Finding common ground and coming to terms with the past

Canakkale Gecilmez

Can nations that have been at war with one another come to terms with the distant past? Many do. Amazingly, some countries find that in the death and destruction of the battlefield lie the foundations for future partnership and friendship between former enemies.

One such remarkable example is the World War I battle that took place on the shores of Gallipoli. There, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand faced the Ottoman Empire (now modern-day Turkey) and Germany in mortal combat.

The stakes were high. Young soldiers from each nation were on a mission to do their duty with dedication and zeal — some fighting to protect their native soil and some on a mission halfway around the world from their homes, both sides fighting for their beliefs. The purpose was to keep or gain control of the Turkish Straits (battles took place in Dardanelles or “Canakkale”) — the strategic seaway linking Europe and Asia. The “allies” felt that control over the straits and the traffic that ran through them were critical to eventually winning the war, while Turks knew it was a matter of life and death for their nation.

The suffering and losses inflicted on both sides were of epic proportions; the results gained by either side, minimal. Close to half a million souls perished. Allied powers failed to break the Turkish defense. Hence the modern Turkish saying Çanakkale Geçilmez (“The Dardanelles cannot be passed”), which represents a sense of pride in the unbreakable resistance of the young defenders of the homeland.

But, eventually the Ottoman Empire was defeated. As the armed conflict ground to a halt, Turks faced the danger of seeing most of their homeland slip away. Yet, one of the commanders in Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, inspired by his people’s stand at Gallipoli, successfully launched a struggle for independence and later a comprehensive reform process. He became the “father” of the modern-day nation of Turkey.

Troops from Australia and New Zealand who fought at Gallipoli suffered some of the worst casualty rates. In fact, some units were almost annihilated during the courageous beach landing (similar to Normandy during World War II). In commemoration of those brave fighting men, those nations share a holiday of remembrance: ANZAC (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) Day. April 25 will mark the 100 anniversary of the battle and of ANZAC Day.

At the time, the loss of human life seemed the only tangible result of the valor and bravery of the young men who were asked, or volunteered, to serve on both sides. Today, however, it is a sense of both self-respect and respect for the other that prevails when this episode of history is recalled. From this terrible cauldron of human suffering, Turkey, New Zealand and Australia each established their own identity as independent nations on the world stage. In an interesting and inspiring twist of fate, our nations, which fought such a bloody battle so long ago, are now friends and allies working together to bring peace and prosperity to the people of the world.

Every year thousands of Australians and New Zealanders fly halfway around the globe to join the citizens of Turkey in paying tribute to the bravery of their forefathers. Together our nations commemorate this common history, as we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Now engraved in a monument at ANZAC Cove, the landing beach, are Atatürk’s own words offering comfort to the mothers of ANZAC soldiers who lost their lives on Turkish soil. It reads: “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 far away 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.”

There are so many conflicts in the world today that are extensions of past enmities. Some however, thankfully, break that vicious circle to thrive in peace and cooperation, bound together by the memory of shared suffering. This is how we should remember Gallipoli, and how we can learn the lessons of the past, to work together with former adversaries who have now become allies, to confront and overcome the challenges that face us today.


Read more here: