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  • Writer's pictureCactusflower

Epic battles at Gallipoli and Troy: Achilles in the Trench

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Row upon row of Turkish soldier graves at Gallipoli.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was a brilliant Oxford classics scholar who fought at Gallipoli, just across the Dardanelles from ancient Troy, in World War I. He was on leave and awaiting duty in the area of ancient Troy when he wrote one of the best-known poems of that war: "Achilles in the Trench." Here are the first and last stanzas:

Was it so hard, Achilles?

So very hard to die?...

…Stand in the trench, Achilles,

Flame-capped, and shout for me!

The poems of World War I were nowhere near my mind as we headed from Istanbul down south to the Gallipoli peninsula on a sunny early summer day. Our ultimate destination was Troy, a visit I had dreamed of for years but never had the time or money to make. Now we had time, a rental car, and great weather.

Heading down the highway from Istanbul to Gallipoli (Gelibolu in Turkish) and Canakkale, near Troy.

Gallipoli and Troy, next door, but thousands of years apart

The battle sites of Gallipoli were, frankly, a secondary consideration in my mind, showing a real lack of understanding on my part. The sites were on the way, they were famous, but the Gallipoli Campaign was bloody and incredibly tragic, with more than 100,000 young men lost.

While it’s true that the 10-year battle known as the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad was also bloody, it didn’t seem real. There were no sad photos of soldiers dying or wishing they were dead, nothing of bombs exploding and ships under attack. The Trojan War was literature! I had studied Homer’s Iliad and indeed all of classical antiquity for the literature, the romance, and the tales of gods and heroes. How exciting it was, and still is, to me.

But there was no way to romanticize Gallipoli, a campaign that took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey from February 1915 to January 1916. The peninsula is located in the southern part of East Thrace, the European part of Turkey, with the Aegean Sea to the west and the Dardanelles strait to the east.

Our visit to Gallipoli was sobering and reflective. So many dead. An entire generation of young men was lost in World War I, giving rise to the grim poetry of that conflict. There was glory for the Turks in defending their homeland, but even that glory was tempered by the sadness at the loss of life and the futility that so many of the Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops felt.

"Johnny Turk," the term used by the ANZAC soldiers, carries a wounded ANZAC, showing the respect that both sides had for the other.

The human cost of this military undertaking was staggering: approximately 50,000 Allied (primarily British, French, and ANZAC) killed, and 200,000 wounded or incapacitated. On the other side, approximately 50-68,000 Turks were killed, with 200,000 wounded or incapacitated. There are 32 cemeteries that are the final resting place for the dead from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Newfoundland, and more than 30 memorials, grave sites, and cemeteries dedicated to the Turkish casualties.

Churchill's Folly cost thousands of lives

The Dardanelles had always been of strategic importance, but in World War I, Britain, France and Russia tried to weaken the already shaky Ottoman Empire by seizing control of the straits and thus providing a supply route to Russia. Their attack on Ottoman forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles in February 1915 failed. It was followed by an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915 to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul), an endeavor that also failed.

The campaign was abandoned in January 1916 and the invasion force withdrawn. It was a costly defeat for the Allies and their leadership, especially First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who was the architect of the invasion. In fact, Gallipoli has been called "Churchill’s Folly,” and his planning characterized as reckless and irresponsible.

Mustafa Kemal earned the love and respect of his countrymen as a commander in the Gallipoli campaign.

Unintended Consequences

On the other hand, it was considered a great Ottoman victory and, in Turkey today, is regarded as a defining moment in the history of the country. This struggle formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. A young lieutenant colonel, Mustafa Kemal, rose to prominence as a commander at Gallipoli, and went on to lead the Turkish War of Independence and become Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.

Gallipoli was also a defining moment for Australia and New Zealand, who lost a generation of young men for what they eventually considered no good reason--it was not their fight. Gallipoli gave them a sense of nationhood apart from Great Britain. The video below is set to a famous song, "And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda," which was written in remembrance of the ANZACs who died or were injured at Gallipoli.

Though there was no real solace for those who lost loved ones in Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reached out to the other side of the world with these touching words:

“…You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

At the very tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, we visited the Cannakale Martyrs Memorial before crossing the Dardanelles by ferryboat, a 15-minute ride, to the city of Cannakale for our onward trip to the ruins of Troy.

The search for ancient Troy

The Greeks of antiquity believed that Troy (which they called Ilium, thus the name of the Iliad) was located near the Dardanelles. They also believed that the Trojan War was a historical event of the 13th or 12th century BC. But by the mid-1800s, the belief was that both the city and the war were legendary, stories that fed the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epic poems by the ancient Greek poet Homer.

An artist's rendition of the Trojan War.

It was generally accepted that these poems were composed at some point around the late eighth or early seventh century BC, with the poet repeating legends handed down by oral traditions.

The German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed that Troy really existed, convinced by a British ex-patriate whose family owned some land at Hisarlik, today’s location of the Troy archeological site. His excavations, as well as those by others, form the basis for the identification of the ruins at Hisarlik as most likely ancient Troy.

What Schliemann found, however, was not one ancient city, but several, dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period. Schliemann named one of the layers (incorrectly) ancient Troy, and he called the riches that he found "Priam’s Treasure” after the legendary king of Troy.

There are nine levels of excavation at Troy, level seven being the one that scholars believe was Troy that was the site of the Trojan War that we know from literature. Troy VII was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. In 2018, an excellent museum was opened nearby to house many of the artifacts.

Some of the ruins of ancient Troy, with "the windy plains of Troy" leading to the Dardanelles.

The Mask of Agamemnon, who was one of the kings in ancient Greece. This mask was actually found in ancient Mycenae by Schiellman.

Priam's Treasure

As for Priam’s Treasure, that is a story of smuggling, intrigue, and war. Schliemann smuggled the collection of gold, weapons, artifacts, goblets and diadems that he called Priam’s Treasure out of Ottoman Turkey and to Berlin. At the end of World War II, the Russians took them out of a defeated Germany and placed them in a museum in Moscow, where they are to this day. Except for a few Berlin museum officials, no one even knew for many years that the treasures were even there. Germany, Turkey, and even Greece have demanded their return, to no avail.

Two epic battles

Dust off your old copy of the Iliad (or read it for the first time) from your school days! Memories of Helen, Paris, Priam, Agamemnon, the Golden Apple, Athena, Zeus, Achilles and all the other heroes and gods will surely come back to you. If that is too much, rent a copy of the movie Troy, the one starring Brad Pitt. The Trojan Horse from that movie was given to the city of Canakkale by the film’s producers, towering over the town square today.

What is true and what is myth about Troy? One of the current archeologists at Troy, Rüstem Aslan, has said this:

“Priam, Achilles, Hector: [whether] they lived, and died here, we cannot prove that 100 percent…But if you work inside for 30 years, night and day, winter or summer, surrounded by this landscape, you can feel it. You start to believe.”

The Iliad is written in the style of an epic poem: a long, narrative poem that chronicles heroic deeds and events that are significant to a culture or a nation. The Trojan war was by all definitions epic, as it told of battles and events and heroes that helped form the literature, art, and culture of western civilization. The Gallipoli Campaign is epic in its own right, with lessons to be learned about the sacrifices of war and the politics of those who send us off to war. It also set in motion greater happenings, such as the Turkish War of Independence and the coming of age of Australia and New Zealand.

Two epic battles, both with far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our world. Forever tied together by “Achilles in the Trench.”

The Martyrs Memorial in Canakkale looks out over the Dardanelles.


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