Gallipoli: the beautiful city

Opinion by Chris Mackie

If you do a historical study of the Gallipoli battlefields, or even if you are just a passing visitor to the sites, one of the first things to strike you is all the different names.

At the Anzac battlefield many of the names that are most familiar to us were coined by the soldiers in 1915, and they help to tell their story of the conflict – Quinn's Post, Walker's Ridge, Russell's Top, Lone Pine, the Sphinx, and so forth.

The Turks, of course, have their own names for those landmarks, and in some cases these help to reveal their sufferings in the war (Quinn's Post is Bomba Sirt ["Bomb Spur"], and Lone Pine is Kanli Sirt ["Bloody Ridge"]. In some cases the allies used the Turkish names for specific features of the landscape, and these are now part of the English vocabulary of the campaign – names such as Kum Kale, Ari Burnu, Gaba Tepe, Seddulbahir and Chunuk Bair.

Another layer of complexity in the use of names in the region is that Greek-speaking peoples lived here from early antiquity - probably from some time in the 7th century BCE. The Dardanelles waterway (ie. the Hellespont) was seen by the Greeks as a natural boundary between their world and that of the Barbarians, especially the Persians, and so the region has a crucial symbolic role to play in notions of Greek self-identity.

Naming Gallipoli

The Greek presence on Gallipoli was not just an ancient phenomenon. They continued to live there right through into the modern era, until just before the first world war.

Two censuses undertaken just before the war show that Winston Churchill's 1915 assault was on a place where the Greek language had been more widely spoken than the Turkish.

Reminders of the presence of the Greek community can still be seen in occasional physical remains of their lives there, and in some of the names that were used of landmarks in the region. The name Krithia, for instance, in the south of the peninsula (now called Alcitepe), which was totally destroyed in the campaign, comes from the ancient Greek "kri" (meaning barley), which presumably was the characteristic crop, even in antiquity.

Madytos (or Maidos), now called Eceabat, was another well-known Greek village, known for its brick-making. The Department of Veterans' Affairs-supported Historical and Archaeological survey of the Gallipoli battlefield, of which I am a part, has found evidence of the Greek presence on the peninsula, including bricks from Madytos made prior to the war.

Some of the names used by the allies, therefore, are derived in one way or another from ancient Greek - including Helles, and Dardanelles and Gallipoli. Cape Helles is cognate with the name Hellespont (sea of Helle), which appears all through the Iliad (although there is no reference in Homer to the charming myth of Helle falling into the sea from the golden fleece, which explains for the Greeks how the Hellespont received its name).

The name Dardanelles is obviously a modern coinage going back ultimately to references to Dardanus in the Iliad. Dardanus is the son of Zeus and the first king of the city when it was located on Mount Ida. He is briefly referred to by Aeneas in Book 20 of the Iliad, and he is an important background figure in the saga of Troy.

The name Gallipoli comes from the Greek "Kallipolis", which means beautiful city or beautiful town. Strictly speaking, it refers to the city further up the peninsula across the waterway from Lampsachus, or, as it's now known, Lapseki.

There were lots of Kallipolises in antiquity, including one further south on the west coast of Turkey near Kos, and one in South Italy. The founders of these cities obviously wanted to identify them as beautiful from the beginning, hence the name.

The Turks to this day retain the original Greek name in their modern name Gelibolu.

The beauty of Gallipoli

When you use the word "Gallipoli", or "Gelibolu", you are not only speaking ancient Greek – after a fashion; you are unconsciously evoking the idea of physical beauty (Kalli-). Originally, it was the Greek town itself that was meant to be beautiful, but because of its size as the largest modern settlement, the name Gallipoli came to identify (in English) the whole peninsula.

The idea of beauty that is embedded into the name of the town also has its application to the peninsula as a whole. Even in antiquity the peninsula had a reputation for its beauty. Xenophon described it as "beautiful" (kalê, as in Kallipolis) and "prosperous" (eudaimôn). The Athenians, and others, saw the region early on for its excellent agricultural potential, and they used it accordingly.

An appreciation of the beauty of Gallipoli – the peninsula – was not confined to antiquity. It has an important part to play in some accounts of the campaign in 1915.

Strange as it may seem, many participants at Gallipoli took the time out to ponder the beauty of the landscape. This seems to have been particularly true of the Australian response to the Gallipoli landscape. As one Australian Gallipoli historian, P.A. Pederson, puts it:

the beauty and strange serenity of the Peninsula, even during the most bitter fighting, were paradoxes which struck many who served in the Dardanelles. Few men tired of watching the magnificent sunsets.

The view from the trenches

One of the most striking things about the published diary of the campaign by the Australian sapper Cyril Lawrence is the repeated reference to the beauty of the setting, first Egypt, then the Greek islands, then Gallipoli.

When his hard work on the trenches began at Gallipoli, Lawrence usually tended to confine his comments to the lovely summer weather; "the sunset was simply glorious; jingo it was fine" (May 28); "glorious morning" (June 8); "today is just glorious again. It has ever since we landed here been perfect" (July 1).

Later on he writes about "another glorious day. Surely this place, once popularised, would be a great rival to Nice or Cannes. It's magnificent".

Lawrence himself was a sapper in an engineering unit, and spent much of his time digging underground. His was a very difficult lot, but he appreciated the landscape around him, as did many others of the Australians. In their letters home and in their diaries, many men made similar comments.

The correspondent Charles Bean, who had done Classics at Oxford and became the official Australian historian of the war, was certainly one person who appreciated the austere beauty of the Gallipoli landscape. Indeed, it seems to have had an impact on his whole perception of the campaign.

When he went back to Turkey in 1919, after the western front, Bean saw the peninsula from his ship at a distance, and he wrote of his delight in seeing its hills: "they were the hills of the Dardanelles, and at that moment I, for one, was poignantly homesick for them".

In some ways this is quite a remarkable thing to say for a place that saw an allied defeat, and was the setting for so much death and misery. Nonetheless, the Mediterranean setting of the campaign – the blue water, the sunrises and sunsets, the islands and the beaches, the old villages, the foliage, the hills and ravines – all these made their impression on the men at the time.

And they all played their part in the way that the campaign would be remembered in the period afterward – or so it seems to me.

My own view is that the beauty of the Dardanelles landscape, and the ancient context of the campaign – especially the fact that Troy is across the waterway – have fed into the myth-making aspect of the Gallipoli story in Australia.

The imagination of some Classicists at Gallipoli, especially some British writers, was given full expression by Troy's proximity.

In his diary entry of May 3 1915, John Gillam contemplated the fighting around him at Helles in the context of the Trojan war across the waterway:

at night as the moon rises to the full, the picture is perfect. The coast of Asia – that land of mystery and romance, with the plains of Troy in the background, immortalised for ever by the sweet singers of ancient Greece. One can almost picture those god – like heroes of the past halting in those titanic fights which their shades perhaps wage nightly in the old battlefields of Troy, halting to gaze in wonder and amazement on the strange spectacle unfolded before them – modern war, that is, and all its attendant horrors.

Hector, Achilles and Agamemnon in their golden harness – their old enmities forgotten – must surely gaze in astonishment on the warlike deeds and methods of another age than theirs.

Homer's Gallipoli

The idea of a war taking place in a beautiful setting, of course, has its mythical parallel in Greek epic accounts of the struggle for Troy. In the Iliad the beauty of the natural landscape around Troy, not to mention the city itself, serves as a fundamental background to the horrors that take place on the battlefield.

The heroic landscape is fittingly beautiful.

So the rivers at Troy are lovely, fine horses graze on the beautiful fields, the city itself is rich, sacred, and beautiful. Mount Ida is lofty and beautiful and with abundant timber – the appropriate location for Zeus, the king of the gods, to spend much of his time in the poem.

The Greek epic poets tended to idealise the world of their warriors, such that it was quite distinct from the everyday world of their audiences. Everything tends to be larger, better, and more beautiful than within the poet's own world.

The Iliad ends before the final acts in the life of the city are played out, but the loveliness of the physical setting at Troy plays its part in anticipating the terrible loss to be endured by the defeated. And in the case of the Trojans, they lose everything.

A national epic

In the 20th century in Australia Gallipoli became the nearest thing to a national epic. It became a special conflict around which many people could rally to express their national identity, not unlike the way that the Greeks rallied around the story of Troy, or the Persian wars, or Alexander's eastern conquests.

British writers such as John Masefield and Compton Mackenzie even compared the Australian men with heroes from old poetry – and they did so with considerable hyperbole.

In the case of Homer he was not just a good poet. The Iliad manages to capture the essence of what it means to be Greek. The great issues of human existence are its subject – life and death and family and community – and the action is played out in a beautiful and exotic setting in a war against a foreign adversary.

We may be thankful there were no epic poets around about in Australia to tell the tale of Gallipoli. But epics can be formed without the need for poets skilled in formulaic verse structures. The creation of a national epic in the modern context is a social phenomenon, not so much a poetic one.

It is not determined by a single hand, or by a group of good poets, but by a much broader collective impulse. And in the case of Gallipoli the mechanisms and genres of modern society played their parts in the process – literature and historiography, art and architecture, film, political discourse.

The result has been that Gallipoli's place in the psyche of modern Australia is nothing short of astonishing. If you explore this phenomenon of epic formation against a background of comparative epic poetry from many countries, it becomes clear that it is an ancient process manifesting itself within a modern social context.

The other side of this process of epic formation in the case of Gallipoli was that people were inclined to turn away from the western front, for all its unrelenting horror. It is hard to grasp, intellectually or psychologically, the extent of the losses on both sides in France and Belgium.

If the perceived physical setting of Gallipoli was well-suited for a national epic of heroism and suffering, and courage in the face of adversity, the western front was seen as far too real and far too confronting.

No sea to cross, no beaches or hills to scamper up, little in the way of a tactical struggle. No stark heights and ravines to confront. No Aegean sun beating down. No exotic Troy just across the waterway. No obvious beauty in the landscape. Just the reality of terrible and scarcely imaginable slaughter on the grey, flat plains.

Distortions of the classical prism

We classicists are sometimes accused of seeing the modern world through a kind of classical prism, so that modern events are made to conform to ancient ideas and patterns. The accusation is not at all unreasonable, especially in my case.

The Greek writers and mythmakers have a lot to say about war. Some of the most imaginative treatments of the subject of war come from ancient Greece. It is through war narratives that the Greeks tended to investigate the world through the Trojan war, the Persian wars, the Peloponnesian war, and so forth.

They don't confine their narratives to the fighting itself, of course. But rather, they always have one eye on the broader human implications of it all.

Why do we fight wars? What happens to human society when we do? How is it that we perpetrate terrible acts on one another? What are the consequences for the people who do so?

It is very revealing about Greek attitudes to this subject that in their pantheon of gods they had two gods of war, not just one. These two gods represent different, though not mutually exclusive, aspects of warfare.

First there is the beautiful Athena, daughter of Zeus, born from her father's head, the goddess of courage and heroism, wisdom and strategy. In Homer she combines the idealised attributes of the male in human society – especially beauty, courage and heroism – together with the ideal female aspects of beauty, loyalty and wisdom.

The other war god is Ares, a son of Zeus and Hera. He is god of the blood and the guts and the cruelty of war. In the Iliad he is defeated by a human warrior, Diomedes, together with Athena's help. After he is defeated he scurries back to Olympus, only to receive abuse from his father Zeus.

It says a lot about the Greek attitude to war that Ares is humiliated in both Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. To the Greek mind, Athena could represent something good about war, which people could aspire to and admire. Her presence and her identity signify that there can be major social benefit from courage and steadfastness and wisdom in war.

Athenian mythology even made Athena a divine participant in the battle against the Persians at Marathon. The glory of that battle, so few against so many, could be attributed to her support. But Ares, in his main function, was the terrible face of human suffering in war.

Gazing at the beauty of Gallipoli

We don't have gods of war today, but heroism and courage and strategy still operate alongside the gruesome realities of the killing and the wounding. The process of epic formation and heroisation almost always privileges the former over the latter.

An epic such as Homer's Iliad is not grounded in the actual horrors that occur in the war, despite the fact that these take place all around. Rather, it is grounded in the perceived higher levels of military conduct within it – the courage and the passion, the determination and the renown.

The process by which history is turned into myth, or into epic, usually involves us fixing our gaze upon Athena, rather than looking Ares full in the face. And this has been the experience with Gallipoli in Australia. When we ask ourselves why Gallipoli is the subject of so much myth-making, rather than the western front, it is worth bearing the dichotomy of Athena and Ares is mind.

The characteristic beauty and nature of the landscape of the Dardanelles, and the adjacent world of Homer's Troy, both feed into the narrative in an irresistible kind of way as a fitting place for heroic conduct.The Conversation

Professor Chris Mackie is Head of School for the Humanities Department and is a Professor of Greek Studies.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image credit: Mattia Notari