CANAKKALE/GALLIPOLI PENINSULA, Turkey — The sound echoes across the crowded stadium as the Janissary band beat their drums, dressed in boldly coloured Ottoman-style costumes.
“This is the last army of Islam,” the military band sings, performing a nationalist song written in 1922 as Turkey was in the midst of its war for independence against European occupation. The Turks would prove victorious the following year, and the modern Turkish state would be founded that following year, rising out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
The last great victory of the Ottoman Empire was won here at Canakkale, on March 18, 1915, in what the English-speaking world knows better as the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. Australians and New Zealanders pay respects to their dead each year on April 25 – Australia lost 8,141 men, and New Zealand lost 2,779.
Turks call the months of fighting on the peninsula the Battles of Canakkale, and their victory against the foreign invaders is the source of national pride. Yet, it also symbolises the enormous loss of human life. Some 250,000 troops, who came from across the Ottoman Empire, died or were injured defending the Gallipoli Peninsula. Each year, Turks mark the anniversary of their victory against invading British-led and French-led forces in a ceremony that many view with more emotion than Turkish Republic Day on October 29, in terms of the sense of national loss it involves.
Canakkale is the opening to the Dardanelles Strait, and if the Allies had succeeded in capturing the Gallipoli Peninsula, it would have likely allowed them to push straight through to capture Istanbul, the then capital of the Ottoman Empire, not to mention through to the Black Sea to provide the Russians with desperately needed supplies.
For the Ottomans, it was a fight for their very survival.
“When the [WWI Allies] attacked the Dardanelles Strait, Istanbul went into a state of panic,” says Ahmet Uslu, a Turkish historian who has studied Canakkale for decades, and has a museum dedicated to the WWI battles. “So they sent all their available forces to the Dardanelles Strait, to defend it.”
Not only were the Allies striking the heart of their empire, but they were also attacking the seat of the caliphate, which allowed the Ottomans to retain religious and political influence beyond their diminishing physical borders, across the Muslim world. Indeed, when Turkey gave up its claim to the caliphate, immediately upon independence, it opened the way for Western colonisation and military intervention across the rest of the Middle East, which continues up until today.
More than a century later, the legacy of Canakkale continues to loom large over the national consciousness. The March 18 memorial ceremonies also show the complexity and contradictions of the modern Turkish state.
“We are here to remember our martyrs,” says one of the senior officers in the Mehter, as the elite Janissary band is known, wearing a hancher, a curved Ottoman-style dagger, tucked into his belt.
The Janissary forces were historically elite Christians recruited from the Balkans, and the Janissary band was first established in the thirteenth century. It was disbanded in 1826, along with the rest of the powerful force, after the Janissaries revolted. The Ottomans created a new Janissary band in 1911, in a bid to improve the troops’ morale as the empire was losing its influence and territory, this time composed of Turkish nationals.
“Now everybody is Turkish,” the officer says, a smile beaming from beneath his exceptionally well-groomed moustache, when asked about today’s Mehter.
During the Battles of Canakkale, the Mehter played Ottoman battle songs to help inspire the troops. Many of the songs date back to Ottoman battles, centuries earlier, against the Crusaders.
Today’s Mehter are officially part of the Turkish armed forces. They sing several Crusade-era war songs in the football stadium. “We are fighting for Allah, and the Quran promised that we would win,” they chant.
But the context is very much a contemporary one. After a closing prayer from the Mehter, the political speeches begin.
The government chose Saturday, to officially launch a project to build a $2.8 billion bridge that will cross the Dardanelles Strait.
“Are you ready to celebrate our victory in 1915? Are you ready to celebrate the opening of the bridge?” the announcer asks, referring to the groundbreaking ceremony for the 1915 Canakkale Bridge, due for completion in 2023.
Similarly, over a building housing a multimedia exhibition in the harbour of the town of Canakkale titled “The Sons of Canakkale,” hangs a giant blue poster about the bridge project. “The 1915 Canakkale Bridge: The foundation of a stronger Turkey is being laid in Canakkale.”
Even on a day like this, political tensions were present. This is the first March 18 anniversary to be marked since last year’s attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the military attendance at the stadium part of the ceremonies is diminished compared to what it has traditionally been.
When the mayor of Çanakkale, Ulgur Gokhan, takes the stage, sections of the crowd erupt into boos. Gokhan is from the opposition CHP, Turkey’s main social democratic party, and those booing are supporters of the conservative AK Party (Justice and Development Party). Other pockets of the crowd, however, clap and cheer.
“I salute everyone who wants to participate in this event,” the mayor says. “We don’t separate or discriminate against people, if we do that, we’ll have hell.”
When he condemns those who carried out the July 15, 2016 attempted coup, however, the boos cease.
When the head of the Canakkale armed forces begins his speech, the dissenting chants grow even louder. “Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” sections of the crowd chants, in a show of support for the president, who is watching the ceremony.
When Erdogan takes the stage, he links the 1915 battles fought here to more recent events in Turkish politics, particularly to those who criticise Turkey’s expanding international influence:
“There has always been such a group of people in our country. A century ago, as our brave soldiers were making life difficult for the enemy in the Canakkale hills and waters, some people said ‘Why is this war necessary?’ If they had the opportunity, they would have turned over the key to Istanbul and the country to the enemy with their own hands; their reason had failed them to that extent.”
“Then parents would send off their boys to Canakkale saying ‘be a martyr, or a veteran.’ Now they send them to fight against terrorist organisations to Syria,” he continues, referring to Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s ongoing cross-border operation.
There is a more significant presence of the top military brass during the final ceremony of the day at the Sehitler Abidesi monument, in the Gallipoli Peninsula Historical National Park.
The band playing here – on the tip of the peninsula that overlooks the sea where the Ottomans won their last great naval battle – is a Western-style military brass band. Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar and the governor each take turns laying wreaths in front of a looming statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, celebrated for both his crucial role in the war and for founding the modern Turkish Republic. The soldiers solemnly goose-step as they carry the wreaths, reflecting the historic Prussian influence on the Turkish army.
Later in the day, we encounter a busload of families of those who were killed by Turkish coup plotters on the night of July 15. Esma Kilicaslan Yilmaz is a 25-year-old widow, and her 15-month-old daughter is on the seat next to her. Her husband Ibrahim Yilmaz took to the streets, like thousands of other Turks, after the president called on citizens to stand up to those who were attempting the coup. The young imam was shot dead by a soldier during one of the biggest protests that night, in the neighbourhood of Sarachane, in Istanbul.
Yilmaz sees clear parallels between her husband’s act, and those of the generation who went to Canakkale to defend the Ottoman Empire.
She wasn’t sure if she would come here today, but says she is glad to have the chance to connect with other families who have lost someone as well as the sense of being part of a larger history.
“Life is brutal, there are a lot of brutal people,” she told TRT World. “When you come here, you feel like you’re part of something. You realise there is more than your own suffering, and it makes it bearable.”
And she says her husband’s decision to “die as a martyr” was inspired by 1915. He had even come here a few months before his death, and had his photo taken next to the monuments of Ottoman soldiers. And she is proud that he is now buried in Edirnekapi Martyr's Cemetery, a centuries-old graveyard reserved for soldiers who fell in the greatest battles of the Ottoman Empire.
Ahmet Uslu, the historian, shows TRT World several objects from his extensive collection of WWI artefacts, which bear witness to the history of sacrifice so many Turks, Arabs and Eastern Europeans gave to defend the Ottoman Empire in its final great battle.
He shows us a ring engraved with the text “Mudafaa-i Milli,” meaning National Defence. On the reverse side of the ring, it reads “Jihadiye 1334” (which loosely translates as “Ring of war 1915”).
“This is one of the most precious items I have in my collection,” Uslu says. The rings were originally made from old British rifles as a token of appreciation to the many young women who volunteered to nurse wounded Ottoman soldiers. Later, they were sold for a few cents to raise money for the tens of thousands of veterans returning from the fighting.
Then he shows us a white silk handkerchief. It is embroidered with “Ahmet 1915” in one corner. Ahmet was one of the thousands of young men who responded to the calls of “To Canakkale!” that were sent out across the Muslim world. The 17-year-old travelled from Manastir, a city in Macedonia — a former Ottoman province that had been lost to the Greeks and the Serbs two years earlier; yet he still managed to make the journey to Canakkale.
Ahmet was engaged to a 16-year-old girl called Feride; she wanted to send him the handkerchief, entrusting its delivery to her cousin who was leaving after him. Three corners were left blank, to be embroidered with the date of his eventual return; the date of their wedding; and the names of their future children. Ahmet died on the front, however, without ever receiving the gift, and so her cousin brought it back to Feride. After giving the handkerchief to Ahmet’s mother, Feride committed suicide three days later.
The historian encountered Ahmet’s sister’s daughter while speaking at a conference in Macedonia two years ago. The 86-year-old told the historian her family’s tragic story, clasping his hand for two hours.
“Then she took out this handkerchief from that drawer and gave it to me to take back to Canakkale, to bring it back to Ahmet, who was martyred here in 1915 without ever receiving it,” Uslu says, holding the cloth tenderly in his two hands.
“So I brought it back to Canakkale to display it in our museum on the Gallipoli Peninsula, to at least reunite Ahmet’s soul with the handkerchief.”
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