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Letter from Turkey

Anzac's Next Chapter

Archaeologists conduct the first-ever survey of the legendary WWI battlefield at Gallipoli

Monday, April 08, 2013

turkey-gallipoli-anzac-battlefield

 

There are a few things you can’t understand about the World War I battlefield at Gallipoli until you stand on it. One is just how compact it is. The coast of the Aegean, where Allied forces from Australia and New Zealand landed on April 25, 1915, is less than a mile from the front lines. From a few places, it is possible to see almost the entire battlefield, where Ottomans fighting for the Central Powers held off the Allied attack for eight grueling months. No-man’s-land, the strip of scarred earth between the opposing armies’ trenches, was as little as 30 feet wide in some places—close enough to hurl a stone at your enemy, smell his food cooking, or overhear a casual conversation. The battle was condensed and, during the prolonged stalemate, grew familiar, even intimate. It also took place in three dimensions. At Quinn’s Post, where no-man’s-land was at its narrowest, both sides clung to either edge of a single ridge, with steep drops behind them. It is deceptive, difficult terrain to read under the best of conditions; in the fog of war, with machine-gun fire, snipers, and a constant rain of shrapnel, it must have been utterly confounding.

 

Today, Second Ridge Road runs through this no-man’s-land, linking dozens of monuments and graveyards. Traces of many of the battle’s trenches, dugouts, and tunnels still lie deep in the thick roadside brush. For the past several years, an international team of archaeologists has clawed through this vegetation and scrambled up and down these slopes looking for patterns in the surviving earthworks, for fragments that have survived a century of scrap- and souvenir-collecting, and for a sense of what life in the trenches was like for tens of thousands of young men. This section of the battlefield is commonly referred to among Westerners as Anzac (Arıburnu in Turkish), so named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers (ANZACs) who fought here. Though the battle is of critical historical importance to three modern nations—Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand, all represented in the survey effort—it has never before been investigated with modern archaeological methods and techniques. “The actual site is something that is out there,” says Antonio Sagona, the project’s field director, of the University of Melbourne. “But it is not really understood.”

 

A quarter mile up the road from Quinn’s Post is The Nek, where another cemetery occupies no-man’s-land. Ian McGibbon, a historian from New Zealand and member of the field team, begins picking his way through the thicket of rhododendron beyond the cemetery and into the Allied trenches that sprawl across a small plateau called Russell’s Top. McGibbon hops down into a depression that marks one of the ANZAC trenches. “All these trenches are going to go in 50 years,” he says. They have slumped in, but, at least for now, roots preserve the shapes and patterns of the ANZAC redoubt. The trenches were once eight feet deep, but the protection they provided from falling shells, shrapnel, and snipers on higher ground was, at times, limited. “Nowhere on Anzac were you safe,” says McGibbon. “You can’t understand it until you stand here.”

 

The trench winds—Allied trenches were made to zigzag, to lessen the impact of shrapnel—into a more open depression, a dugout that served as a command center or waiting area. The trench that picks up on the other side once stopped just short of a cliff to the north, but the end has eroded, so it simply runs out into space, providing a dizzying view of the plains and salt lake to the north. The preservation of these remains is astounding, given the fate of most WWI battlefields, long since converted to farmland. Here, topography has preserved the battle in state. “It is the best-preserved World War I battlefield, and one of the best-preserved battlefields in the world, period,” says Sagona.