter got up stiffly and, with the aid of a walking stick, made his way over to us. He introduced himself and told me that he had been a lad of 15 years when the British invaded.  He had been inducted into the village guard force shortly before. I translated this story to the British veterans and, in turn, told the old villager the stories of the men who had returned to Gallipoli. 

Then the most extraordinary thing happened. He approached each of the veterans, his former enemies, kissed them on both cheeks and hugged them. There was not a dry eye in the village. As a 26-year-old young diplomat, who had never had to go to war to face the horrors these men had faced, I felt so privileged to have witnessed this special moment.  

For me, that extraordinary moment of generosity and reconciliation from the old Turkish ghazi represents the true spirit of Gallipoli. Atatürk spoke to the mothers of the Allied fallen. This unknown warrior could not speak to his former enemies nor they to him, maybe (except imperfectly through my interpretation). They had no common tongue. But, believe me, they had no need of words.  That kiss and hug, along with their common searing experience, was enough. God rest their souls. We will remember them!

*Richard Moore is the British ambassador to Turkey.