Last week I had the doubtful pleasure of taking 20 people to Gallipoli for an eight day tour of the battlefields and a chance to follow in the footsteps of the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers. I say doubtful because of the awful behaviour of three members of the party which spoiled the pleasure I would have gotten from the trip.
Leading a party of twenty people to a country as far away as Turkey takes an amount of organising to ensure that everybody gets value for money and months of work went into the project.
The 18th August this year started early at 3.30am, a shower, breakfast and on to our first stop at 5.30 am to pick up two fellow tourists. I was accompanied by my wife who had not been well of late and it was a last minute decision to come. It was a cold, damp, foggy Irish August morning as we drove the 125 miles to Dublin Airport, a total contradiction of the weather we were heading for.
I dropped my three passengers at Terminal 1 at 7.15, parked the car and was on station at 7.30am at the blue glass lifts in Terminal 2 to meet the other 17 members of the group who were coming from Portugal, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and from various parts of Ireland. I had told them on no account be later than 9.30am. All but four had arrived by 8.30am and had walked over to the Turkish Airlines desk in Terminal 1. The last lady to arrive decided to wait with me for the other four. We lingered and muttered at the lack of consideration of folk until 9.30am and we decided to wait another five minutes and still nobody arrived.
I was in a dilemma, I had 16 other people to consider, my wife especially as I had dropped her off, two hours and twenty minutes previously and had her passport and airline ticket. One hour and twenty five minutes to walk over to Terminal 1, find my wife, check in , negotiate security and get to the departure gate. I made the decision, the party before individuals, we went hoping if they came they might have the sense to head for Turkish Airlines.
The airport was very busy but we eventually boarded the plane with 15 minutes to spare. Just before take off a slight commotion and the missing four struggled on to the plane, hissing and verbally abusing me for not being at the rendezvous point. I explained that I had been there for longer than was allowed but they said I had not been there at all. Things settled during the four hour twenty minute flight which tipped us into the international chaos that was Istanbul Airport.
I sought out a seat for Helen, my wife and went to collect our luggage and change some money. It seems the four people who had been late had stayed at airport hotels, three at one and one at another who had used the courtesy bus from the hotel but had left his luggage on board the bus and was obviously late in retrieving same. The other three had just been late but had not the sense to appreciate this and apologise. In Istanbul airport they attacked me twice more and I have to say I have never heard language like it from women. Because the agitators were women, I had no defence. The one male amongst them kept quiet whilst the women blathered. All I could do was smile at the idiocy of it all. Fisticuffs would have settled it but not with women. The rest of the party just stood in amazement. My wife suggested an anger management course was useful, the older of the two witches called her a bloody slut and so it went on.
We eventually boarded a coach to take us to the hotel and that was moaned about as well. The whole thing had split the party up. The wicked witch, as the older one of the two women became known, her daughter and the poor man who was accompanying them became a clique, while the rest of us gelled but with this shadow hanging over us.
We had a few drinks in the rooftop bar of the hotel overlooking Santa Sofia on one side and the Bosphorus and that relaxed most of us. Breakfast and an early start for the five hour drive along the Sea of Marmora and down the Gallipoli peninsula to our splendid hotel, Gallipoli Houses in the little village of Kokadere. It surely is the best situated of any hotel for battlefield touring, just to the east of Chanuk Bair, only three or four miles from Anzac if you were a crow.
after settling in to our rooms, a trip out to one of the Turkish forts on the straits and a look at V Beach where the Dublin Fusiliers and the Munsters ran into a bit of bother on 25th April 1915. The River Clyde beached itself by the fort of Sed el Barh and the Munsters were cut to pieces as they ran down the gangways both sides of the ship. The Dubs similarly as they came ashore in lighters. The scene is very similar to the diorama Boyle Men’s Shed built for us in King House this year. The sandbank still there but slightly diminished.
Dinner at eight and Eric was displaying his new range of wines from Suvla, just up the road and nice they were, too nice. Bed at 11.00 and up at 6.00 to a cacophony of cockerels explaining to the world as to who was the best guy in Kokadere. Our room faces west looking at the Chunuk Bair Ridge, with Lone Pine out of sight and beyond. The minaret of the village mosque is only 50 metres away and the muezzin has just started his call to prayer, outdoing the cockerels with his electronically amplified system.
It is 7.45 and our team are filtering down to breakfast, it is a comfortable 20C but the humidity is high. Our first stop this morning is the hill known as Achi Baba. It is only 220 metres high but it commands the Helles plain about 6 miles north of V Beach. It was the Allies first objective on 25th April 1915 but in eight months of fighting they did not get to within three miles of it. We can see the whole of the Helles battlefield and can understand why it was an important objective. Down to the French memorial on the east side of Morto Bay. The French made a diversionary landing at Kum Kale on the Asian side of the straits and after two days reformed here and helped form the right flank of the Helles operation throughout the campaign.
Visits to the impressive Turkish memorial and the British Helles memorial followed and then a look at V Beach from a Turkish perspective and immediately you could see why the Dubs and Munsters had a hard time on that first day.. Throughout the campaign the Turks had the high ground and this spot was no exception. So much could be defended by so few.
After lunch in a roadside cafe next to a stream full of turtles we hit East Anzac and first was Lone Pine where four thousand Turks and two thousand Australians killed each other in bloody and vicious hand to hand fighting in early August 1915. It was here the Connaught Rangers had their baptism of fire as they buried the Turkish dead whilst under fire from Turkish guns. On to Johnson’s Jolly and the Nek where the Australian Light Horse came to grief in a bayonet charge in broad daylight up a steep slope in waves of 150 at a time. At this spot we got word of our own tragedy as the mother of one of the party had died. In this regard we were greatly helped by Eric and his wife at the hotel. Transport to Istanbul was arranged and new flights for those returning were obtained as if by magic. Many thanks to our friends in Kokadere for their work.
It was at this point the wicked witch came into her own advising everybody of her importance in the matter and explaining to all of the new arrangements, except she was not part of the new arrangements but I was. I let her have her head and then explained as best I could how the show must go on.
Up to Chunuk Bair first thing this morning, the highest point on the Sari Bair range, towering over Anzac and Suvla to the West and giving mouth watering views over the straits to the East. This really was the key to the whole campaign and which the New Zealand forces captured on 9th August 1915 with much loss of life and their relieving force, the South East Lancashire Regiment and the Gloucester Regiment, was pushed off it the next day with great vigour by Mustafa Kemal’s troops and caused much loss of life in the reserve force of the 6th Leinsters and 10th Hampshires Our task was to walk down to Anzac on the same footpath the New Zealanders went up, a distance of about four miles and a descent of330 metres which because of the undulations of the landscape meant there was as many ups as there was downs. We made it easily enough to the Farm, an area where the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers spent three days on 10th/12th August 1915 burying dead and carrying down wounded whilst under Turkish sniper fire at all times. It was round this spot I found a spent British .303 bullet 100 years and one week later. From this place we descended the Chailak Dere in a gruesome walk for most, ending up at Embarkation Pier. Some of the men there 100 years ago went up and down this path, two or three times a day. My head shakes just thinking about it. But now we know of what these soldiers endured.
On to Anzac beach and the cemeteries at Ari Burnu and Anzac Beach. On Ari Burnu we discovered a number of graves of Indian soldiers who were killed in 1921, six years after the fighting here. On enquiry we were told they were in a party constructing cemeteries and memorials when a massive explosion of unused ammunition killed about 20 of them. At Anzac Beach cemetery an emotional moment occurred when most of us stood round the grave of the grandfather of one of our party. He had been killed early in the conflict in late April. Also in this cemetery was the grave of Samuel Hall, a Glaswegian and the first 5th Battalion man to die on 9th August when whilst sheltering in a trench in Shrapnel Valley, a shell burst immediately above him taking off his head at his shoulders.
After that it was up to 7th Field Ambulance Cemetery where about 15 5th Battalion men lie. These men had been badly wounded on Hill 60 on 21st/28th August, they were too badly wounded to be moved down to the Beach for evacuation and died there at this Australian Field Hospital. In fact one man from Boyle lies here, Bartley Higgins from Green Street in Boyle. A little street in Boyle in Co Roscommon where I have found 15 inhabitants who were killed during the war. A mile further on and we arrive at Hill 60 where the Connaught Rangers came to grief on this same day 100 years ago about 160 men out of the 220 deaths in the 5th Battalion occurred on this insignificant hill. In another emotional ceremony we read out the names of these poor men and where they came from. At least we still remember them. We also found the wells that the Rangers so famously captured on 21st August 1915 and which had evaded our previous searches. They are still there full of water, a prize in those far off days and our link with the past.
A great day for those of us interested but still the looming hatred emanating from the wicked witch, her equally wicked daughter and her poor tagged along consort. It was hard to ignore them but we tried.
The next day we were off to Suvla. In the past Suvla was so remote, just dirt tracks that no coach driver would motor on but our man was one of the intrepids, taking us first to Green Hill Cemetery where the grave of a young Lancashire Fusilier lies, this man was executed for desertion in December 1915, one of the last deaths on the Peninsula. There was 100 soldiers here who were condemned to death but 97 of them had their death sentence commuted, only three were shot. It is a puzzle to me how anybody can desert from such a place, it just ain’t possible. In this cemetery is also the grave of Lord Longford and also the father of David Niven, the film star.
We ventured on to nearby Chocolate Hill where the whole of the panorama of Suvla could be seen, a most important objective in the early days at Suvla. We passed by Lala Baba, a small hill where Suvla’s only defenders created havoc for a while, where 150 Turks held up 20,000 Allied troops until General Stopford had a rest on his sloop Jonquil out in the bay. Next stop was B and C Beaches and on C Beach, just south of Nimbrunesi point one of our band jumped in the sea fully clothed to imitate his grandfather who stormed ashore here with the Royal Irish Rifles on 6th August 1915. Then round to Suvla point, passing Hill 10 where some of us had a quick swim in the clear waters of the Aegean while the rest of us enjoyed a quick beer at a roadside shack. It is here that we saw the wreck of a Beetle, one of the first landing craft ever made capable of putting two companies of men onto a beach without wetting their feet.
We then drove down to the ferry to Cannakale, others went on to Troy. I and a few rested our weary limbs in the town had some koftes and a few glasses of beer. Back at the hotel we scoffed our last meal and prepared ourselves for an early dash to Istanbul. Farewell Gallipoli Houses and thank you.
Up early, had breakfast and paid our mess bill and on the road for Istanbul which we reached in four hours 15 minutes missing most of the traffic. Booked back into Erboy Hotel and half the party went off to Santa Sofia and the Blue Mosque but once you have seen it you have seen it. I held back, rest is what I needed not 70mph pedestrian trips. That evening a meal in a fish restaurant, a bottle of wine and early night and up at 6.ooam.
On the bus for 9.00am and off to the Asian side of Istanbul for a visit to the Florence Nightingale Hospital which is now part of a working Turkish Army barracks. Although interesting, we were made to jump through hoops at security. Understandable with the present political climate where angry Kurds are targeting military establishments, it still took the gloss off the place for me.
We then went on a cruise of the Bosphorus which was fantastic. If you can imagine the M25 round London was a waterway, we wandered up the European side and back down the Asiatic side dodging oil tankers, freighters, ferries and fast moving boats of all sizes. It was hair-raising, exciting, colourful and interesting. Then it was back to our hotel where we found a lovely roof-top restaurant to have our last meal and spend what few bob we had left.
Next morning we were thrown into the chaotic inferno that is Istanbul airport, shuffled through numerous queues and eventually ending up in our seats on the plane. The wicked witch et al still not looking or talking to us, why she came can only be to cause trouble, they showed remarkably no interest in the military side of things. We landed safely and on time, everybody thanked me for my efforts but not the witch, who had disappeared.
Feelers were put out in the following days as to the character of these people and reports came back of her and her ilk being the most hated of their area. Unlucky for us that we were saddled with them for eight days.
Hey Ho you have to take life as it comes, but lessons have been learnt.