A song about Gallipoli, sung by a Turkish soldier
The genesis of a song …
Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Lighthorsemen sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek.
There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages – Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz. And The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs:
Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war. ‘Twas better to die ‘neath that Irish sky than at Suvla or at Sud el Bar…Twas England bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free, But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the grey North Sea.
Over three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.
The song grew out of these many inspirations.
It was first performed in public by HuldreFolk in the closing concert of Coffs Harbour Folk Festival at the RSL on Australia Day 1984. When we had finished, there was absolutely silence in the hall. Then a voice cried out “the sky didn’t fall down!”, and the hall erupted with applause.
Once upon a war…
Monday 25th April is Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance for all Anzac solders killed and wounded in their nation’s wars, and to honour servicemen and women past and present. At first, the Anzacs fought in the British Empire’s Wars, beginning with the Boer War, and then through two World Wars. From the mid -twentieth century, they have fought and died in what could ostensibly be called America’s wars even though these were waged under UN, EU or western alliance auspices: Korea, Gulf Wars II and III, Afghanistan, and the current interventions in Syria and Iraq. Incidentally, Australian veterans are presently commanding mercenary forces hired by the Gulf coalition that is laying waste to towns and villages in Yemen (with the help of American and British weaponry).
At the heart of the Anzac Day remembrance is the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ role the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, Winston Churchill’s grandiose and ill-conceived plan to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing the strategic strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It was a military failure. From the initial seaborne assault to the evacuation, it lasted eight months and cost 114,000 lives with 230,000 wounded.
In 1915, Australians greeted the landings at Gallipoli with unbridled enthusiasm as a nation-making event. But it wasn’t long before they were counting the dreadful cost. More than 8000 Australians died during the Gallipoli campaign. As a loyal member of the British Empire, Australia eventually sent 330,000 men overseas to fight for the King. Volunteers all, not all of them white men – despite the authorities policy of recruiting only Australians of Anglo-Celtic stock, their ranks included many indigenous, Chinese and others. By the time the war ended in 1918, 60,000 of them were dead. As the late historian Ken Inglis once pointed out: “If we count as family a person’s parents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, then every second Australian family was bereaved by the war.
[As for the Anzac Day march], I’d say only returned people could march. And then the day would come, I’d hope, when there’d be the last person marching, the last survivor as it were. And I’d think what a great day that would be … because it would mean we’d been at peace for a long time. And that’s what those men in the First World War were fighting for.”
Bill Gammage, historian and author of The Broken Years.
Gallipoli is cited as the crucible of Australian nationhood, but the Anzacs’ part in the doomed campaign was but a sideshow of the wider campaign. Although it is celebrated in Australian song and story, it was the Ottomans’ most significant victory in the war that was to destroy the seven hundred year old Ottoman Empire secure the reputation of its most successful general Mustafa Kemal, who as Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey.
Some thirty four thousand British soldiers died on the peninsula, including 3,400 Irishmen, and ten thousand Frenchmen – many of these latter being “colonial” troops from West and North Africa. Australia lost near on ten thousand and NZ three. Some 1,400 Indian soldiers perished for the King Emperor. Fifty seven thousand allied soldiers died, and seventy five thousand were wounded. The Ottoman army lost fifty seven thousand men, and one hundred and seven thousand were wounded (although these figures are probably much higher). An overlooked fact is that some two thirds of the “Turkish” solders in Kemal’s division were actually Arabs from present day Syrian and Palestine. Gallipoli was indeed a multicultural microcosm of a world at war.
Whilst the flower of antipodean youth is said to have perished on Gallipoli’s fatal shore, this was just the overture. Anzac troops were despatched to the Western Front, and between 1919 and 1918, 45,000 Aussies died there and 124,000 were wounded.
Once upon a war, the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915-16 was a sideshow to the bigger theatres of the Eastern and Western Fronts. To some, it was a reminder that they could not stomach Winston Churchill for this was said to be his greatest stuff up in a career replete with such (although they would admit that he more than exonerated himself his and Britain’s Finest Hour). For many Australians and New Zealanders, it was a national baptism of fire, of youthful sacrifice on the altar of Empire. And notwithstanding the military defeat and retreat, the folly and foolhardiness, in the harrowing adversity and heroism, lay the bones of a young country’s enduring creation myth.
Former soldier James Brown, Anzac’s Long Shadow
There are abundant primary and secondary sources relating to the Dardanelles campaign and the Anzacs, but here is a wiki primer: Gallipoli Campaign
And here is HukdreFolk’s rendering of Russian poet Yevtushenko’s account of the parade of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow in 1941, juxtaposed with The Watchers of the Water.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
7 thoughts on “The Watchers Of The Water”
[…] to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish […]
[…] https://howlinginfinite.com/2015/04/19/the-watchers-of-the-water/ […]
Poignant moment captured by your beautiful lyrics & soft but tense tones when the soldiers, the fodder, anywhere & anytime wait with baited breath for the battle. While the commanders lead from behind.
[…] Also in In That Howling Infinite, Tall Tales, Small Stories, Obituaries and Epiphanies, Small Stories – A Tale of Twin Pines and The Watchers of the Water […]
[…] For other posts about Turkey in In That Howling Infinite, see: People watching in Sultanahmet, Sailing to Byzantium, Ottoman Redux – an alternative history and The Watchers of the Water […]
[…] For other posts about Turkey in In That Howling Infinite, see: Sailing to Byzantium, Ottoman Redux – an alternative history and The Watchers of the Water […]
[…] For other posts about Turkey in In That Howling Infinite, see: People watching in Sultanahmet, Ottoman Redux – an alternative history and The Watchers of the Water […]