Once were enemies

At Gallipoli in 2003, a Turkish tour guide, Ali Efes, took me to the grave of Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick. He told me that Simpson, with his donkey, had ferried wounded Turkish soldiers back to the Turkish lines.

At Gallipoli in 2003, a Turkish tour guide, Ali Efes, took me to the grave of Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick. He told me that Simpson, with his donkey, had ferried wounded Turkish soldiers back to the Turkish lines.

I'd never heard this claim before. Simpson, as we have long been told, selflessly and courageously risked his life, time and again, to save the lives of other Anzacs - not Turks. Australians have taken Simpson's exceptional heroism to heart, and so too, it seemed, had my Turkish tour guide.

But in a government release on March 1 this year, the Australian Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal separated the myth-making from the facts. They rejected a posthumous Victoria Cross for Simpson, because the evidence shows he was no more or less courageous than the other stretcher bearers, and that many men who gave eyewitness accounts of his reputed feats of bravery were never at Gallipoli at the same time as Simpson.

So why did Ali Efes, a Turk with a deep interest in history, add what no one else had ever claimed - that Simpson with his donkey was so bold as to take Turks to their lines?

I was at Gallipoli in 2003 to perform a one-man show before the Dawn Service on Anzac Day. Titled Lest We Forget - Hic Unutmaya Cagiz, the show uses Australian and Turkish literature and song to tell the Gallipoli story. The most famous Turkish song about this war is Cannakale, a mournful account of boys about to go to war being mustered in the Aynali Carsi, the marketplace for mirrors, in the town of Cannakale, the nearest big town to the battlefield.

While in Cannakale I found the Aynali Carsi, still operating as a bazaar, and bought a small pocket mirror. On the inside plastic flap of this cheap souvenir were the Turkish lyrics for Cannakale. This translation is by Melbourne musician Ozmel Ilgin:

The war came down on us like a fire,

The whole country shed tears.

At the Aynali Carsi - the marketplace -

I'm leaving for the enemy, Mother,

And there goes my boyhood.

The cypress tree grows tall on Cannakale.

Some of us were married, some of us were engaged.

And there goes my boyhood.

They've shot me in Cannakale,

Put me in a grave.

I wasn't dead.

And there goes my boyhood.

Unlike Australia's most popular fictional character of Gallipoli, C.J. Dennis' "Ginger Mick", who revelled in gaining his manhood on the battlefield, the anonymous Turk in the Cannakale song is mourning the loss of his youth.

And unlike Australians in 1915, the Ottomans, the Turks, had been fighting wars for centuries. They are hardened to this brutal right of passage; war is not romanticised in Cannakale.

Turkey's most powerful poem about Gallipoli is by Nazim Hikmet, in his novel Human Landscapes from My Country. An old Turkish soldier, years after the war, travelling on a train, tells his tale to a young student:

I was wounded in eight places on

The night of 6 May.

We were fighting the English,

Their trenches so close,

Their grenades reaching our trenches

And ours theirs.

We rose to attack.

I was hit before taking three steps ...

I started to crawl back ...

The fallen martyrs touch me,

Actually I am touching them ...

Some with blood in their open mouths,

Some face down,

Some on their knees,

Some with guns in their hands ...

This translation is by Vecihi and Hatice Basarin, from their book with Kevin Fewster, A Turkish View of Gallipoli.

The next day, having regained his trench, the poem's wounded soldier is taken to the Dardanelles Straits for evacuation to Istanbul:

... Medics put us on horse carts.

One on top of another,

Like empty wheat bags ...

Ten, fifteen wounded on a cart.

Some cry out,

Some die that minute.

The roads of Ari Burnu are bumpy.

It is dark.

I am lying on my back.

Another body underneath wriggles,

On my chest, a pair of legs, but

Half of one is missing ...

Maggots appeared in my wounds ...

Black headed,

White bodied ...

Maggots are smart,

When I look, they bury

Themselves in the wounds ...

If Allah doesn't kill, he doesn't.

The Turk is strong,

He can endure ...

This poem and the song Cannakale are included in my show, and Turkish members of the audience at Gallipoli often responded by throwing their arms around me, and with tears in their eyes - and mine - they would say: "Once we were enemies, but now we are friends." This sentiment was so often expressed during my visit that I came to regard it as part of the dominant, contemporary Turkish understanding of Gallipoli.

During the truce of May 24, when there was a six-hour ceasefire, Anzacs and Turks were known to have mingled, talked, swapped tobacco and buried each other's dead, all in the same graves. In the midst of slaughter, the two sides made friends. (Documents also indicate that they had a good look at the enemy's trenches, to gain an advantage when fighting recommenced.)

But whatever the realpolitik of the truce, did the Anzacs and the Turks nevertheless begin a friendship on that day? According to the official war historian Charles Bean, a friendliness began before the truce, on that fateful day of May 19, when the Turks lost 3000, dead in a series of suicidal charges. After that, reports Bean, the Anzac feeling began to move from savagery towards friendliness, as the Anzacs tried to save the Turkish wounded if they could.

Also well-reported is a conversation recorded by Captain Aubrey Herbert. During the truce a Turk said to him, as they stood among the rotting bodies: "At this spectacle even the most gentle must feel savage, and the most savage weep."

From these and other such records it seems reasonable to believe that amity did bless that day of the truce. However, it is predominantly the Turks, rather than Australians and New Zealanders, who have carried this friendship story into myth-making about Gallipoli.

Here, I use the word "myth" according to its original meaning, from the Greek, where "mythos" signifies truth. We make up our stories to explain what happens in the empirical world, and we manipulate those stories to create "mythos" (truth), even if that truth may be, in the conventional sense, a lie.

So how does a nation decide which stories are "true" and worth remembering? Was there really a continuing friendship between the Anzacs and the Turks, even as the bullets flew between them? Regardless of the answer, this story has been expressed by several other pieces of post-war Turkish literature.

The most seminal words are from Mustafa Kemal, a Turkisk commander against the Anzacs who went on to be the first President of the Turkish nation when it was formed in 1922.

He is known as Ataturk, the Father of the Turks. He was still president in 1934 when the first official Australian, New Zealand and English party returned to Gallipoli, and he sent them this now famous message:

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.

To us there is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets

Where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

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.

After having lost their lives in this land

They have become our sons as well.

As W.B Yeats put it, there's a "terrible beauty" in those words. Indeed, under the earth's surface are the Anzac and Turkish corpses, tangled together, where they were left after the truce. So in a very real sense, they are always together.

As well as the friendship theme, there's another story the Turks often told me at Gallipoli: that their nation was born of that war.

I didn't respond with a "mine too!" My hunch is that the Australian "birth-of-nation-at-Gallipoli" story helps screen the uncomfortable truth that the Australian nation was born in the brutal British conquest of this land and its original people.

But Gallipoli is home turf to the Turks, and Ataturk was a key figure in the conflict. There's a portrait of him in every public place in Turkey, and his message to the returning Anzacs inspired a subsequent president, Bulent Ecevit, to also write poetry about this war.

This Ecevit poem was inscribed on a wall at Gallipoli. A Turkish friend sent me a translation. Two soldiers, an Anzac and a Turk - Mehmet - both dead, are conversing:

"What winds hurled all those youthful braves

from four continents of the world

to their Gallipoli graves?"

Mehmet asked in wonder.

They were English and Scots,

they were French and Senegalese,

they were Indians and Nepalese,

they were Anzacs from Australia and New Zealand,

ships full of soldiers who had landed on the lacy bays of Gallipoli

not knowing why,

climbed the hills and slopes ...

digging trenches, cutting the earth like wounds ...

Buried there Mehmet of Anatolia

consoled them saying,

"Brothers, I understand you well.

For centuries I also had to die

in distant lands not knowing why.

For the first time here I gave my life not feeling sore

I gave it here for my own in a war,

thus the Sultan's fiefdom, tilled for ages with my hand,

has now become for me a motherland.

Is Bulent Ecevit saying here the Turk could not gain a motherland - nationhood - by invading other people's territory, as the Anzacs had done, but only by defending his own? If this is true for the Turks, by what measure do many Australians believe that our nation was born on the cliffs of Gallipoli, 12,000 miles from home and 127 years after the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson?

For the Turkish people I met, because of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Gallipoli is indisputably linked to their nation's beginning. They invoke how on April 25, 1915, when ordered to take a battalion to confront the Anzacs, Mustafa Kemal took a regiment, having quickly realised that it was an invasion - not a feint to distract from the English landing at the southern tip of the peninsula.

He then apprehended panicked troops running from the rampaging invaders with the order: "I don't order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places". His troops turned and held the ground, and so the people I met told Turkey's story of nation-building with Gallipoli as the moment and Mustafa Kemal as the hero.

Meanwhile, our heroic figure of Gallipoli, and a very different character to Ataturk, is Simpson, and his donkey. Until now that is, because credible witnesses to the Australian Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal have revealed that many stories about Simpson's achievements are "lies".

So has Simpson been demoted? No, not as a man. He never sought his reputation or fame, and like many others, he lost his life in terrible circumstances, fighting for something he believed in, or doing his duty - take your pick. For that he deserves our respect. But it seems that in our storytelling, Simpson was the chosen one who was elevated to represent the deeds of all the stretcher bearers, in the same way that many people receiving honours accept those honours in the name of the group or the cause.

So how do we keep telling this story? Let's consider this: that the Simpson story has had so much currency, not because of Simpson, but because of the donkey. Take the donkey out of the picture and the story dies.

In image and deed, Simpson becomes indistinguishable from the other stretcher bearers - where the awards tribunal has firmly placed him. Put the donkey back in, and Simpson becomes special, and links to other popular stories.

He's the roughneck who nicks a donkey - didn't Jesus ride a donkey? - and becomes the Good Samaritan. He's an archetypal story of our bond with certain animals. Plodding the hills of Gallipoli, the man and the animal become as one, and the donkey represents innocence. And with Simpson shot through the heart, the donkey vanishes from the story, as Australian innocence is shattered as the great adventure of World War I turns into a journey to hell.

So why did my tour guide, Ali Efes, extend this mythology by telling a story about how Simpson with his donkey returned wounded Turkish soldiers to the Turkish lines?

My feeling is that, apart from using the story to affirm the friendship between Australian and Turkish people, that Ali Efes was saying that the Turkish people, like us, value compassion, sacrifice and courage, and that they are universal human qualities, treasured by friend and foe.

That's a story worth remembering, and retelling.

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