Walking Hallowed Ground
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?
I grew up near all Philadelphia’s historic sites — Valley Forge comes to mind. I always loved that where Washington crossed the Delaware (although I’m sure he looked nothing like in that famous painting) is actually now Washington’s Crossing State Park – a place I visited often in my childhood and even now on visits back east. I’m pretty sure Trenton was a battlefield as well and I grew up not far from there. I wish I could remember all the places I’ve been and seen in that area, there are so many – I think growing up with history at every turn you tend to take it for granted. Next time – I’ll be sure to take notes!
Funny you should mention the “history at every turn” issue. My Own True Love and I are planning a trip to Belgium this summer. “Ooh, Waterloo” we thought. By all accounts, there isn’t much there to see. (I don’t count wax museums.)
Fred Hollister wrote a response via e-mail that I love. He allowed to share it with you:
Pam’s moving essay ended with the question “What battlefield visits made an impact on you?”
On the off chance that question wasn’t purely rhetorical, I’ll briefly share my childhood visit driving from Yellow Springs, Ohio, to Miami, Florida, and back again, when I was in 5th or 6th grade.
The Civil War Centennial had kicked off in about ’59, due to the extraordinary amount of interest in the event. That head of steam didn’t last until 1965, of course. Well before April of that year it had fizzled out like Gen. McClellan facing Bobby Lee.
However, in the Spring of 1962 (perhaps ’63) it was still going strong. Don Hollister and I were among the original Civil War reenactors. Well before it became such a fashionable past time we were out there with our make-shift uniforms and cap guns, refitting the War Between the States.
The drive with my parents to Florida gave me an extraordinary opportunity to visit a number of battlefields. We started off in Kentucky and got our first sample of Civil War history. Then south to Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain and the site of the “Battle Above the Clouds.”
On our way North from Miami we stopped at Ft. Sumter – and it is always moving to visit a fort. John Keagan pointed out that along with the few remaining warships, forts are generally the most unchanged “battlefields” one can visit (keeping in mind, of course, that in the early 20th Century the interior of the fort was largely filled in).
Mother, of course, was always up for an historical visit. Over the years, she and I visited quite a few historical sites in Michigan. My Dad remarked on several occasions that he never would have visited so many battlefields if I hadn’t been along.
My final thought are the words of wisdom from our wonderful Aunt Mary. When she learned how interested Don and I were in the Civil War she said “Study it – but don’t celebrate it.”
Spent three days in area and two full days visiting the park and memorials were not enough. Should have had a third. Used dardanel troy Cannakale as a base and left car at Kilitbahir. Our visit was focussed on the British landings in the Cape Hellas area and Morto Bay as well as Gully Ravine. There was more than enough to see with British, French and Turkish sites. It is a must to read up on the Gallipoli campaign before you go. Pretty spectacular and difficult terrain was dwarfed by a second visiting Suvla and Anzac areas http://www.privatetoursinistanbul.com Spectacularly beautiful and daunting/terrible for those who fought there. September is a quiet time for a visit with good weather although very dry. Well worth the visit Thank you all so much.