Singular Courage

Last September we sailed a small boat from Skiathos in Northern Greece to the Black Sea. It took us through the Dardanelles, the narrow straights that squeezes the Mediterranean into the Sea of Marmora and a waterway of such history that anyone with a sense of the past is left almost giddy: Xerxes with his bridge of boats, Jason and the Argonauts, Byron swimming the Hellespont and the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.

The Gallipoli battlefields are tiny – measured in hundreds of yards, not miles. From the visitor-centre by Anzac Cove you can see the whole battlefield – a rocky hill covered in scrub falling down to beach that was not intended as the landing ground: an unexpected current, duff navigation and the usual chaos of war meant that the mainly Australian and New Zealand troops advanced up what must have been a killing ground. They nearly made it. Except for one man.

When I was studying history in the 1970s the role of the individual was unfashionable: history was made by deep economic, cultural and social forces, we were taught, that reduced individuals to the status of rocks in a glacier. Yet here in Gallipoli it is possible to see where one man’s actions changed of the direction of the world.

That one man was Mustafa Kemel, a lowly colonel commanding the regiment holding the hill above Anzac Cove. He went on to become the founder of modern Turkey, Attaturk. What was at stake was the course of the war. If the Allied troops had taken the hill – and they were in overwhelming strength – they would command the hills above the Narrows by Cannakale, be able to clear the batteries and minefields and force entrance into the Sea of Marmora. From there they could have gone on to bombard Istanbul, force Turkey out of the war and supply Russia through the Black Sea. Churchill’s strategic vision was brilliant – and it really is possible that the war could have been over in 1916. The Russian Revolution may never happened with all its baleful consequences and Germany may have never had the conditions that bred Hitler.

Except for one man. Mustafa Kemel’s regiment was almost overwhelmed. With suicidal courage he personally rallied his men, forcing them to fight at gunpoint, telling them that they had to die. At the same time, massively exceeding his authority, he ordered up reinforcements that just, and only just, managed to hold the line during that crucial day. Without question, without him the hill would have been taken.

And the world would have been different.

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