In response to my recent post on the American Civil War, blog reader Karen Eliot talked about her experiences visiting Gettysburg.
Her comments left me thinking about what makes battlefield visits such a powerful experience. I’ve certainly walked my share of Civil War battlefields: Gettysburg, Antietam, Pea Ridge, and my hometown battlefield of Wilson’s Creek. (Not to mention a few Revolutionary War and War of 1812 sites. I’m an equal opportunity history nerd.) My Own True Love will tell you that I tear up at every battlefield I visit. Or at least get a lump in my throat.
But thinking it over, I’m not sure that the experience would be quite so powerful if the National Park Service weren’t there to lead me by the hand. I think it takes a special person to be able to walk into an empty field and see the sweep of a past battle. I’m not that person. I need a guide, an exhibit, or at least a few historical markers. (Have I mentioned how much I love historical markers?)
Which brings me to the battlefield visit that hit me hardest: Gallipoli.
Fought at the Dardanelle Straits, where Turkey has one foot in Europe, the Gallipoli campaign of World War I was the first major amphibious operation in modern warfare. The British and French hoped to drive Turkey out of the war and gain control of the warm water ports of the Black Sea. The campaign started out as a slapdash naval expedition in which the big powers expected to blow Turkey out of the water–so to speak. It turned into the grimmest of trench warfare. Trenches were close enough together that soldiers could toss a live grenade back and forth across the lines several times before it exploded in a horrible parody of the childhood game of Hot Potato. Water was so scarce on the European side that they tanked it in from Egypt. ( That’s a long water run. Look at a map.)
The campaign was a military stalemate paid for by heavy losses on both sides, but it was a formative event for three modern nations: Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. Today the Gallipoli National Historic Park is a pilgrimage site for all three countries.
My Own True Love and I traveled to Gallipoli from Istanbul in a tour bus. Many of our fellow travelers that day were New Zealanders and Australians whose father/uncle/grandfather/great-grandfather had fought at Gallipoli. (ANZAC Day is a national holiday in both Australia and New Zealand commemorating the landing of Australian and New Zealand forces.) Our tour guide was a retired Turkish naval captain for whom Gallipoli was a lifelong passion. The museum was heart-breaking. You could walk the trenches in the battlefield. The memorial honored the soldiers from both sides. The combination was magical.
But the thing I remember most clearly is the end of the day. Every tour of the Gallipoli National Historic Park ends in front of a statue of the oldest Turkish survivor of the battle and his young granddaughter, who holds a bouquet of rosemary for remembrance. He is said to have told his granddaughter that every man who died at Gallipoli is part of Turkey now and should be honored. Visitors add rosemary springs to the granddaughter’s bouquet from bushes that surrounded the memorial. Because My Own True Love held the highest military rank of anyone on our bus, Captain Ali invited me to step forward to add a spring of rosemary to the bouquet on behalf of our group. Did I get all teary? You bet.
Remembrance is, ultimately, why we visit battlefields. Remembrance of those who died and those who survived, of causes lost and causes won, of the reasons we go to war, of greed, honor, bravery and shame. Remembrance of the world we have lost on the road to today.
What battlefield visits made an impact on you?