It’s hard to believe that a military campaign resulting in such catastrophic loss of life as Gallipoli could come to be known colloquially as the “Last Gentlemen’s War”. Yet, for Turks and Australians, acts of respect and even care on the battlefield have come to symbolise the regard between the two nations today.
On 24 May 1915 – almost a month after Anzac forces landed on the beachhead – a temporary ceasefire was declared to enable both sides to bury the thousands of dead and recover their injured. Anzac and Ottoman troops worked together from 7.30 a.m., until the fighting resumed nine hours later.
But the ceasefire wasn’t the only gesture of almost surreal civility amid the carnage, as Turkish and Allied forces dug into trenches that were sometimes only metres apart.
“Australians left home with an image of the Turks as barbaric animals, because we were fighting with the Kaiser,” says Mehmet Evin, president of the Turkish chapter of the RSL.
“But once they actually got to Gallipoli they realised, hang on, Johnny Turk’s not too bad after all! They would exchange gifts over the trenches – Australian Johnny would throw over a packet of cigarettes; Johnny Turk would throw over fruit or whatever. There was this great respect that grew out of this terrible conflict.”
The campaign was a defining event in the history of both nations. For the defeated but valiant Australians, it represented an enormous sacrifice for a country federated only 15 years earlier. The Turks suffered terrible casualties, and lost the war, but ultimately it became a step along the road to their own independence in 1923.
Evin suggests that Turkish losses at Gallipoli – the official figure is around 85,000 dead – have been historically underestimated. “We have a saying in Turkish, no households were immune from having somebody serve in Gallipoli. That’s how desperate the Ottomans and the Turks were … You had men as young as 14, 15-year-olds who died defending their land.”
Hence the generosity of the words attributed to military commander and first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: “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 Johnnys and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side.”
“To turn around and write those beautiful words for the Anzacs and their mothers, it just sums up that yes, we fought, but we’re friends now, and that’s why thousands of Australians are able to visit Gallipoli freely today, and why there’s this great bond between the two communities,” Evin says.
The bond between the two nations also symbolises Australia’s post-war history of migration. “No one can take away that Gallipoli is a milestone event in Australian history, and for New Zealanders as well,” Evin says. “We share the hurt and mourning, but what we also take away from it, as Australian Turks, is that these men laid down the foundation for a great nation for us to migrate to.
“As an Australian Turk, I’m very appreciative of these men and their sacrifices for their country. I’m not just honouring the Turks; I’m honouring Australians who are the forefathers of this nation as well, and we will never forget them – lest we forget.”
On Remembrance Day, the Cumberland RSL sub-branch held services at Strathfield and Auburn, with Evin laying a wreath on behalf of the Turkish community. The ceremony was attended by the Turkish Consul-General, Melih Karalar, with music provided by the Bankstown brass band.
Sub-branch President Greg Read SC says he reached out to the 49-year-old Evin around the time of the amalgamation between the Auburn and Strathfield chapters two years ago, which created Cumberland, recognising his vigour and enthusiasm.
“Mehmet’s young and active, and he’s the one who really gets the Turkish chapter organised,” Read (who was awarded the Star of Courage for his role in the Strathfield massacre in 1991) says. “I had an informal talk to him about ensuring that the Turkish commemorations are part of our program also.”
For Evin, the occasion is a celebration as well as a time of deep reflection. “To be able to be invited to these events shows how far we’ve gone to build this relationship, and that’s how we embrace thousands of Australians each year at Gallipoli as well. I think there’s a real underlying message there.”
Evin adds that a special seed was planted at Auburn on Remembrance Day. “We actually planted a Lone Pine tree, cultivated in Australia from the original tree in Gallipoli, to commemorate the 100 years. So if you go to Auburn Memorial Park there is now a seedling from the original Lone Pine tree.” It lies in the soil of a friendly country.
First published in Reveille, Vol. 94, #1 January 2019