On the same day as Armenians around the world marked the centennial of the start of what is known as the Armenian genocide, the Turkish government embarked on its own somber commemoration. But this had nothing to do with the massacres triggered after Ottoman officials ordered the mass deportation of ethnic Armenians a century ago, and led to the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians. (Successive Turkish governments have refused to acknowledge the events as a "genocide.")
Rather, Turkish officials and foreign dignitaries observed another event that took place 100 years ago: the start of the Gallipoli campaign, one of the bloodiest and most futile episodes of World War I, a conflict which is often described as a tragic, maddening mistake.
On April 25, 1915, the British launched an amphibious assault on the Gallipoli peninsula, with the goal of capturing Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. What followed were a series of brutal engagements over a period of nine months that ended after Allied forces eventually withdrew. It was a calamitous blunder for the British, and came at a steep price for all: 86,000 Ottoman soldiers and some 45,000 Allied troops died.
"I had two rifles smashed in my hands," wrote one Australian soldier, describing the days of vicious, sometimes hand-to-hand combat that continued after Anzac troops landed on Turkish soil. "The piece of ground opposite us was literally covered with dead bodies, our own boys and Turks. God knows what our losses were, must have run into thousands." Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played a conspicuous role in the remembrance of Gallipoli. On April 20, his government released a stirring, cinematic video (see above) hailing the Ottoman martyrs of Gallipoli. In the video, Erdogan himself narrates a nationalist poem steeped with religious overtones. The clip ends with an image of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish republic, who was at the battle himself.
Critics have panned the video as propaganda for Erdogan's ruling party, with general elections slated for June. Some also are uncomfortable with its Islamist edge, especially considering Ataturk's staunchly secularist legacy, which many fear Erdogan is unraveling. Erdogan was joined by the families of veterans and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his New Zealand counterpart John Key and Britain's Prince Charles.
But the shadow of the Armenian massacre still hung over proceedings. In a statement read out at a ceremony at an Armenian church in Istanbul, Erdogan said that he and his government "are cognizant of the sorrowful events experienced in the past by the Armenian community" and "share your pain." But he maintained Turkey's long-held position of not recognizing the events as a "genocide," and stressed the suffering experienced by all.
"In World War I, which ranks among humanity's major catastrophes, millions from all nations also perished within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire," said Erdogan in his statement. "Today, we are working and striving together with all our citizens and friends, regardless of their ethnic or religious identities, to attain a better future on the basis of peace, harmony and fraternity."
That sort of commitment, Erdogan said, could be seen at Gallipoli, where his government now hosted "the grandchildren of those who had arrived from all over the world a century ago to invade our shared homeland."