Mark Barnes continues his adventures in Turkey beginning with a look at the remains of a French artillery position just inland from Cape Helles.
A short distance from the Helles memorial is a lesser known jewel of the region, a French gun battery consisting of four large calibre breech loading canons built by Desbois et Roussechausse of Nantes between 1884 and 1886. This is a marine counter-battery set up which put fire down on the Turkish positions across the sea on the Asiatic shore. The Turks were hardly going to waste the opportunity to use their positions across the Narrows to disrupt the Anglo-French build up on the peninsular and intermittent fire from there was a continual hazard.
It might seem odd that the French would consider thirty-year-old guns suitable for the campaign given the rapid improvement to artillery coming out of the experience on the Western Front. We must be assume that the powers that be fell into the trap of believing they wouldn’t need anything modern to face unsophisticated Turks but the lessons of the 18th of March should have taught the Allies something. Turkish gunnery was always proficient and they were bolstered by support from German and Austrian gunners who certainly knew their business.
Just getting these guns into place must have taken a superhuman effort. In the naval museum at Cannakale they have two huge Saint-Chamond gun tractors of a similar age to the guns at Helles and seeing them highlights the difficulty moving large calibre guns around such an inhospitable battlefield. There was no room for steam tractor power so all these guns would have to be moved by flesh and blood, either on four legs or two – but more likely a hot and ill-tempered combination of both. The temperature during my September visit was in the low to mid thirties Celsius every day. In the late spring and high summer you can easily add ten degrees to this. So you can imagine what a trial the place was for all the protagonists.
As for the guns today, heavy foliage hides the turntables and the greater extent of the gun pits from view but there is no doubt what we could see is extremely photogenic. Some of my fellow pilgrims were happy to climb on the guns, which are deceptively higher than they appear in photographs. I don’t do heights too well and was content to keep my feet on terra firma. The peninsular seems to be full of guns like this and we pleased to see others on our travels.
Getting to the gun pits was easy enough. We walked across a couple of fields of sunflowers and followed a track for a short distance until the guns came into view. On our way we began to notice human bones on the ground and they were the first of an ever-present sprinkling we found in just about all the locations we visited. It transpires that the remains of thousands of men of all nationalities are out on the battlefield to this day. After the war the Imperial War Graves Commission put in a huge effort to find and give a decent burial to a great many Commonwealth soldiers who had not been brought in. But a large number were never traced and combined with the thousands of Turkish soldiers who were more or less left where they died this means that a huge number of men remain missing to this day.
Finding bones is a weird experience and I cannot truly find the right words to explain how this feels – I suppose a mixture of awe and revulsion comes close. I don’t want to trivialise it in the same breath when I also say we also found a good number of bullets, cartridge cases and shrapnel balls on the battlefield. One of our party found a British uniform button and in all my years on the trail I have never seen anything like that – but bones are another proposition altogether. I digress…
Having landed at ‘V’ Beach with such a great loss of life it might not surprise you given the nature of the overall plan that the British then gave much of this sector over to the French who took up the poisoned chalice and were destined to do much of the hardest fighting and dying in Gallipoli before slipping away before the campaign ended. Even today the story of the French campaign is little known or appreciated even in France and this is most unfortunate because there is every reason to be proud of what the French did here. A visit to the beautiful cemetery at Morto Bay emphasises the point better than any way I can think of.
The cemetery is a large centralised site for all the French dead and the huge white memorial can be seen for some distance even with the modern day tree coverage on the battlefield. There is something a little Art Deco about the design that is really attractive as it contrasts against the deep blue sky and the green of the pine trees that cover much of the battlefield. Two ossuaries at the base of the memorial each contain the remains of three thousand unknown soldiers.
A completely different form of architecture can be found at the Turkish Martyr’s monument on Eski Hisarlik Point. This imposing structure was unveiled in 1960. Quite correctly the tallest on the battlefield, the monument is over forty metres high and can be seen for miles. There are other things to look at on the site including a statue of Mustafa Kemal, the great hero of the campaign who would lead the new Turkish republic after the war under the name Kemal Ataturk. There is also a large frieze of him and a variety of Turkish military figures on a huge wall. This is a very impressive monument and a fine piece of art in it’s own right. Further to this, there is a superb statue of Kemal directing the battle flanked by two subordinates. It echoes a popular photograph of this scene. Mustafa Kemal features all over the battlefield where he exercised a tactical awareness and the willingness to get things done which quite rightly make him stand out as hero in his country leaving aside the huge role he took on post war. You might make some comparisons with Eisenhower but Kemal had a dynamism way beyond Ike. As with our friend Corporal Seyit, the great man is also a fridge magnet, which I record not to trivialise him but to underline his status. I was at school with a number of Turkish Cypriot lads in the seventies and they all chose to do projects on Kemal for our history classes such was his standing in their world. It is not difficult to see why.
A recent addition to the memorial is a concentration of representative graves of Turkish soldiers. They take the form of panes of glass carrying the names of thousands of men seen as martyrs in their country. In recent years the Turkish authorities have been spending more and more money on battlefield monuments and infrastructure with one eye on tourist money and the other fixed on legacy. They had seen that in allowing former enemies to build memorials on Turkish soil a balance was needed to highlight what the Dardanelles meant to Turkey and they needed to make it crystal clear they had won. Fair point! Time to move on…
Our tour will continue with a first look at the Australian landings at Anzac where the unforgiving terrain illustrates better than anything the folly of the campaign.
Words and images by Mark Barnes for War History Online. All material copyright: Mark Barnes 2014 unless stated. All Rights Reserved.