Never have I read a more vivid account of the horrors of war than in ‘Birds without wings’. The book is about an Ottoman village in the first decades of the last century, when the Ottoman empire was falling apart, the First World War was fought and Turkey became a republic. The historic events are described through the fortunes and misfortunes of the villagers. One of them is a young man with the nickname Karatavuk, who goes to war in his father’s place, so his father can continue earning the family income. He is made to believe the war against the ‘Franks’ (as the allied troops were called by him and his mates) is a holy one, and is willing to fight, ending up at the Gallipoli Battles.
Gallipoli is a peninsula on the west coast of Turkey. Between Gallipoli and the mainland are the Dardanelles, a strategic strait. Whoever commands it can make it up north to Istanbul too, and further north through the Bosporus, to the Black Sea and Russia. The Gallipoli battles took place between April 1915 and January 1916. Karatavuk survives them, and in Birds Without Wings he looks back on the experience. Never have I read such horrible details about war. About slimy corpses, about the dead bodies piled up so high that it became impossible to shoot from the trenches, about weakened soldiers with dysentery who were bleeding, shitting and throwing up so heavily in the improvised toilets that they lost control and drowned in their own fluids. Okay, I think that’s enough to give you an idea.
The troops Karatavuk and his fellow Ottoman soldiers fought against, were ‘Franks who were called Australian and New Zealander, and we found out that they called themselves Anzac’. The Ottoman soldiers were under the command of an officer called Mustafa Kemal. And while they fought this horrible battle, which resulted in about half a million casualties, they didn’t realize that from these horrors, in the end nations were born.
The Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) started fighting as part of the British Empire, and came out of the war as nations who were more conscious of their own identity. You could say that the thousands and thousands of young men who fought and lost their lives for their young countries laid the foundations of modern self-confident Australia and New Zealand.
On the other side, young (and old) Ottomans fought for an Empire that was crumbling down, but from which a new nation was starting to arise. You could say that the very foundations of the Turkish republic were laid at Gallipoli. Commander Mustafa Kemal resisted the attack of the allied forces, which withdrew defeated in January 1916. This earned Mustafa Kemal so much respect and gave him so much confidence that, a few years later, he dared to take up arms against the allied forces who in the end won the First World War. He kicked them out of Anatolia and Thrace and founded the Turkish Republic, of which he became the first president as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
How could I not accept the invitation from the Turkish Media Ministry to visit the commemorations of the Gallipoli Battle on ‘Anzac Day’, April 25th, the date on which at dawn the Anzacs landed on Gallipoli in 1915. Yesterday early in the morning, I went to the Dawn Service, where thousands of mainly young Australians and New Zealanders come together on the very beach where their ancestors left their ships and started fighting the Ottomans. I saw these young men and women wipe away some tears for being there where their national consciousness started. And I saw a Turkish general swallowing away his emotions during his speech, because of the Turkish consciousness starting at Gallipoli – he quoted these famous words of Atatürk. I was impressed to see where ‘Karatavuk’ had fought. To see the strip of land where the Anzacs landed. It turned out to be only a small bay and a small beach, but on that very spot, such important history was written.