A deserted Anzac Cove shortly before the final evacuation of troops.
A deserted Anzac Cove shortly before the final evacuation of troops. AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL

Wise words from an old Turk at Gallipoli

In 1976, a young Ivan Molloy went on a pilgrimage to Gallipoli, where his grandfather "Poppa Percy" had fought.

The trip was to change his perception of the ill-fated campaign forever, as this abridged version reveals.

AS THE bus rolled on along the narrow bitumen road wandering up the slope from Gelibolu towards the battlefields of Gallipoli, I felt the gaze of an old Turk across from me. The old man was sitting precariously on the end of the torn leather seat across the aisle.

The stares of the locals were no big deal any more. We had been stared at relentlessly ever since we hit the road all those months ago. It was a reality of travelling.

Normally, I ignored such usually-unintended rudeness, but this time the old Turk, a wrinkled but surprisingly tall old man with grey beard and ill-fitting city clothes, commanded my attention.

The Turk appeared very attentive and I caught him listening in a number of times to brief conversations. It seemed as if he could understand English, which I doubted.

I finally turned and met the old guy's stare head-on. But the old Turk didn't shift his gaze.

I then noticed he only had one eye and his shaking hands were fumbling with the handle of his black polished walking stick.

He was obviously troubled.

A general view of Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, Friday, March 28, 2014. (AAP Image/Mike Osborne)
THEN AND NOW: Anzac Cove at Gallipoli, where so many young Australians lost their lives. MIKE OSBORNE

I decided to engage the man and then brush him off once the novelty wore off. But before I could speak, the old grey bearded Turk with one eye, looking to be at least 80, leaned across the aisle and tapped me on the shoulder, as if to solidify my attention.

"Why are you here in our country?" he growled almost rudely, pointing at me with a gnarled finger.

I noticed he carried a bunch of flowers in the other shaking hand. His correct English shocked me and immediately wiped the growing smirk from my face.

"Where do you go to, my friend?" he added.

I was surprised, this guy was obviously well-educated.

"We're going to see the Gallipoli battlefields," I replied.

"And why? Did you know of someone who fought there?"

"Yes! My grandad - my grandfather - fought there all those years ago," I said proudly.

"I came to see where my grandfather fought your lot at Gallipoli," I added somewhat arrogantly and immediately knew I shouldn't have.

Ivan Molloy's grandfather
Ivan Molloy's grandfather "Poppa Percy", who fought at Gallipoli. Contributed

The old man stiffened, then sat back and seemed to think for a while.

He leaned forward again and with a gentle tap of his stick against my leg asked: "But tell me young sir, all those years ago - why did your grandfather and all the rest of his friends come to our shores to kill my father and so many other Turkish fathers and sons?

"Why did you Australians travel all this way to kill we Turkish people? We had no ill will towards you Australians. You who live all the way across the other side of the world!

"Why come and want to kill us? We did nothing to you. We live in peace not war!"

His stare was relentless, even unnerving.

The harsh question stunned me and I had no answer.

I'd never ever considered the Gallipoli invasion in any other context than an Australian debacle. But it wasn't. The Turks were invaded and many thousands were slaughtered trying to defend their country from Churchill's dangerous and deadly folly to end the war quickly.

I sat there, astounded and silent. I could offer no other account, except for the official bullshit line.

I knew I could have regurgitated the official war history and the objectives of the British High Command etc, but this old man was asking the very obvious human question - the simple question that put the simple fact into context.

What in hell was Australia in this battle for? Why was it even in the whole war for?

To kill Turks in far off Turkey for what? For the British Empire and the greed of its elites?

"Yeah, why?" Tucker asked suddenly. He was smiling sarcastically and had been listening in, seemingly keen to further irritate me.

I slumped back in my seat. "Oh, I don't know!" I finally blurted and turned away keen to avoid any more talk of old battles in this strange land.

I didn't realise the old man's question would haunt me for the rest of my life.

All I really knew was that I came to Gallipoli to further investigate my grandfather's experiences and insert them in the "great book" that someday I would write about my family.

Many years later, when writing this book and long before the Gallipoli anniversaries were turned into macabre Disneyland-like concert events by promoters and cashed-up modern backpackers, I would remember this incident fondly.

It did stick in my mind forever, reinforcing my questioning of the whole bullshit politics of that war, and particularly the greed and false nationalisms manipulated to feed it.

I said nothing more on the bus. There was nothing else to say.