The Hellespont, the narrowest point of the Dardenelles, the strait which connects the Aegean to the Marmara Sea. A point of origins and a strategic point through which all ships must reach Russia’s Black Sea ports. The setting of the myth of Hero and Leander. Leander was a youth from what is now the Turkish side, Chanakkale, formerly called Abydos, who fell in love with Hero, a priestess in the Temple of Venus at Sestos, now the sleepy fishing village of Kilitbahir. Every night Leander swam across for a night of love, guided by a torch which Hero held up. One night the torch was blown out by the wind, and Leander couldn’t find the shore and perished. Hero, in despair at finding his body on the shore, threw herself from the tower.
Swimming the distance of nearly a mile was thought impossible till Lord Byron successfully attempted the feat in 1807 and made it the setting of his 1813 poem, The Bride of Abydos. Now, as long-distance swimming has developed, it’s kid’s stuff.
And we mustn’t forget the legend of the Golden Fleece and the origin of the name of the Hellespont. Athamas, king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia in southeastern Greece, took as his first wife the cloud goddess Nephele, by whom he had two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later he fell in love with and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths. In some versions, she persuades Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus is the only way to end a famine. Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram with a fleece of gold. On the ram the children escaped over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now called after her — the Hellespont. The ram took Phrixus safely on to Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece on an oak tree in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon. There it remained until taken by Jason. The ram became the constellation Aries. And the fleece is the Golden Fleece.
And Troy is just down the road. Only discovered by Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliermann in 1859. I now realise the origin of the name of Hotel Helen in Chanakkale.
But this is not what we’ve come to see but rather the battlegrounds of Gallipoli, half a million Allied and Turkish soldiers lost their lives in 1915. I never really knew how important ANZAC Day, 25th April, a public holiday, was to Australia and New Zealand before coming to Gallipoli to the first time. It was the first time Australians and New Zealanders had been involved in a war. It was the day, as the cliché goes, that these two young countries ” lost their innocence”.
Turkey had enetered the Great War on the side of Germany. Enver Pasha, Prime Minister, the chief Young Turk, had forged a number of commercial agreements. Germany had built a railway into Iraq and Syria, still part of the Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, had cancelled delivery of warships to Turkey, and these shıps were replace wıth German ones. The Allies needed to capture the Dardenelles Strait so their ally, Russia, could be supplied through its warm Black Sea ports.
First to the Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) beach, a hundred yards of shingle where 1500 Australians mistakenly landed at dawn on 25th April 1915. They should have landed further to the North on Brighton Brach where the gullies were not so steep. They managed to takes ground towards the top of the ridge but never established a position. At the top of the ridge Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk, exhorted his men to fight with the now famous words: “I don’t order you to attack, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our place.”
The English and French Allied landing at the southern tip of the peninsula, Helles Point, was also a uncoordinated cock-up. Many troops landed were the Turks were strongest and were gunned down. Those who did safely land where there were no defences did nothing, when they could have taken the Turkish positions. The day after they re-embarked.
Trench warfare continued near the Anzac beaches until August when the Allies tried another attack. It almost succeeded, as the New Zealanders briefly took the Chunuk Bair ridge and got their only glimpse of the Dardenelles, but the Turks soon retook it. Kemal’s luck continued as his pocket watch stopped a bullet into his chest that would have killed him. The stalemate continued until November when the Allies gave up and evacuated.
Over half a million died. Turkish and Allied cemeteries and monuments are dotted around the peninsula. Mehmet son of Mehmet, Ahmet son of Ibrahim, for Turkish surnames were only later introduced. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, aged 22. Private N. E. Gabbett, 23rd Australian Infantry, 5 November 1915, Lest We Forget. The most moving monument contains Atatürk’s words from 1934:
“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 lay side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away 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.”