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Middle East Brian Dispatch

A Cold Day In the Trenches - Brian Visits Gallipoli
March 1, 2000

Wind tugs my jacket and licks at my neck. This sure is a cold day to take a walking tour. My friend Ernie and I crunch through the gravel path as Mahmut, our "tiny guide" as he calls himself, walks ahead of us. "Look at this," Ernie says, his hand sweeping across the horizon. "This is so beautiful. I can't begin to describe how good this makes me feel."

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I follow his gaze and forget the cold for a moment as my eyes behold the emerald surf and rugged hills that unfold below us. I sure wish I could make like a fish and swim, but it is a tad bit nippy. We are standing over the Dardanelles, a strait of water in northwest Turkey that has been quite important over the centuries. No, the Dardanelles is not a band from the 1950's; this stretch of water is named for the ancient town of Dardanus, which once dotted the Asian shore. The lazy sunlight and beckoning surf are only part of the allure of this land; at times in history the Dardanelles have been coveted more for their strategic importance than for their beachfront beauty. Today's tour is a grim reminder of that reality as we visit the battlefields of Gallipoli, where many men fought and died during the First World War.

The history of conquest and conflict here actually stretches back much further in time, and for good reason. Less than a mile wide at its narrowest point, this slender stretch of water feeds directly into the Sea of Marmara, which feeds the Bosphorus, which leads right past Istanbul to the Black Sea and the shores of Russia. Any army that could capture the Dardanelles would control the water trade routes from Russia and have a great chance of conquering Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern world.

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In 1451 Mehmet the Conqueror carried out this plan to perfection in his attack on Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire controlled the Dardanelles by 1402, which provided the perfect base for marauding armies. The Ottomans had already conquered the Balkans, and when Mehmet II came to power he set his sights on Constantinople, which was the capital of the Christian world.

And, as you might guess, he wasn't called "the Conqueror" without good reason......After reinforcing his position on the Dardanelles, Mehmet fortified his troops and sailed through the Sea of Marmara to attack. As far as conquerors go, he was quite a stud. (Read my sidebar about him in my Sultanahmet article). Constantinople fell in 1453 after brutal and daring battles, and Mehmet named the conquered city Istanbul. So what is known to Westerners as the "Fall of Constantinople" is also known to Muslims as the "Conquest of Istanbul."


marauding - engaged in raiding; roving about and ravaging an area
fortified - strengthened for attack
bayonets - a daggerlike steel weapon that is attached to a gun and used for stabbing or slashing in combat

Not a bad plan, eh? The Allied powers had similar notions when they decided to invade the shores of Gallipoli in World War I. Gallipoli is a town near the mouth of the Dardanelles, which, if captured, would provide a foothold in securing the entire strait. The Allies planned to repeat the march of Mehmet the Conqueror-through the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, where they would capture Istanbul and remove the Ottoman Empire from the war. It seemed easy enough; after all, Mehmet had waltzed right in and done the deed five hundred years ago. Just follow directions, guys, and things will work out just fine. But things did not turn out as they planned......

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The British had expected to take the Dardanelles by a naval assault and then move inland from their secured position. It was generally thought at that time that the British Navy was a lean, mean, fighting machine that could not be stopped. But the Turkish Army had other ideas. The British attacked on March 18th and their day ended with three destroyed battleships and three more that were badly damaged. They had underestimated their foes. After nursing their wounds and their pride, 1500 Allied soldiers stormed the beach on April 25th, 1915, again in an attempt to claim Gallipoli for their own.

The beauty of the landscape draws me in, and it is hard to imagine the thousands of men that died right here on these hills in the following months. But there are reminders everywhere I look, and I know that war is never a beautiful thing. This area is called Anzac cove, which sounds pleasant enough. But even the name itself is a reminder-it stands for the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps that landed here. Of those that fought here, one in five never returned. Cemeteries and memorials dot the landscape.

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The First World War was not a war fought with scud missiles and long-range precision weapons. No, this was a very low-tech affair. These soldiers used bombs made of tin cans (known as jam tin bombs) that they hurled by hand at their enemies. If soldiers exhausted their ammunition, bayonets were fixed to the end of their rifles for hand to hand combat. This was brutal warfare at close quarters. Opposing trenches were sometimes only separated by hundreds of yards. Raise your head out of the trench and you might lose it. . Deep trenches dug by troops still line the crest of the hill above the coastline.

From my perspective here in a trench, I can get a slight idea of what war must have been like. Cramped. Muddy. Exposed. Dirty. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Many soldiers that trimmed the legs of their pants in the brutal summer heat later suffered from exposure to the bitter winter cold; some froze to death.

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Allied forces fought Turkish troops for nine long months here and finally withdrew in defeat in December. The Allies would eventually win the War, but the fight for the Dardanelles had been lost. Somewhere out there, the spirit of Mehmet the Conqueror enjoyed a good laugh as Istanbul remained secure. As our tour bus winds home along a narrow country road, Ernie and I marvel at the passing view and slowly thaw ourselves out again. We aren't conquering studs or grizzled veterans; we are shivering tourists who are glad to be back in the bus. The spirit of Mehmet is probably laughing at us too, along with our guide Mahmut. The water of the Dardanelles winks at me one last time as we crest the hill, inviting me to return for a swim in warmer weather.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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