Great Moments in Military History

“It’s Like the Whole First World War in a Cup of Tea”

The excavation of Gallipoli is changing our understanding of how the Great War was fought.

Australian sniper using a periscope rifle at Gallipoli, 1915.
An Australian sniper uses a periscope rifle at Gallipoli in 1915. Nearly a century of erosion later, these trenches are 2 or 3 feet deep at most.

Photo by Ernest Brooks/Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons

ÇANAKKALE, Turkey—Separated by language, culture, and 9,000 miles of ocean, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey have little in common—except for a hilly peninsula known as Gallipoli in western Turkey. For nearly nine months in 1915 and 1916, Gallipoli witnessed some of World War I’s most intense fighting. The battle pitted untested troops from former British colonies in the Pacific against Turks fighting to protect their homeland from foreign invasion.

Nearly a century later, Australians, New Zealanders, and Turks all regard the conflict at Gallipoli as a central event in their modern history. Like Gettysburg, Gallipoli is shared sacred ground that unites former enemies and marks a pivotal moment in their past. “Those countries all date their existence to that battle,” says Australian National University historian Bill Gammage.

Though Gallipoli was a small conflict compared with landmark battles of the first world war like the Somme, the battle for the narrow peninsula contains the story of the war in microcosm: the fatal bravado, the futile fighting, the error-prone assumptions made by politicians and generals, and the killing fields that decimated a generation of young men. “Ships, submarines, mines, planes, war on the soil, balloons—almost everything humankind used in war was used in the Gallipoli campaign,” says Haluk Oral, a professor at Koç University in Istanbul and author of Gallipoli 1915: Through Turkish Eyes. “It’s like the whole first world war in a cup of tea.”

Yet thanks to its rugged terrain and remote location, the battlefield was nearly forgotten until the mid-1970s, when it was turned into a national park by the Turkish government. No systematic archaeological survey of Gallipoli has ever been conducted—until now. In the lead-up to the battle’s 100th anniversary in April 2015, a team of archaeologists, historians, classicists, geographers, and government officials from Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey is using a combination of traditional archaeological methods and high-tech tools to map what’s left of the battlefield’s trenches, tunnels, and terraces.

The early results have been surprising. Unlike the fertile fields of Belgium and France, Gallipoli’s rocky soil was never plowed after the war, making it a battlefield archaeologist’s goldmine. In its field work over the past four years, the team has mapped miles of trenches and recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, more than anyone expected to find at a battlefield a century old. “I’m surprised at how much is left,” says University of Melbourne researcher Antonio Sagona, the survey’s lead archaeologist. “There’s nowhere on the Western Front where there’s a continuous line like this. It’s the best-preserved World War I battlefield anywhere in the world.”

* * *

World War I was the first global conflict. The assassination of an Austrian nobleman in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, set off a tangle of territorial disputes and interlocking alliances that led to declarations of war. Within the space of a few months, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were facing off against France, Britain, and Russia. Men equipped with the latest weaponry—from machine guns and long-range artillery to poison gas and airplanes—were led into the field by generals whose tactics and strategy were stuck in the age of cavalry charges and naval cannonades.

The results were catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of men died in the first few months of the war alone. Promised a weeks-long war, entire armies instead found themselves stalemated. On the so-called Western Front, millions of men faced off across a shell-scarred line of trenches, sandbags, bunkers, dugouts, and artillery positions that ran for 475 miles through France and Belgium.

As the war bogged down, an ambitious British politician named Winston Churchill began dreaming up shortcuts to victory. Churchill, 40, had recently been given the dashing title First Lord of the Admiralty. He was eager to use the British navy under his command to accomplish something that equaled his ambition.

Churchill’s big idea was to ignore the Western Front entirely. He wanted to use the British navy to make a daring attack on Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Known as “the sick man of Europe,” the empire was weak. It had been in decline for centuries, shrinking to a territory that was about twice the size of modern Turkey, before reluctantly joining the war on the side of the Germans.*

The entire plan hinged around the Dardanelles, a channel that connects the wide-open Aegean Sea to the much smaller Sea of Marmara. If British warships could force their way through the channel, they could easily capture Constantinople, now the Turkish city of Istanbul, and bring the war to a swift end. Gallipoli was the name given to the long, narrow peninsula along the northern side of the channel. Seize the peninsula, and the warships would have an easy time steaming through. “The price to be paid in taking Gallipoli wd no doubt be heavy, but there wd be no more war with Turkey,” Churchill hastily wrote a friend not long after the war began. “A good army of 50,000 & sea-power—that is the end of the Turkish menace.” Seizing Constantinople would topple the Ottoman Empire, link the British and French with their Russian allies, and open up a vast new eastern front.

But first, the Allies had to control the channel. Barely half a mile wide, the Dardanelles had been fought over for millennia: The ancient city of Troy controlled the channel’s entrance for more than 1,000 years. Before the British arrived, the Turkish navy had liberally mined the passage and sent troops to man forts up and down the shore. When battleships finally steamed into the narrow strait on March 18, 1915, they quickly demolished the forts. But Turkish mines crippled or sank four unlucky battleships within hours.

The fleet hesitated, and the decisive moment was lost. British commanders decided seizing the peninsula needed boots on the ground. Thousands of experienced French and British troops were assigned to take the tip of the peninsula and a landing site on the other side of the channel called Kum Kale. The third assault was aimed at the peninsula’s narrow middle. The task of cutting the peninsula in half fell to eager volunteers from the other side of the world: the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZACs.

The ANZACs were an unknown quantity, for the British and for themselves. Australia and New Zealand were both part of the British Empire, but had been governing themselves for decades. Though separated from the war in Europe by thousands of miles of ocean, both populations eagerly supported the fight against Germany and tended to think of themselves as British.

A desire to prove their valor mixed with the promise of adventure overseas to lure tens of thousands of young Australians and New Zealanders to volunteer for military service. There were so many volunteers that only the biggest, most physically fit were taken; men sometimes rode or walked hundreds of miles across Australia’s outback to sign up at recruiting stations.

Troop ships carried tens of thousands from the South Pacific to Egypt, where the ANZACs set up camp in the shadow of the pyramids. After months of training, they set sail once again, this time for the Dardanelles. Not long after midnight on April 25, soldiers loaded with more than 90 pounds of gear and ammunition apiece crowded into rowboats under a star-filled sky. In the darkness, they wound up more than a mile off course, finally approaching not at the wide-open beach they expected but at a small cove surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs. The first ANZACs hit the beach, known in Turkish as Ariburnu, at 4:29 a.m.

Atatürk, while Commander of the Army (1918).
Mustafa Kemal in 1918.

Photo by Presidency of Republic of Turkey via Wikimedia Commons

There to meet them were Turkish troops under the command of a German general and a charismatic Turkish colonel named Mustafa Kemal. Poorly equipped and trained compared with the ANZACs, the Turks had powerful reasons to stand and fight: survival, for one, but also a determined desire to protect their homes and country from foreign invasion. “We weren’t fighting at Canberra or Sydney,” says Mete Tuncoku, a professor at nearby Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University. “This was our land, and we were defending our land from threat.”

Dug in on and above the beaches, about 200 Turkish soldiers opened fire on the first wave of 3,000 ANZACs. Stuck in a landing boat approaching shore, an Australian officer recalled the noise of the incoming fire. “Klock-klock-klock. Wee-wee-wee came the little messengers of death. Then it opened out into a terrific chorus,” he wrote. “The key was being turned in the lock of the lid of hell.”

Dozens were shot in their boats. Others drowned trying to get off the beach in the first few hours of the landing. The rest fought their way past the first line of Turkish defenders and scrambled uphill through thick brush to reach the ridges that surrounded the beach.

On the heights above the beach, the ANZACs came face to face with Turkish reinforcements. When his men ran out of ammunition and started to fall back, Kemal, the Turks’ ranking commander on the beachhead, told his men to fix their bayonets and lie down. “I don’t order you to attack, I order you to die,” he told his men. “In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can take our places.”

It was a gamble, but it worked. Standing at a small, well-kept military cemetery at Johnston’s Jolly, one of the many oddly named toeholds the Australians established in the early days of the battle, Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historian Richard Reid gestures north and south along the ridge. Today, an asphalt road winds along the ragged line where the Australians and New Zealanders stopped their advance and dug in. The turquoise water of the Aegean Sea is visible barely half a mile away. “Within the first day, they were on this ridge here, and they were here till the end. They never got any further,” Reid says. “They all fought bravely, but the Turks held them to this perimeter.”

Over the next week, both sides doubled down. New Zealand and Australian reinforcements poured in from ships offshore; Turkish troops were marched in from elsewhere on the peninsula. In the first 10 days of battle, nearly 14,000 Turks were killed or wounded; the ANZACs lost 10,000 men.

At the southern end of the peninsula, British and French troops faced equally stiff fighting. But while Gallipoli was a sideshow for the empires of “old Europe,” it was the first time troops from New Zealand and Australia had gone to war as nations, rather than colonies. Australia had only coalesced into a federation in 1901. “In 1914, you have a keen sense of concern over whether Australia’s going to measure up to nations of old Europe, especially to the soldiers of Britain,” says Gammage. “It was a test of Australian manhood versus international competition.”

On May 6 the results were splashed across front pages in Australia and New Zealand. “There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights,” gushed British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. “These raw colonial troops, in these desperate hours, proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of the battles of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve-Chapelle. … They were happy because they knew they had been tried for the first time, and had not been found wanting.”

* * *

The “raw colonial troops” had demonstrated their manhood in the first hours of battle. But in military terms, the assault was a repeat of the mistakes made in France and Belgium just months before. “They thought they were going to go through the Turkish army within a day,” says Reid. Instead, the ANZAC area of Gallipoli became a miniature version of the Western Front. More than 200,000 men packed into a battlefield 1.5 miles square, the size of three National Malls. Hundreds of thousands more British and French soldiers were pinned down at beachheads elsewhere on the long, skinny peninsula.

Soon countless trenches and tunnels cut through the rocky soil like capillaries, bringing fresh blood forward and carrying the wounded back. One narrow stretch of no-man’s land was known in Turkish as “Bomba Sirt,” or “Bomber Ridge,” because of the near-constant exchange of hand-tossed grenades.

The convoluted lines required intimate familiarity with every fold of ground. Geographical features and trench complexes were all named, giving historical accounts a fantastical flavor. Men fought from, in, and over places like the Nek, the Pimple, Dead Man’s Ridge, Battleship Hill, Lone Pine, the Daisy Patch, Plugge’s Plateau, the Sphinx, Courtney’s Post, Shrapnel Valley, Baby 700, and Hell Spit.

The archaeological survey, like the battle, concentrates on the ridges and cliffs overlooking ANZAC Cove, running about a mile from Lone Pine up to a round-topped hill called Chunuk Bair. Fighting along the ridge was brutally intimate, conducted almost face to face along knife-edge ridges and across narrow ravines.

To link the historical accounts with what’s left on the ground, the team originally hoped to methodically walk every square foot of the battlefield. Lead researcher Sagona had to scrap those plans almost as soon as work began. “The usual methods for archaeological surveys just cannot apply,” he says. “When you’ve got a sheer cliff, or vegetation you need a machete to cut through, you can’t use standard techniques.”

Instead, the survey team spends weeks each fall moving in a sweating herd through the thick brambles. Tearing through the brush behind Turkish colleagues wielding well-used machetes, Reid and New Zealand war historian Ian McGibbon take the lead, looking for the remains of trenches.

Once deep enough to conceal a tall man and 3 or 4 feet wide, the elaborate fortifications have all but disappeared. Most of the trenches are just dips in the ground now, 2 or 3 feet deep at best. “You’re dealing with 100 years of erosion,” Reid says. His right wrist is bandaged, torn badly by a jagged thorn the day before. “We’re quite lucky to see anything. Eventually you get an eye for what look like insignificant little features.”

When they identify a trench, Reid and McGibbon call for University of Melbourne landscape archaeologist Jessie Birkett-Rees. Using an antenna mounted on a long carbon-fiber pole to link her banana-yellow Trimble GeoXH 2008 Series GPS device to half a dozen satellites, she records the location and elevation of each landscape feature and artifact. “Now we’ve got a technology that makes it possible to make a scientific contribution to battlefield archaeology,” she says, tapping the GPS’s touch screen with a small stylus.

By loading the data recorded in the field into a computer, Birkett-Rees can create a digital map of the battlefield accurate to within a foot. The data can be compared to archival materials, including maps made just after the war by Turkish cartographers. “The data is corroborating the historical maps,” Sagona says. “When you think they were produced nearly 100 years ago, they’re really quite good and very detailed.”

Both sides also dug tunnels deep into the hills, to move around safely or to plant mines under the enemy’s lines. In September the team used ground-penetrating radar to locate them along the main road, which runs directly over no-man’s land. Over the next three years, the team hopes to create an authoritative layout of the front lines, mapping everything from trenches and tunnels to bullet casings and fragments of barbed wire.

* * *

On a hot, clear day in September, Sagona is crouching beneath a bush not far from Johnston’s Jolly, a small outpost that was under attack almost constantly during the battle. He’s cradling a rusted “pannikin,” or mess tin, its buckles and latches fragile but intact. It’s just one of hundreds of artifacts the team has found in four seasons of field work. By mapping out the location of their finds, the archaeologists are shedding light on what life must have been like for the ANZAC troops.

The team has found distinct differences between front-line trenches and sheltered spots farther behind the front. Domestic items like canteens, mess tins, and dozens of tin cans that once contained beef or sardines are concentrated on flat “terraces,” spaces wide enough for men to lie down cut into the hillsides with quick access to the front via shallow connecting tunnels. “Bullets, on the other hand, are concentrated in trenches,” says Sagona.

In Sagona’s room at a small bed-and-breakfast a few miles from the battlefield, five red plastic crates hold dozens of artifacts in plastic bags: heavy shrapnel fragments, tin cans, bullet cartridges, pieces of grenades and roof tiles from Turkish trenches.

Some of the finds fire the imagination, like a deep-blue enameled water bottle with two neat holes where a bullet shot through it, or the glazed ceramic jugs that once held rum rations for the soldiers. (Glass bottles found on the Turkish side suggest that beer was the booze of choice there.)

The survey is confirming aspects of the battle historians have guessed at from records and letters. Tin cans of salted beef, for example, only turn up on the ANZAC side of the battlefield. It’s evidence ANZACs—with no access to fresh food, and supply lines that stretched across hundreds of miles of ocean—ate a monotonous, unhealthy diet of corned beef, rocklike biscuits, and the occasional shot of rum. Not long after Sagona and Birkett-Rees record the rusted mess tin, Turkish archaeologist Mithat Atabay leads the team down the opposite side of the ridge, down a gully choked with thorn bushes. Brushing away leaves and dirt, he uncovers a hearth made of roofing tiles and bricks.

Stamped with Greek letters, the bricks were probably taken from a local house and reused as a field kitchen. “On the Turkish side, we haven’t found any [tin cans]—they were cooking on this side,” says Sagona. “Archaeologically, now we can show there were kitchens over here and tin cans over there.”

Inevitably, the team occasionally comes across human bones, which are reburied by officials from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an international organization that manages the graveyards and monuments here. During the war, the battlefield was littered with corpses, sometimes stacked two or three deep. Men killed between trenches lay in the open for weeks or months, just feet from their surviving comrades.

The team’s finds are helping make contemporary accounts of the grinding horror of life in the trenches concrete. “I wrapped my overcoat over the tin and gouged out the flies, then spread the biscuit, held my hand over it, and drew the biscuit out of the coat. But a lot of flies flew into my mouth and beat about inside,” one Australian soldier wrote. “Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world.”

“Something you can’t replicate now is the stink of the bodies decomposing, the flies everywhere,” says New Zealander McGibbon. “You knew they had been on a corpse minutes before.” The combination of flies and poor hygiene—each man was given just five cups of water a day for drinking and washing—spread diseases like typhus and dysentery all through the ranks.

Ultimately, more men were taken out of commission by illness and malnutrition than by battle wounds. After four months in the trenches, the majority of the men were considered “totally unfit for active service,” Gammage writes in his book The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, the source of many of the first-person accounts quoted here. “Yet most stayed proudly in their trenches, determined to fight to the end.”

The end came in December 1915, when snow began to fall on the trenches and the Turkish command brought heavy artillery to bear on the ANZAC beachhead. Allied commanders decided that continuing the fight was pointless. “The point was to take the Dardanelles and let the British navy sail through to Constantinople,” Reid says. “If you’re not going anywhere, what’s the point of the campaign?”

Using a variety of clever tricks—rifles set up to fire on their own, men ordered to stand around in the open as decoys—ANZAC commanders managed to evacuate 90,000 men in less than two weeks with almost no losses. On Dec. 19, 1915, the last ANZACs left Gallipoli under cover of darkness. They weren’t entirely glad to go, says McGibbon: “There was a terrible feeling that they were leaving their mates. A lot of them were unburied.”

Historians today see Gallipoli as a waste—of resources, of men, and of time. Nearly 8,700 Australians were killed at Gallipoli. New Zealand, a much smaller country, lost 2,700 men. More than 30,000 British and French troops died in the fighting elsewhere on the peninsula. Many of the bodies were never recovered or identified, and today the entire battlefield is considered a graveyard.

Landing of French troops in Moudros (Lemnos island) 1915
French troops in Moudros (Lemnos island) in 1915.

Photo by Agence Rol/Bibliothèque nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons

The man who cooked up the whole scheme was very nearly ruined by Gallipoli. Before the battle was even over, Churchill resigned from his position in disgrace. He briefly commanded a unit on the Western Front, then spent nearly 20 years in political obscurity. He was loathed by soldiers at Gallipoli. “As for Winston,” a British officer wrote in a letter home, “I would like to see him die in some of the torments I have seen so many die in here.”

The Turks may have suffered the most. Estimates of the Turks killed defending their homeland range from 50,000 to 90,000. For the Ottoman forces, the victory was short-lived. Together with their German allies, the empire surrendered to the Allies in 1918 and was dismantled at the Treaty of Versailles.

Remarkably, Kemal was conciliatory to his foes. ANZACs and Turks respected each other during the fighting, and nearly a century later, the three-way friendship is still strong. “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace,” Kemal said on the 20th anniversary of the battle. “After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” Today, the words are carved in marble at a memorial on the beach at ANZAC Cove.

* * *

From the moment the first ANZACs landed, the battle has been woven into the identity of modern Turkey, New Zealand, and Australia. For Turks, the battle is remembered for the exploits of Mustafa Kemal, who leveraged the prestige from his successful battlefield command at Gallipoli to become Turkey’s founding president.

Kemal, who died in 1938, is something of a George Washington figure in Turkey, usually referred to as “Atatürk,” or “Father of the Turks.” Determined to turn his homeland into a modern European nation after the war, Kemal changed the national script from Arabic to the Latin alphabet, promoted Western dress, and pushed for the separation of the state and Islam. His picture still hangs in airports, offices, and stores all over Turkey; a massive statue of him overlooks the hill at Chunuk Bair. “Kemalists” come to Gallipoli to celebrate his secular, Western-oriented legacy.

But in the last decade, the battlefield has also become an important destination for growing numbers of Turkish Islamists, who see Gallipoli as a rare Muslim victory over aggressive Westerners. “Gallipoli is an important symbol for both sides of Turkish society,” says Gürsel Göncü, the editor of NTV Tarih, a popular Turkish history magazine. “On one side, nationalists are praising Mustafa Kemal. On the other side, they’re talking about the importance to Allah.”

The battle has become a major symbol in Australia and New Zealand as well. Gallipoli helped both countries shape an independent national identity as something more than British subjects, albeit within the British Empire. “We see it as central to our national identity,” says New Zealander McGibbon. ANZAC Day, which commemorates the early-morning assault on April 25, is the equivalent of Veterans Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one, celebrated with parades and memorial services. Every year, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders make their way around the world to a wide marble memorial at ANZAC Cove for a dawn service commemorating the landing.

Historians, meanwhile, are excited about the possibility that the survey might provide new information about the fight: Hundreds of books have been published about Gallipoli, not to mention a 1981 movie starring Mel Gibson. But most rely on soldiers’ accounts and memoirs, which can be imprecise and vague. “Battlefield archaeology is the only way to test the facts,” says Göncü. “I hope this helps us separate the history from the myth.”

The survey is also a timely intervention. Sipping strong Turkish tea in one of the hotels that line the waterfront in the town of Eceabat, the staging point for many battlefield tours, professor Tuncoku says a rising tide of visitors is overwhelming the area. “Every year 4 million Turks come to the peninsula,” Tuncoku says. “What I am worried about is that it’s becoming like an amusement park.” Between March and the end of September, more than 250 buses roll past Tuncoku’s house each weekend.

Even during the middle of the week, the battlefield is hardly a peaceful place. At Chunuk Bair, a hilltop that changed hands several times during the fighting, tour buses park in a dusty lot next to a massive statue of Mustafa Kemal. Hawkers sell ice cream and knickknacks. When the wind is right, the hum of diesel generators rumbles hundreds of yards down the hill to the thickets where Sagona’s survey team is documenting trench lines.

As the 100th anniversary of the battle gets closer, the increased interest in Gallipoli may be putting the future of the battlefield in jeopardy. Some Turkish historians worry the lines of tour buses are accelerating erosion. And increasing visitor numbers means a demand for more infrastructure: wider roads, more parking lots and other facilities, all built on top of the battlefield. Last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened a state-of-the-art, $40 million visitors center close to the park’s entrance. Documenting what’s still left may help advocates protect it from further damage.

Yet there’s no way to preserve a battlefield like Gallipoli forever. Wind, rain, and plant growth will continue to blur and eventually erase traces of the fight here. That makes the survey work all the more important. Sagona and the rest of the team are creating a snapshot of a battlefield about to disappear, one that future historians and archaeologists can use long after the last trenches have vanished.

Descendants of Australian war veterans visit Australian soldier cemetary at Anzac Cove
Daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters of Australian war veterans who fought at Gallipoli visit a cemetery at ANZAC Cove on March 19, 2008.

Photo by Fatih Saribas/Reuters

*Correction, Nov. 13, 2013: The article originally stated that by the time the Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of the Germans, it had shrunk to roughly the size of modern Turkey. In fact, the empire had shrunk to roughly twice the size of modern Turkey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)