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Category: Gallipoli

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Johnny Turk

A re-enactment group display some Turkish uniforms that are as worn in 1915

Johnny Turk

By Lesleyanne Hawthorne, ATFS publications, Melbourne 1986, P.O.Box 144, Mulgrave Nth, Victoria 3170, Australia

Lesleyanne Hawthorne was born in Melbourne and educated at Monash University. She travelled widely in the United States, Europe and South East Asia. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to papers such as the Age and the National Times on a variety of topics. She is the author of 'Refugee: The Vietnamese Experience', Oxford University Press, 1982.


I would like to begin by quoting from a letter that was left in the winter of 1915, in the abandoned Gallipoli headquarters of the Australian Third Lighthorse Brigade. It was addressed to the Turkish force commander, who would find it and read it soon after the evacuation.

"The Brigadier presents his compliments to our worthy TURKISH opponents and offers those who first honour his quarters with their presence such poor hospitality as is in his power to give, regretting that he is unable personally to welcome them.

After a sojourn of 7 months in Gallipoli we propose to take some little relaxation...and in bidding 'Au revoir' to our honourable foes we Australians desire to express appreciation of the fine soldierly qualities of our Turkish opponents and of the sportsmanlike manner in which they have participated in a very interesting contest, honourable, we trust , to both sides.

For a little while we have been with you, yet a little while and you shall see us not. For us it is a matter of deep regret that the ancient friendship so long existing between the British and Turkish Empires should have been thus disturbed by the insidious machinations of the Arch-enemy of humanity.

We have left this area and trenches in which we have taken considerable trouble and pride, clean and in good order, and would be grateful if they may be so maintained until our return, particular care being asked in regard to matters of sanitation, so vital to the well being of an army.

We hope that you will find the wine, coffee, tobacco, cigarettes and food to your taste, and a supply of fuel has been left in the cupboard to ameliorate in some measure the discomfort during the cold watches of the winter

Our only request is that no member of the nation who was guilty of the inhuman murder of that noble woman Miss Edith Clavell to whose photo this message is attached, will be permitted to pollute with his presence the quarters of soldiers who have never descended to such barbarous and ruthless methods". 

Editor: Germans executed the British nurse Edith Clavell in 1915. I do not pretend to be an historian, and I do not know a great deal about Gallipoli. But I grew up surrounded by the artefacts of war because the men in my family had a facility for dying in them. In the Second World War my mother's three brothers went off to fight Japan. Two of them died. There was a strong hatred of the Japanese in my family (which has passed now) and that detestation extended to the Germans.

A generation earlier I had close family members who fought in the First World War; however I was aware from early childhood that clear distinctions were made between enemies, which not even the passage of time could account for. My grandparents' brothers fought the Turks. My grandmother's brother was killed at Gallipoli, while my grandfather's brother survived it, going on later to fight through the whole Middle-Eastern campaign. One of the favourite toys of my childhood was a three-metre intricately beaded snake, made by a Turkish prisoner-of-war for that soldier. 

The craftsman wove into it 'TURKISH PRISONER 67L', and then the name of my great uncle. Originally, before it got broken, there was a little lizard trapped in the mouth of the snake. Perhaps for the Turk it was a wry joke on his captivity. There were also other mementoes - faded sepia postcards, and letters which I remember reading before they were finally lost. I grew up because of these things with a strong awareness of the Turks, but with no hatred whatsoever. Since childhood I have had an intense interest in that First World War, and in consequence have done much casual reading on it.

The Turkish Background to War

In 1914, Turkey lay at the centre of the once great Ottoman Empire, which centuries of decline before the First World War had seen stereotyped as the 'sick man of Europe'. This empire in fact embraced multiple ethnic groups, living in areas which they were gradually refining into distinct states as a result of a rising nationalism, and the active encouragement of European colonial powers.

The development of Turkish nationalism from the start of the twentieth century had been a part of this process. When a pre-war political alliance was formed with Germany, it was because the pro-German faction in Cabinet, a number of whom had received German military training, had come to predominate. However by no means all nationalists were in favour - among them Mustafa Kemal. Such critics believed that war could only be harmful to Turkey. If the alliance triumphed, their country would become a mere vassal state of its ally, instead of the independent country they longed for. If Germany lost, then the Turks would lose whatever political autonomy they had maintained.

Once war started, however, such thoughts became academic. The commencement of hostilities brought the ships of the greatest combined navy in the world at that time - the British and the French - to make a direct attack on Turkish shores. All Turks, whatever their political leanings, were drawn inexorably into fighting. The Gallipoli campaign which Australians see as so significant was in fact only an extension of what Turks celebrate as the main triumph of the war: their victory in driving this allied fleet from Canakkale (Dardanelles).

The straits of the Dardanelles were seen by the Turks as the key to preventing a catastrophic invasion of Anatolia. They were fighting not merely to protect their empire but to save their homeland, at the very time when increasing numbers of educated citizens were developing a strong sense of identity as belonging to an Anatolian 'motherland'.

It seems from the few sources we have available that the outbreak of war led to the recruitment of vast numbers of mainly peasant country men. Few of them had any education, since at that time little was available. Because of this, written accounts are sparse, even in the Turkish language. Ironically, the clearest picture we get of these men is thus through the words of foreigners: their German commanders, and the Anzacs who fought them as enemies in the field. Editor: This explains the relative shortage of written accounts of barbaric atrocities committed by Armenians on their Turkish neighbours. Armenians, on the other hand, were more affluent and consequently better educated... hence the abundance of exaggerated and fabricated 'material' condemning the Turkish side for alleged oppression of the sections of Armenian population.

The image is still a powerful one. They are described as frugal, fairly simple, very dignified men, who had a strong moral code, and who in fact had scarcely heard of Australia or even left their region before. Few of them embraced the new nationalism, for such ideas were spread by education. One of the most poignant things to be read is that they reportedly suffered greatly from homesickness during the campaign - an irony when you realize that they never left Turkey, but a fact since an inability to write letters meant they were virtually as cut off from their families as the Anzacs, while they fought a war in which they suffered exceedingly high casualties.

The Australian Soldiers' Background

Australia, like Turkey, sent soldiers who were mostly country men. The majority, however, had received a fundamental education. They wrote so much in fact that the historian, Patsy Adam Smith, describes their bulk of letter home as the biggest record we have of working man's voice in Australian history.

These first soldiers became known for their resourcefulness, toughness, and resilience. Like the Turks, who were commanded by the German General Liman Von Sanders, the Australians were controlled by leaders of another power (the British, through General Hamilton). At first they fought with a powerful patriotism that was still Anglo-centred. They saw themselves as primarily British - though from a newly federated country - for they had grown up in an Edwardian Australia that was steeped in the legends of British colonial military history.

The nineteenth century view passed down in literature was that war was glorious, a sport, a game! There was a heavy militarism in Australia. Boys were drilled as cadets from the age of eight. Australians going to war went consciously as sons of the empire, to share in the mother country's tradition, to prove themselves worthy to be part of it. It is ironic that by the end of the war so many of them had come in fact to despise the British, and to view themselves as fundamentally different and superior soldiers to their English counterparts.

Australian motivation in volunteering for the First World War was mixed. There were those who wanted to help the empire while proving the manhood of themselves and the their nation; others were ecstatically anticipating a Boy's Own adventure of war; still others enlisted with an abiding hatred of the German - 'the beastly Hun', or 'the Anti-Christ' of the popular imagination. Propaganda about the war flooded Australia very early, drumming up outrage, focusing luridly on supposedly committed atrocities as well as the factual ones.

In spite of the fact that this gave them a well formed idea of a German enemy, when the Australians and New Zealanders sailed to Gallipoli they had virtually no concept of the Turks as a foe. They saw them not as a people defending their country, but rather as men duped into an alliance with the Hun. They had little awareness that they were in fact invading a country.

Many writers have suggested that the Anzac myth was something created after the First World War. From my reading, I challenge that. When we scan the early letters of these men, and add to them the official histories of the time, it is clear that they were going into battle and writing home about it while shaping the myth themselves. The vision of the new country proving itself, the independent spirit of its men, the brave and reckless Anzacs existed in their own minds from first.

Perhaps there was something similar for the Turks about the whole campaign. In Gallipoli soldiers from both countries fought not just for victory, but for national definition. It was fate that led them to fight each other. Enmity was an accident of war, and did not long survive it.

The Gallipoli/Canakkale Campaign

There were four major stages of the Gallipoli campaign, each playing its part in shaping the attitudes of the Australians and the Turks.

First came the Anzac invasion, probably the largest amphibious landing in the history of the war until that time. It occurred in the wrong place for both armies. The Turks were expecting an attack but quite rightly not where the Anzacs actually landed. There were only about 500 Ottoman troops in place, and the thinly defended terrain made harsh fighting ground.

Mustafa Kemal, inspecting it as soldiers panicked around him, realized at once that control of the heights was critical in deciding who would ultimately win the battle. Accordingly he rallied his men, ordering them to stay in line and keep their distance from the enemy so they could survive while he called for reinforcements.

Once the beachhead had been stormed by the Anzacs, the fighting front at most extended 2.5 kilometres wide and 900metres inland from the sea. A siege position had been established by the tenacious fighting which followed the landing, so that the invading force was in fact trapped between the Turks and the sea. The Anzacs had nowhere to go unless they could break through. Neither side had the numbers or artillery to end the stalemate that immediately developed, even though the Turks had seized Kemal's critical higher ground. At the end of the first day's fighting, both sides counted themselves victors merely on the grounds of survival.

The next major stage of the campaign, the Turkish offensive of May 19th, was fought after the opposing troops had defined their terrain and dug in. The military stalemate had endured a month by then, and Turkish and German commanders shared a belief that the Allies were so cramped they must sooner or later take the offensive.

To seize it first, the Ottomans planned to mount a surprise attack, driving down hard to push the Anzacs back into the sea. Many reinforcements, most of them novices to battle, were brought secretly forward. They were massed thickly in trenches behind the lines where their presence was discovered by Allied air reconnaissance, which alerted the British to what was happening.

When the Turks attacked on the orders of Von Sanders, they advanced through a storm of bullets to be pointlessly massacred - precisely as the Anzacs did a few months later as part of the anticipated Allied offensive.

In the first few weeks of fighting the two armies had little individual contact. In spite of the closeness of opposing trenches, it had been easy to stereotype each other as evil, capable of committing atrocities such as firing the dreaded dumdum bullets which exploded causing horrendous wounds.

The closer contact of May 19, however brought a realization to some Allies that the Turks, as soldiers, had precisely the qualities that they most admired in themselves and other troops. Previously they had observed that the Turks did not fire on hospital ships, and sometimes withheld firing at stretcher parties. "Editor: This is in stark contrast with the savagery of murderous Serbian snipers who killed hundreds of children, women and elderly from their mountain hideouts during the 'ethnic cleansing' of Bosnia and Kosovo". Now they saw the Turkish troops in their thousands advance with great courage to death, under the orders of leaders who should have obviously pulled them out. They saw the wounds they themselves caused by close range firing, and realized these were just as monstrous as those inflicted on their own men.

The Anzac historian C.E.W.Bean wrote of this advance: "Men sat on the parapet and fired as if at a driven game... The enemy came forward to be shot until the men were almost tired of the slaughter"

He tells of Anzacs encouraging one group to surrender, when the odds were hopelessly stacked against them. The Turks scorned to, choosing to fight to the death, tossing back a proud note saying: "You think there are no true Turks left. But here are Turks, and Turks' sons!"

After that battle there was a perceptible change of opinion about the enemy in the letters written home by the Anzacs. For some it was bolstered by more intimate contact.

Within days of the battle both armies were being profoundly discomforted by the stench of the dead. Flies were breeding on the corpses, it was close to high summer, and soldiers could hear the tormenting cries of the wounded who were dying hour by hour near the trenches. The Australians wanted a truce for a burial party, and a Red Cross flag was raised. Bullets immediately shredded it - but next moment a Turkish messenger ran out waving vigorously, explaining that it was Turkish soldiers ignorant of the flag's significance who had fired upon it.

A truce was arranged for a burial on the 24th of May. I shall present a Turkish source reporting it rather than one written by the Anzacs: " In the afternoon, the place got even more crowded. That was when we met the soldiers called the Anzacs. They were sympathetic and cheerful men. When we asked 'Are you English?' they replied 'No! We're not English, We're Australians and New Zealanders.' 'Why are you fighting?' 'The English are our brothers. Our language and culture are the same.' At every opportunity they indicated that they liked the attitude and behaviour of our soldiers also.

A friendly attitude developed between the soldiers of the two hostile sides who were supposed to kill each other. They were giving the buttons they tore off their uniforms to us as a war memento, and in return they were asking for something else. Our soldiers were not allowed to give their buttons because of the military regulations of the time. They looked for other things, and in the end tokens like coins changed hands. At the same time, the soldiers were offering chocolates and sweets to each other while trying to communicate in sign language. The truce commission tried to prohibit this sort of friendship, but as soon as the commission observers left, shows of friendship continued.

I saw an Australian soldier who was trying to measure the height of our tallest soldier and our soldier was letting him to do so with a smile on his face. As time passed the area was starting to look like a festival place and those who worked in the area went as far as embracing each other.

Clearing of the dead was complete by four o'clock in the afternoon. The soldiers, when finished with their work, went back to the trenches. Finally, the truce commission observers took their soldiers from a centre line. The area, which had been very noisy al day because of all the walking, running and joking of the soldiers of the two sides, was buried in silence again.

At that moment Esat Pasha gave the order 'All batteries and infantry fire!' With the order, a violent artillery and infantry firing started against the enemy trenches and with the reply of the enemy forces the area was covered with noisy explosions and clouds of fire."

From that time, there never seems to have been the same degree of ignorance and antipathy between the two sides. Many letters home from the Anzacs indicate a more playful aspect of the war than before, alongside the serious fighting. People bored stiff in opposing trenches used to play sniping games in which someone would put up a stethoscope for the other side to fire at. Depending on who hit or missed, a score would be raised. Letters were sent over, saying, for instance, ' You ask how far it is to Istanbul. How long will you please be in getting there?'. Food rations, cigarettes, photographs and badges were tossed between men.

At the same time as boredom grew, conditions in Gallipoli became increasingly ghastly. The flies that fed on the Turkish corpses continued to breed with ferocity. In summer, the heat was much greater. Living and fighting conditions were incredibly cramped and because of lack of water supplies the Anzacs suffered terribly from dysentery. C.E.W Bean writes: "They felt themselves penned between two blank walls reaching perpetually ahead of them from which there would be no turning to escape save death or of such wounds as would render them useless for further service."

No doubt the Turkish troops suffered from almost equal discomfort.

Soon the time came when it was the Australian and New Zealanders' turn to take the offensive. Allied command knew that eventually the Turks would mount a fresh attack to try to drive the Anzacs into the sea. It was decided to anticipate them. Like the Turkish commanders, the British strategists called for thousands of reinforcements to battle. They planned to make a feint first at Lone Pine, to decoy the Turks into concentrating their artillery on one particular area.

It was a suicide mission for the chosen units, who had to draw all the firepower they could. There was superb fighting and terrible losses on both sides, in a battle that raged for three days.

The later Battle of the Nek is the one made famous by the film 'Gallipoli', in which the Anzac soldiers, like the Turks in May before them, faced a pointless martyrdom on the orders of their generals. An advance was called when the heavily defended Turks were twenty metres distant, when the allied bombardment supposed to shatter the Turkish artillery had incomprehensibly stopped six minutes too early. Four lines of troops charged down an area the length of a tennis court. Within moments half of them lay dying.

The defeat badly damaged the morale of the Anzacs. They knew they had been poorly led, and that the lives of their comrades had been wasted. The Suvla Bay attack by the British, which the key to the advance, had failed dismally. The Turks, as well, had suffered very high casualties.


It is a long time since Gallipoli, and over the past few decades we have seen in Australia an increasing nostalgia for it as a period of national challenge and proving. Yet in spite of this there has been a chance since my childhood two decades ago. Once, we unquestioningly glorified our soldiers' feats. As children we were told Gallipoli meant Anzac gallantry in a just war. Now there is some belated reappraisal - a recognition of the validity of the Turks' position, even though that doesn't negate a proud sense of the Anzacs' achievements.

The idea has been increasingly expressed that Gallipoli represents more than war. There are those who suggest that it marks a special friendship sealed in the young blood of two very different countries.

This sentiment is somewhat unique - especially once you realize that many of the moves towards redefinition of the relationship have come from the old diggers, "Editor: Digger is the colloquial name for Australian soldier" who on their own initiative and through all the barriers started corresponding with Turks. A number of them have journeyed back. Those who have done so have found Anzac graves well cared for in Turkey for decades - a situation said to be almost without precedent between the opposing forces of two sides once locked in bitter conflict. How many nations have tended their invaders' graves?

1985 marks a special time - the seventieth anniversary of the Gallipoli/Canakkale campaign. What is even more remarkable is that the Turkish Foreign Minister has just opened a memorial to Attack in the War Memorial at Canberra. The place of the original landing in Turkey has been re-named Anzac Cove, in a ceremony attended by all foreign ambassadors. In Albany, Western Australia - a state that gave many of its fine young men to the campaign, and where my own family came from - the Turkish Consul General has named a promontory for Ataturk.

I would like to conclude with a statement which appears on many of these war memorials, and one which I believe is very beautiful. It is a message sent by Ataturk in 1934 to be passed on to those people whose sons had fallen in Gallipoli two decades before. He said:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now 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 lie side by side 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 at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

After some conflicts, hatred stays with the nations for generations. But it was not so with Gallipoli. It has never been so for the Turkish and Australian peoples.

  • "Editor: Between April 25 and December 20, 1915, in an area of 20 kilometres by 8, the following numbers of troops were killed: 

    • 86,692 Turkish 

    • 8,709 Australian 

    • 2,701 New Zealanders 

    • 27,000 British and Indian"

    • 10,000 French

"Editor: While Turkish armies were fighting with British, Anzacs and the French at Gallipoli, they were also fighting the Russians in the Eastern front and British-Arab alliance in the south. At a time when there were no young men left in Anatolian villages, Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire collaborated with the Russian invaders.. pillaging and murdering women and children in villages which were left defenceless after all men were conscripted to fight the enemies who were in a feeding frenzy - trying to devour what was left of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

Armenians in border regions were thus deported to southern provinces and many perished during the arduous exodus. Generations of Armenian militants later resorted to vicious terror tactics murdering numerous Turkish diplomats as revenge killings for an alleged genocide during the war years.


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