Gallipoli means many things to many people and countries. To the Turks it is considered a defining moment for Kemal Ataturk and modern Turkey; to the British, yet another example of running a war from a room/bunker in London. For the people of Lemnos, it is the hospital and base for the Allied campaign of 1915. To the Hellenes it is the symbol of division, which I will touch on shortly. For us in Australia, it is a turning point in our nation’s history. It means valour, mateship, heroic actions and honour. The spirit of ANZAC has grown over the decades as Australians have embraced the bravery of service men and women. And now as the ANZAC remembrance returns for another year, it’s time to unpack what Gallipoli has meant to the Hellenes.

I find it interesting (and proud) as a Hellenic Australian that ‘Gallipoli’, a Hellenic name, is at the forefront of ANZAC commemorations. The name is literally derived from the Elliniko term, good town or beautiful polis. In Turkish, it is known as Gelibolu which is a play on the Greek name.

What is neglected in the media is that Gallipoli was settled in the 600s BCE by Ionian and Aeolian settlers. Twelve cities were established on the peninsular of the Hellespont, the body of water that most call the Dardenelles. The area was also known as Thracian Chersonesus, as it is of course in Thrace. This distinct Hellenic character did not change too much over 2,600 years. What did change is the control of Gallipoli.

Troops are evacuated from Gallipoli with a large field gun. Photo: Wales at War

In 1354, Gallipoli was not yet formally in possession of the Ottoman Turks. It remained a Byzantine town, which was two day’s march from Constantinople and also a few kilometres from Asia Minor, which by now was almost completely occupied by Ottomans. Only the city of Philadelphia held out, which it did until 1390.

Whilst Gallipoli may mean good or beautiful, there was nothing beautiful about the power and greed of many Byzantine Hellenes in the 14th Century. It was an empire that was in decline thanks to disastrous losses to Ottoman Turks and the disgraceful Christian Fourth Crusade – and with friends like these who needs enemies! In fact, I’m sure this term is directly attributed to the betrayal of Byzantine Hellenes by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Anyway, I digress a little.

The Byzantine Empire was in the midst of a civil war. There is something in the Hellenic DNA which prevents unity at the best of times. I can tell you that many Hellenes fought with the ancient Persians, city states fought each other, Hellenistic era empires smashed each other rather than take on Rome collectively, and the late era Byzantine elite felt it necessary to attack one another. This civil war gave the Ottomans a chance to intervene directly in Europe. Emperor John IV Catacuzene, who was either mad or simply out of options with his limited resources, sought the help of Orhan and his Turkish troops to deal with his adversaries, as well as taking on Serbians. Orhan was the son of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman. He also married Byzantine Princess Theodora. The civil war of 1352 – 1357 between John IV and John V resulted in enormous pillaging of Macedonia and to a lesser extent Thrace. The two Byzantine leaders allowed this to happen under their watch as a way of paying off their new friends! As a result, the Serbians gained strength and an expanded Kingdom under Stefan Dusan and Orhan was exposed to Europe. With John IV emerging victorious by 1352, the Turks were given temporary forts near Gallipoli to continue their pillaging. This was meant to be temporary and to repay the Ottomans. In my mind, I can only find one word to describe such a chaotic deal; madness. And I am not talking about the band (Madness) here, I’m talking about the absence of strategic thinking for Byzantium. Orhan simply built up his power and wealth. He harassed the Hellenes of the region and when an earthquake struck in 1354 destroying most of Gallipoli, he annexed the town. This was the first time a European territory was formally included in the Ottoman Empire, a blow that the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans did not recover from. John IV feebly protested. Inexplicably, the emperor somehow believed Orhan would play nice and return Gallipoli with some Turkish delights. He paid the price with his exile at the end of the year by John V.

From this moment on, Ottomans had a staging post to expand into Europe. Within eight years they had taken the large city of Adrianople (Edirne). From there, the Ottomans in Europe would never, ever, be turned back. History shows us that without the resistance of the Hellenic Byzantines, most of Europe would have been attacked, potentially occupied. Yet Europe consistently has shown an ability to step on Hellenes. Just look at Mussolini, Nazi vermin, the 1925 Bulgarian border skirmishes, Cyprus, the emptying of Hellenes in Constantinople and the economic crisis. A big thank you to Europe for remembering the bravery of the Hellenes! The elite and powers of Europe really deserve a medal for their support.

The Byzantine Empire in the 1300s, though somewhat weakened, was still a force. It remained viable and could have held out the Ottomans had they not conspired to destroy each other. The Civil War was one of many during the century. Ironically, Gallipoli was freed in 1366 with a mixture of forces loyal to the Pope, troops from Lesvos under Gallitusio and Byzantine troops led by the Patriarch of Constantinople. A decade later after yet another civil war, the Byzantine Empire again lost Gallipoli. This time, it was simply given over by Andronikus, the son of John V, to the Ottomans as a payment for services rendered. Andronikus’ name means victory of a man. Perhaps stupidity of a man would have been more suitable.

Despite the occupation of Gallipoli by the Ottomans, Gallipoli and indeed the entire peninsular retained its Hellenic character. When the British and Allies invaded Gallipoli, the area had a Christian majority. On 30 October at the harbour of Lemnos, the Allies signed an agreement with the Ottomans to allow them access and occupation of key ports and areas including Gallipoli and the Hellespont (Dardenelles). There were numerous Hellenes who volunteered and fought for the Allies during the Gallipoli invasion, with historian Socrates Tsourdalakis identifying 900 Hellenic volunteers who fought under Cretan leadership. There were a further 57 who fought as part of the Aussie contingent.

Unfortunately, Gallipoli became a disaster for the Allies with the folly of such a poorly thought out strategy giving Ataturk his enhanced status, and of course the signal for non-Turks in the region to flee as the Allies were not exactly in a position to provide security. The Allies lost approximately 44,000 soldiers with 97,000 wounded, while the defenders lost over 87,000 with a further 165,000 wounded.

On 4 August 1920, the Hellenic Republic regained Gallipoli and held it for two years. After almost six centuries, Gallipoli had returned to the Hellenes. However, the defeat of the Hellenic military in the Asia Minor war in September 1922, ended the last vestiges of Hellenic rule over Gallipoli and its surrounds. Gradually, the number of non-Turkish people declined for a variety of reasons!

Next time we think of Gallipoli, we should of course honour our brave warriors from Australia, New Zealand and across many countries of the Commonwealth who fought valiantly against an inspired Turkish military. For all of these people, it has significant meaning. We should also remember our Hellenic history which finally came to a tragic end there in 1922. Gallipoli, was as much a part of the history of the Hellenes as it has been for those who fought at Gallipoli during the First World War. Gallipoli, it means plenty to many of us.

* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom’.