Photo: Nick Miller
Gallipoli, Turkey: Two middle-aged historians are standing in ditches throwing rocks at each other.
They’re on the Gallipoli Peninsula, where a five-year project to make a detailed survey of Australia’s most treasured battleground is in its final year.
Dr Richard Reid flinches as a particularly well-flung stone lands next to him.
Men of the 6th Field Battery on water-carrying fatigues stop for a rest and a smoke.
Men of the 6th Field Battery on water-carrying fatigues stop for a rest and a smoke. Photo: From ‘Anzac & Empire’.
“Don’t kill me, Simon,” he jokes at team leader Simon Harrington, who threw it.
Banter aside, this is serious research.
The ditches they are standing in are the opposing battle lines at Quinn’s Post, one of the deadliest flashpoints of the ill-fated 1915 campaign.
Rear Admiral Simon Harrington, manager of Australia’s study team, examines an archaeological find with ANZAC Cove and The Sphinx in the background.
Rear Admiral Simon Harrington, manager of Australia’s study team, examines an archaeological find with ANZAC Cove and The Sphinx in the background. Photo: Nick Miller
At this point the Turkish and Anzac trenches came so close the warring soldiers would chuck bombs at each other. Night and day, for eight months, the bombs would arc back and forth, like a bloodthirsty game of catch – Turkish cricketball-sized grenades, and makeshift Anzac explosives backed into bully beef and jam tins.
And that’s what these historians were recreating, to test their theories as to whether they had found the old front line, whether these eroded, bush-lined ditches were the old trenches.
The Gallipoli study, a three-nation project of Turkey, Australian and New Zealand archeologists and historians, aims to look at the battlefield a new way – not starting with personal stories or grand strategy, but with the landscape itself.
Dr Ian McGibbon looks over the battlefield.
Dr Ian McGibbon looks over the battlefield. Photo: Nick Miller
They are hacking into the peninsula’s thorny bushes to rediscover a lost city: an incredible maze of zig-zagging trenches, of caved-in tunnels and old fortifications.
“We are trying to find out what’s still there and what we can learn from it,” says Mr Harrington.
The ground is fragile, eroded and packed with stubborn, vicious foliage. But it is one of the biggest surviving World War I battlefields and one of the best-preserved. Unlike the Western Front it has not been farmed or reworked. Secrets lie beneath it still: rain exposes old bones, bullet casings and artillery fuses lie on the earth, rusted barbed wire runs along the old frontline and old food tins hide under the leaves.
Mel Gibson (left) and Mark Lee in Peter Weir’s classic film Gallipoli (1981). New Zealand director Peter Jackson is looking to make a companion film from the New Zealand perspective.
Mel Gibson (left) and Mark Lee in Peter Weir’s classic film Gallipoli (1981). New Zealand director Peter Jackson is looking to make a companion film from the New Zealand perspective. Photo: Supplied
As well as latrines, bomb shelters and command posts, the team have even found signs of old Roman fortifications – a reminder this land was fought over long before Australia came of age.
Before they leave this year the team aim to finish their journey along the front line’s 14km of trenches.
“People have a view of the iconic big actions, the big battles,” Dr Reid says. “But when you stop and think, what did these (soldiers) do 90 per cent of the time? They dug these trenches and looked after them.”
They were Diggers, after all. And the size, position and shape of the trenches tell their own stories: where was the enemy, what were they pushing toward, what were they sheltering from, how did they live – and how did they die.
“The underground war is a huge thing,” Dr Reid says. “From May 1915 until virtually the end of the campaign there was aggressive tunneling. A Turkish officer once looked over at the Anzacs and said ‘there is so much earth coming up I thought the Australians were digging to Constantinople’.”
Along the way the team hope to identify the locations of famous stories from the way – such as the trench where the first Turkish prisoner was taken on April 25, halfway up the hill from Anzac Cove.
And Dr Reid found at the Australian War Memorial the old diary of an Australian engineer, who recorded in precise detail the trenches, saps and tunnels under his charge.
“He talks about lying in this tunnel listening for the Turks,” Dr Reid says. “He says he was getting a cold as he lay there, trying to catch the sound of the picks of the enemy digging their own tunnels towards the Anzacs. It was cold, and wet, and dark and awful.”
Pinning down the location of that tunnel was significant for Dr Reid – one of those moments historians love when the past is found still impressed on the present.
Professor Tony Sagona leads the field work. After the ‘bush-bashing historians’ find sites of interest, his team follow up with the detail, recording precise GPS locations of trenches and artefacts, taking photos, bagging and tagging.
“An individual find doesn’t tell us much,” Professor Sagona says. “But we look at patterns – and what those patterns tell us about human behaviour. Home-made bricks show us where the Ottoman trenches were. Barbed wire shows us the front line. Bully beef cans on the Anzac side show us where they ate, brick ovens on the Turkish side show us where they cooked.
“It is fascinating. But at the end of the day, in a contemplative moment, you realise what a tragic place this is.”
The team hope the information they compile and the maps they generate will allow the Turkish government to take the next step in exposing and memorialising this historic area.
They will release a book about their work and the new insights it has brought – and there are plans for an exhibition as well.
The search for Maori headquarters
Sometimes archaeology is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
For Dr Ian McGibbon, the haystack is Gallipoli and the needle is a Maori tiki.
Dr McGibbon is New Zealand’s representative on the Gallipoli project. He’s part of the team, only occasionally teased for his nationality.
But his dream is to find the trench where the Maori contingent at Gallipoli set up their ‘headquarters’ – the Maori Pah.
The Maoris carved a tiki, and graffiti identifying the Pah, into the rock face of their position.
Dr McGibbon is desperate to find that tiki – but he’s running out of time.
“It would be just sensational,” he says.
It was on a branch of a big sap (a trench dug from within, rather than from above), which he believes he has identified within the Gallipoli scrub.
But so far the Pah has eluded him.
“It’s like a treasure hunt in a way,” he says (a colleague jokes it would also win him a knighthood).
And he’s not the only person keen to find it. Film director Peter Jackson is keeping in touch.
For several years Jackson – whose grandfather won a medal at Gallipoli – has been planning a film as a companion piece to the original Peter Weir Gallipoli, to tell the story of the whole campaign.
“That story is yet to be told on film, so I’d like to do that,” he told an interviewer.