“In the soil of a friendly country”: an archaeologist’s visit to Gallipoli

This blog may lean more heavily on the personal than the archaeological.

Every year, thousands of Kiwis and Aussies commemorate ANZAC Day. We take this time to reflect on the losses of war, and the terrible costs it has had for this country, as well as remember those who have fought and lost their lives in service. Thousands make the trip to Gallipoli itself, and in 2015, my friend Jack and I were among those that went to visit the place that figured so heavily in our nation’s consciousness, and our military history. Avoiding the crowds, we arrived shortly after Armistice Day.

Looking south towards ANZAC Cove. Image: Jack Auty.

For an archaeologist, it can be just as important to understand the landscape, the environmental context, as the site itself. For any who haven’t been, the Gallipoli Peninsula is a rugged landscape, characterised by steep cliffs and hill faces, and narrow ridges, now covered in regrowth of bush. Faced with these sheer faces it struck me just how difficult the fighting would have been, how every step was a struggle.

The Sphinx, one of the landforms overlooking ANZAC cove.

One of the things that only struck me once I was there, was how close everything was. The places burned into our collective memory – ANZAC cove, The Nek, Quinns Post, Hill 971, Wire Gully, Lone Pine, and Chunuk Bair – are all within a few scant kilometres of each other. The fighting took place on a few narrow ridgelines, in places barely 20 m across before plunging down steep faces. Men fought and died here over a few metres of ground.

Monuments have been built to commemorate the old battlefields, roads built to conduct the visitors between them, and the bush has reclaimed much of the peninsula, but the archaeological remnants of the fight are still present, if buried. Between 2009 and 2014, historians and archaeologists from Turkey, New Zealand, and Australia worked together to record and identify remnant evidence of the 1915 battlefields, under the Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey (JHAS). The survey was designed to only record surface evidence, and was carried out in response to allegations that the construction of the road providing access to Anzac Cove had uncovered and disturbed archaeological material, including human remains.

Among the recorded features were thousands of kilometres of trenches and tunnels. In places these remain in remarkably good condition, their zig-zags and dog-legs designed to confuse enemies and prevent easy capture of an entire section. Posts and barbed wire also remain standing, showing further steps taken to control the battlefield. Near Lone Pine the ANZAC and Turkish trenches stood in stark opposition either side of a narrow road, far too close for comfort. On the ANZAC side the trenches were clear, while the Turkish trenches were barely visible under the encroaching scrub.

The best preserved sections of the ANZAC trenches, near Lone Pine.

Trenches, complete with remnant posts and lengths of barbed wire.

Remnant Turkish trenches, largely covered in scrub.

During the JHAS, approximately 16.5 km of trenches were recorded over a 4.2 square kilometre area. These included forward trenches with their characteristic zig-zag, support trenches to usher supplies to the front line, and reserve trenches that acted as depots for soldiers and emergency supplies. In addition to the trenches were dugouts, and at least 82 tunnel openings, hinting at an as-yet-unrecorded tunnel system (Sagona 2015).

A tunnel entrance within the ANZAC trench system.

Even during our short visit, the earth and ocean was offering up its secrets, visible to any who took the time to notice. I saw shell casings and scraps of metal that had taken on the dusty hue of the surrounding clay, and artefact fragments washed up on the landing beaches. These I left in place, but those surface finds collected during the JHAS have been conserved and are now stored in the Naval Museum in Çanakkale. We know from the soldiers’ accounts that the ANZAC forces largely ate pre-packaged food such as tins of corned beef and jam, and that the Ottoman forces were fed cooked food from mobile kitchens. The JHAS recorded one of these Turkish ovens, and the distribution of food-related artefacts (mostly tin-plated steel cans) gave an indication of where the ANZACs ate. The majority were found within dugouts or support trenches, but the survey of Silt Spur showed that in that location, food refuse was found scattered with evidence of heavy conflict: shrapnel, bullet fragments, tunnel entrances and barbed wire. Here it seems the soldiers took their meals when they could under heavy fire, without being able to draw back to the relative comfort of support trenches (Sagona 2015).

Fragment of a stoneware jar or flagon that likely supplied the troops. This could have held alcohol, other beverages, foodstuffs or bulk pharmaceutical supplies.

In addition to the artefacts, the remains of the soldiers that fought and died at Gallipoli occasionally come to the surface. Many soldiers – Kiwis, Aussies, and Turkish, among others – were not able to be given proper burial, and their locations are not known. While I was walking at the Chunuk Bair Memorial for the New Zealand soldiers, I spotted something alongside one of the commemorative plaques for a New Zealand soldier. There, in the turned over soil of the garden among the names of the soldiers, was a bone. White and weathered, it was a metacarpal or metatarsal, a bone from a human hand or foot. I can’t say who the bone belonged to, whether they were young or old, or which side of the conflict they were on. One hundred years on from the terrible losses of the Gallipoli campaign, there was little to distinguish this unidentified soldier from any other.

Archaeology isn’t just an academic, dissociated exploration of the past. The remains of the past are indelibly tied to the people of today, and Gallipoli – like Wairau Bar, like Ship Cove, like Gate Pā – has value and meaning for all New Zealanders. These places, and their archaeology, need conservation, if we are to maintain the connection to them and the meaning and lessons they provide.

“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 lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway 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.”

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1934

 

Tristan Wadsworth

References

DVA and BOSTES NSW. 2016. A landscape of war uncovered [online]. Available at: http://www.gallipoli.gov.au/landscape-of-war-uncovered/. Accessed 16 April 2017.

Cameron, D. and Donlon, D. 2005. ‘A Preliminary Archaeological Survey of the ANZAC Gallipoli Battlefields of 1915’ in Australasian Historical Archaeology, vol. 23, pp. 131-138.

Patel, S. 2013. Anzac’s Next Chapter: Archaeologists conduct the first-ever survey of the legendary WWI battlefield at Gallipoli [online]. Available at: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/92-1305/letter-from/765-anzac-gallipoli-wwi-battlefield-allied-german-ottoman/.

Sagona, A. 2015. ‘An Archaeology of the ANZAC Battlefield’ in Humanities Australia, vol. 6, pp. 34-46.

One thought on ““In the soil of a friendly country”: an archaeologist’s visit to Gallipoli

  1. Tristan thankyou so much for sharing your most insightful reflections of your time at Gallipoli.
    And thankyou for tying this in with our NZ/Australian ‘local’ heritage (Vis. Gate Pa. I was in Tauranga for 20 years, but returned home to Oz in 2008)

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