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When I was a boy, Turkey was mysterious and exotic place to me. They were not Christians there; they ate strange food; and wore strange clothes. There was something called a ‘bazaar’ where white women were kidnapped and sold into white slavery. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or was it Errol Flynn, got into all sorts of trouble there with blood thirsty men with curved swords. There was a song on the radio that reminded me over and over again that ‘It’s Istanbul not Constantinople Now’, sung by The Four Lads, possibly the first ‘boy band’.
And of course every 25thof April we commemorated Anzac day, remembering Gallipoli; when the Aussie and New Zealand troops, as a result of a British cock-up perpetrated by Winston Churchill, fought without result then heroically withdrew from under the guns of the cleverly duped Turks, who when attacked, had suicidally thrown themselves at our Vickers machine guns, and when we counter-attacked, inhumanely mowed down our brave boys with their Maxims; as well as remembering all our other battles since. It was soon after the war with Japan had ended and the suicidal Turks and the suicidal Japanese were conflated in the media and our schoolboy minds.
Later when I was in high school, our school cadets alternated with cadets from Barker and Knox College to provide the catafalque party at the Hornsby Cenotaph on Anzac day. Comparisons would be odious, so our drill had to be perfect: present arms; rest on arms reversed; and so on. Our .303 rifles were well oiled, their barrels agleam against any inspection; so much harder to clean after blanks than live rounds. I hated blanks. Our bugler was note perfect for the last post and reveille. Our gaiters and belts were blanco’d khaki-green; our boots and brass shone like mirrors. If it came to another fight we would be ready. The Turks, the Japs and Hitler got a good kicking in the speeches.
By the time I was at university attitudes were softening towards the Turks. Quite a few had emigrated to Australia and Turkish food was exotic and trendy. We began to hear that they were brave soldiers protecting their homeland and the whole First World War was a terrible misunderstanding. Anzac day itself fell into temporary disrepute in the 60’s, as the war in Vietnam escalated, and was satirised in plays like ‘The One Day of the Year’.
Today it is commonly understood that troops that were sent to Gallipoli were the lucky ones as the chance of survival there was far higher than that of the troops who were sent to France to fight on the Somme or at places like Villers Bretonneux. Australia lost 8,709 dead and 19,441wounded at Gallipoli over eight months of fighting; in a fifth of this time at just one location, Pozières and Mouquet Farm, on the Western Front, three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties including 6,800 deaths. Whichever way you say it the loss of life in World War One, the loss of the cream of Australian and New Zealand youth in particular, was appalling.
Turkey was still a mythical place when I discovered Ian Fleming’s James Bond books at University. They provided a welcome relief from more serious study. In ‘From Russia with Love’, James finds himself in Istanbul where even he is hesitant about going into the backstreets for fear of the evils in the shallows. But on the way there Bond is scared half to death because his plane flies through a lightning storm. We deduce that these are Fleming’s fears; not Bond’s.
So later, after I was working, and a colleague told me that Istanbul had been one of the most interesting and pleasant places he and his wife had visited, I thought them both amazingly brave.
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