The Path Between The Seas
Sailing the Dardanelles is like slipping into last season’s jeans. Things do become tighter with time even, it seems, for that slim body of water known as the Dardanelles Strait separating European from Asian Turkey and the Aegean portion of the Mediterranean from the Sea of Marmara, hence the Black Sea. Grab a map, you’ll understand.
Facts and Stats
The strait is 38 miles long.
At its narrowest, it’s a mere 3/4-mile wide.
The average depth is only 180 feet.
Water flows from the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara as an undercurrent; the reverse flow travels along the surface.
The strait’s geography sealed its fate as a strategic choke point coveted by rulers since time began.
Hero and Leander
“Since I have seen this streight, I find nothing improbable in the adventure of Leander or very wonderful in the Bridge of Boats of Xerxes. ‘Tis so narrow, ‘tis not surprising a young Love should attempt to swim it or an Ambitious King try to pass his Army over it. But this ‘tis so subject to storms, ‘tis no wonder the Lover perish’d and the Bridge was broken.”
So ‘tis’d Lady Mary Worley Montagu in her Letter to Abbe Conti, 31 July 1718, of two important events associated with the Dardanelles. In the first, a heroine named Hero is one of Aphrodite’s tempting priestesses. Her lover Leander is the smitten lad from Abydos on the wrong side of the Dardanelles’ tracks. These tragic figures saw their love triumph over all obstacles including this body of water. Hero would stand, lamp in hand and heart aflutter, awaiting her lover who’d swim the calm summer waters nightly to her inviting embrace. Then, one dark and stormy winter’s night, waves tossed Leander out to sea and winds darkened Hero’s lamp. Upon discovering her lover’s fate, Hero dashed her body onto the rocks and joined Leander in silent death.
Xerxes, on the other hand, was the ambitious Persian king Lady Montagu alluded to who was bent on punishing the Eritreans, Naxians and Athenians for meddling in his father’s affairs during the Ionian Revolt. Xerxes constructed a bridge of boats to cross the Hellespont, as the Dardanelles Straight was also known. Clever lad, this Xerxes.
The Battlefields of Gallipoli
“The water of the Hellespont is the most important channel of water in the world ... The most famous war of all time was fought, not for any human Helen, but to control that channel.” --John Masefield, 1916, Gallipoli.
Truer words were never spoken, especially for the soldiers and families back home huddled around crackling radios awaiting news of their loved one’s fate. The infamous battle for Gallipoli played out along the shores of this “most important channel” you now sail past. Its story is written in the blood of frightened young men who stared their enemy in the eye and battled till the end. A very short synopsis follows. Your more in-depth study is truly warranted.
The military campaign known as the “Gallipoli Campaign” saw its darkest days along this peninsula from April 25th, 1915 through January 9th the following year. This strait, as you know, is now and was then the strategic entrance to Istanbul (then Constantinople) ensuring the open sea route from the Mediterranean to Russia. Joint forces from France and the British Empire were assembled to invade and control Istanbul, hence the Ottoman Empire.
As WWI raged along on many fronts, this giant assembly of British, Australian, Indian, French, Gurkha, Senegalese, Newfoundlander and New Zealander troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in an attempt to secure the strait. A few details are lost in the fog of war but some points remain unchallenged. The battles were bloody, the casualties staggering, and the mission lost.
Turkish soldiers, many led by their future statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, pinned the Allied forces down on the sandy beaches. Other Turks mined this narrow waterway and succeeded in sinking several Allied vessels.
In the ten months of battles, records report an excess of 200,000 casualties. At V Beach, only 21 of the first 200 attempting to come ashore made it to the beach. Combatants here suffered a 70% casualty rate. Fewer than a dozen “Dubliners” out of 1,012 lived through the entire campaign unharmed. At nearby W Beach, 600 were killed or wounded of the 1,000 who came ashore.
Land was taken and given back through battle after bloody battle. The failure to take Sari Bair Heights August 29th, 1915 signaled the beginning of the end to this brutal bloodbath. British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener visited the peninsula and sounded the retreat. Torrential rains and early snow killed many who shivered miserably awaiting evacuation, having survived combat only to succumb to the cold. On January 9th, 1916, the last of the troops set sail for home.
Australia and New Zealand commemorate their formation of the ANZAC alliance every April 25th, their most solemn event of the year. The Turkish people call this campaign the “Battle of Canakkale” and celebrate it as part of their nation’s heroic struggle led by their revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Their brave young men also made the ultimate sacrifice when their country called.
On the cliffs above you sprawls the 81,543-acre Gallipoli Historical National Park, a respectful tribute to those who served here. In a dry, faceless evaluation, the results are given as a “decisive Ottoman victory” with a 59% casualty rate of 220,000 men for the Allies and a 60% casualty rate of 300,000 men for the Ottoman Empire along with Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Stand silently as you sail past. Listen for the echo of a silent prayer, a muffled pleading to live through the night, or the anguished rasp of a soldier’s last breath. Listen, listen, ....listen.
Karyn L. Planett