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?
Unlikely though it seems, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the French Foreign Legion over the last week.
I bet most of you have a few stock images of the Foreign Legion in your heads: men fleeing from their past into the desert and anonymity, absinthe, burning sands and blazing sun, those funny little billed caps with the flap down the back. (Extra points for anyone who knows what those caps are called.)
For most of us, those images come from trashy novels and B-movies that are kissing cousins to the American western at its least thoughtful. Both genres are heavy on the cavalry*, noble (or savage) armed horsemen as opponents, last chance saloons, and strong, silent heroes. Not to mention burning sands and blazing sun (see above).
And just like in the American western, the dangerous armed horseman on the ridge has his own version of the story.
If the French hadn’t invaded Algeria in 1830**, Algerian emir Abd al-Qadir would probably have been content to follow his grandfather and father as the spiritual leader of the Qadiriyah Sufi order. In the fall of 1832, when the French began to expand their control into the Algerian interior, the Arab tribes of Oran elected al-Qadir as both the head of the Qadiriyah order and as their military leader.
Al-Qadir led Arab resistance against French expansion in North Africa from 1832 to 1847. He was so successful that at one point two-thirds of Algeria recognized him as its ruler. The French signed treaties with al-Qadir and broke them. (Similarities to the American western, anyone?) After a crushing defeat in 1843, he was hunted across North Africa as an outlaw.
Abd al-Qadir surrendered at the end of 1847 and was imprisoned in France until 1853. Following his release, he settled in Damascus, where he entered the stage of world history one last time. In 1860, the Muslims of Damascus rose and began slaughtering the city’s Christians. When the Turkish authorities did nothing to stop the massacre, Abd al-Qadir and 300 followers rescued over 12,0000 Christians from the massacre. Once hunted by the French as a dangerous outlaw, Abd al-Qadir received the Legion of Honor from Napoleon III for his efforts.
Heroism is in the eye of the beholder.
*In fact, the Foreign Legion was an infantry unit. Just saying.
** Over what the French press called the Incident of the Flyswatter. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
In the mid-seventeenth century, the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean were suffering from a labor shortage.
The colonies had originally attracted Britain’s surplus population: dreamers, fortune-hunters, religious nuts, younger sons, prisoners of war, political failures, vagrants, criminals, the homeless, and the desperate. Some came with a small financial stake. Many came as indentured servants. A few were physically coerced onto ships sailing west.
In 1640s and 1650s, the population base in Britain took a hit. More than eleven per cent of the population died in the English Civil War. (In World War I, Britain’s second most devastating war, the loss was only three percent.) With so many young men killed, the birth rate went down. Consequently, wages went up. Plenty of people must have asked themselves, “Why leave civilization for the colonies?”
With voluntary immigration down, involuntary immigration became more important. The inmates of Britain’s prisons were given a chance at a new life–whether they wanted it or not. Grown men were “Barbadosed”–the seventeenth century equivalent of being shanghaied (another word with a past, now that I think about it).
Worst of all, children were snatched from their parents and sent to the colonies as indentured servants. As a result, a new word entered English:
Kidnap. .vt. To steal or carry off children or others in order to provide servants or laborers for the American plantations.