By: Sarah Midford and Jessie Birkett-Rees
The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe, killing millions and setting Europe on the path to further conflict. The eight month battle for the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 provides an outstanding example of the entrenched conflicts over strategic patches of land during the ‘Great War.’ However, in spite of the large-scale loss and destruction, the conflict at Gallipoli helped provide the national foundation of three young nations: Turkey, Australia and New Zealand.
Almost 100 years since the battle, a team of historians and archaeologists have returned to the Peninsula to examine the archaeological record of the battlefields and unite this new material evidence with the history of the campaign. The Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey (JHAS) of the Gallipoli peninsula is a tri-nation project between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand that operates within the Anzac Area demarcated by boundaries imposed in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). It is a multinational, interdisciplinary research project, working in a landscape of international cultural significance that has been closed to archaeologists for almost a century.
At dawn on the 25th April 1915 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the beaches to the north and south of Arıburnu. The site of this landing is now better known as Anzac Cove. Named for the men who landed there, it their occupation of a small portion of the Gallipoli peninsula for the following eight months would ensure that this tiny bay and the adjacent battlefields would become landmarks for both Australia and New Zealand.
The battlefields, of course, also have great significance for the Turkish nation. It was here that Mustafa Kemal played a prominent role in the Ottoman forces that successfully held off the Anzacs in defence of their homeland. The Çanakkale War, as it is known in Turkey, was the first stage of a long journey that would result in Mustafa Kemal, who took the name Atatürk in 1934, founding the Turkish Republic and leading his country as its inaugural President from 1923 until his death in 1938. As a result of the Gallipoli campaign, all three nations look to the peninsula as a locus of national origin and all three are committed to documenting and preserving the remains of events that took place there.
Today, the peninsula is a peaceful meeting place for all those who wish to pay their respects to all those who died in the Great War. In the twenty-first century, the peninsula is home to nearly seventy cemeteries and memorials to the more than 100,000 Great War dead were killed there. In many ways the whole Gallipoli peninsula is one great cemetery. Under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, the Anzac area, which covers approximately four square kilometres of the Gallipoli Peninsula, was permanently ceded by the Turkish government because of the number of cemeteries in the area. The importance of this area as a peaceful resting place was recognised in 1973 when the 33,000 hectare Gallipoli Peninsula Historical National Park was established, and again in 1997 when the United Nations listed the Park as a Protected Area. Each year approximately one million tourists visit the national park and this number is steadily increasing.
The Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey (JHAS) of the Gallipoli peninsula is a tri-nation project between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, conceived in 2005 and commenced in October 2010. The JHAS is a collaborative project between nations and disciplines, including historians, archaeologists and spatial scientists from Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Universitesi, the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs, who fund the undertaking. The project permit is held by Professor Mithat Atabay, a modern historian, whilst archaeologist Professor Antonio Sagona oversees the fieldwork. This team is examining the landscape of Gallipoli and its modern status as an internationally protected commemorative site, within the context of the landscape’s more ancient human history.
The Gallipoli battlefields within the Anzac area are amongst the best-preserved Great War battlefields but they have never been systematically studied using modern archaeological survey methods. The most recent predecessor to the JHAS was the ‘Gallipoli Mission’ in 1919, instigated by Charles Bean, the Australian war correspondent who had landed at Gallipoli with the Anzac troops in 1915 and accompanied them to the Western Front until war’s end. Although Bean’s undertaking was not a joint national battlefield survey, Turkish Officer Major Zeki Bey did assist Bean on his mission. This Gallipoli Mission was the first and only survey of the Gallipoli battlefields after the Great War.
By 2005 the Anzac area was the focus of mainstream Australian, New Zealand and Turkish pilgrimage and tourism, which together with natural erosion posed a genuine threat to the preservation of the site. In 1995, 4,500 non-Turkish tourists attended the Dawn Service at Gallipoli but by 2005 this number had grown to a staggering 20,000 non-Turkish tourists for the ninetieth anniversary Dawn Service. Turkish tourists also came in the thousands throughout the year, and all this traffic was putting significant pressure on the peninsula’s existing infrastructure. The need to systematically and scientifically assess the state of the battlefields’ preservation was clear.
Working at Gallipoli has posed unique challenges for the JHAS team. The area being surveyed is the ‘Anzac area’, demarcated by the Treaty of Lausanne, within which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has limited rights over Allied graves and memorials. These were brought into question in 2003 when then Prime Minister John Howard moved to have Anzac Cove included on the Australian National Heritage List. About the same time controversy arose in Australia about the upgrade of the road that skirts Anzac Cove. It cut away some of the hillside up which troops first advanced and which is the subject of George Lambert’s famous painting ‘Anzac, the Landing 1915.’ Reports also stated that human bones were being exposed and the site was being desecrated. This was followed by highly critical commentary of the organisation and conduct of the 2005 Anzac Day ceremonies. As this was the 90th Anniversary of the landings there were a large number of VIPs in attendance including the then Prime Ministers of Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. The discussions between the Turkish and Anzac nations before and after the 2005 Anzac Day ceremonies led to the decision to set up a collaborative historical and archaeological investigation of the peninsula.
Gallipoli is a sensitive landscape. In view of the area’s status as a war grave—an open cemetery for the many missing—the JHAS fieldwork on the Gallipoli peninsula is entirely non-invasive. The project integrates historical documents with archaeological field survey and, while we use ground-penetrating radar to look beneath the surface in defined areas, excavation is not part of the project methodology. Excavation is the archaeologist’s principal methodology but sites from recent conflicts present unique challenges. It is not always reasonable to excavate battlefield sites, particularly from historical conflicts still very much alive in public memory like the First and Second World Wars. Nor is excavation always necessary to collect archaeological data. The constraints placed on excavation of sensitive sites like Gallipoli have had a positive effect; they have encouraged archaeologists to embrace minimally destructive methods of recording and analysing the material remains of conflict and commemoration.
Visitors to the Arıburnu/Anzac area today are met with a striking landscape of ridges and deeply incised gullies. This jagged landscape is softened by vegetation which covers what were once battlefields. The limestone and sandstone beds of the peninsula support garrigue, a dense scrubland typical of the Mediterranean coast, which grows in all areas not maintained for agriculture.
The low shrubs are broken by stands of pine trees on the Second Ridge and by the open lawns of cemeteries. The prominent ridges also give structure to historical descriptions of the Gallipoli battlefields, from the First Ridge above the beaches to the Third Ridge stretching from Gaba Tepe to Chunuk Bair. Between these is the Second Ridge, one of the most fiercely contested parts of the peninsula in 1915, where the Ottoman and Allied front lines lay. Gallipoli was a largely static conflict, punctuated by intense battles for small pieces of ground, and the front lines were fairly well established along the Second Ridge by the first week of May 1915.
The Great War was defined by excavation. Ironically, although the Gallipoli Campaign was conceived as a way around trench warfare, trench and tunnel warfare reshaped the landscape, as it did the Western Front. The preservation of Gallipoli’s historic landscape is owed to a combination of factors, including the rugged terrain of the peninsula, the reservation of the land within the National Park boundaries, and the vegetation which covers much of the former battlefield. The rough topography of the coastal terrain near Arıburnu and Anzac Cove does not easily lend itself to agriculture or settlement, and so the area remained largely untouched after the war. This is in marked contrast to the Western Front and even Cape Helles and Suvla Bay elsewhere on the Peninsula, where valuable pasture between the cemeteries and memorials was gradually restored and resettled after 1918. The establishment of the Peace Park at Gallipoli has ensured that modern developments are regulated by the Turkish authorities.
Vegetation has naturally reclaimed much of the Anzac battlefield. The site does not resemble the deforested wartime landscape seen in paintings and photographs from 1915, but the vegetation has in fact prevented the erosion of many war-era features. The dense vegetation also means that conventional survey techniques must be adapted to the terrain. The JHAS operates a feature-based survey, following trench lines to delineate their full extent and recording all associated features. The use of differential global positioning systems (DGPS) ensures that accurate locations are attached to each feature recorded. The locations and dimensions of trenches, dugouts, artefacts and other features can then be imported into a geographic information system (GIS), where survey data is layered and interrelated with other spatial data.
Recording precise spatial information on the location of artefacts and features allows us to integrate these features with historical documents, including military maps and aerial photographs. Aerial photography and its application for cartography developed rapidly in the First World War years and these archival materials provide a great deal of information. The field survey is building a record of features still visible within the modern landscape; comparisons with earlier features depicted in Ottoman and Allied historical maps, plans and aerial photographs, occur within the GIS after field survey. In this manner the JHAS can record the wartime and pre-war archaeological record within the battlefield area, examining earthworks and artefact distributions, investigating various rates of preservation, and studying the relationships between the pre-war, wartime and modern commemorative features. The collated information will be juxtaposed with Ottoman and Allied documents and shed new light on the Gallipoli Campaign.
Artefacts found during the survey include discarded water bottles pierced by bullet holes, fragments of glass medical bottles, tin food containers, barbed wire and expended ammunition. We know that many men never left and remain buried where they fell. Much of their equipment also remained in the trenches, dugouts and other earthworks. The physical record of life on the battlefield adds new dimensions to the military reports, personal diaries and historic records of the Ottoman and Anzac soldiers.
The results of the survey contribute to different scales of investigation. Individual artefacts, from shell casings to uniquely Australian billy cans (for brewing tea), provide insight into the momentary and everyday events which made up this conflict. The surveyed lines of combat and communication trenches can be examined in relation to military maps and records to demonstrate the development of the battlefield over weeks and months. The distribution of earthworks and artefacts in relation to soil type, slope and modern features provides information on the differing preservation across the site in the century since the conflict. In short, the results add detail to our knowledge not only of the Gallipoli conflict in 1915, but of the landscape before and since. This could not be achieved without integrating archaeological and historical methodologies.
The JHAS will complete the survey in 2014, prior to the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015. Our multidisciplinary survey methodology is not new to archaeology but its application to this type of physical, political and commemorative landscape is both unique and innovative. The data collected also provides information about the battlefield’s preservation and informs decisions about future infrastructure development in the area.
What Gallipoli signifies to Turkish, Australian and New Zealand audiences has changed over time and continues to evolve. Although the current Gallipoli landscape bears little resemblance to records and accounts of its appearance in 1915, the landscape that developed during the battle is well preserved beneath the scrub and cemeteries which make up the modern commemorative landscape. All three countries are invested in the best methods for understanding and protecting the Great War battlefields, historic sites and archaeological landscape and the marriage of historical and archaeological inquiry in this region is integral to that end. As the signs of the battlefield fade a little more each year JHAS has ensured that the remnant features have been accurately documented before all evidence of the conflict disappears forever.
Sarah Midford is a Research Associate in Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University. Jessie Birkett-Rees is Lecturer in Archaeology at La Trobe University.
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