There’s a corner of a foreign field that will always be close to my heart.
It’s a parched piece of scrubland, littered with fir cones, overlooking a glorious turquoise bay, and just about as far removed from the stereotypical images of the mud-laden First World War as you could possibly get. And yet it was here, on the scorching banks of the Dardanelles Strait in northern Turkey, almost 100 years ago to the day, that my grandfather – and indeed my very existence – hung by the most delicate of threads.
Fighting alongside the Gloucester 7th battalion in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, Albert Wiltshire –known to all as Bert, was cut down by a Turkish bayonet in hand-to-hand combat and left for dead. Just days earlier he had been “blown sky-high by a mortar shell”, according to a letter sent to his brother, Graham, but this time, there seemed no hope for him.
Bert lay injured with a gaping wound to his side and didn’t move.
However, 24 hours after the battle, as the orderlies were picking up the dead, one of them noticed Bert’s eyes flicker and summoned for help. Miraculously, he was still alive. It took him months to recover but, although only 5ft 3in tall, Bert was as tough as the old boots he used to repair as a cobbler, and he rejoined the army in Baghdad and Salonica. Like many of the war veterans, Bert suffered from the debilitating effects of shell shock and mustard gas and slipped away while I was still in short trousers.
Now,100 years on, I felt it my duty to retrace his steps, to make some sense of the sacrifice of the 56,000 Allies (and almost identical number of Turks), who never came home from that campaign. I wanted to picture where he had fought and to be able to tell my children, and perhaps grandchildren, about it.
The Allies wanted control of the narrow and strategically important Dardanelles stretch of water that dissects former Constantinople, now Istanbul, so that they could get supplies through to Russia. They also wanted to provoke Turkey into joining the war so that Germany would be forced to divert troops there from the Western Front, which had quickly fallen into deadlock.
Unfortunately, a combination of poor leadership, resolute Turkish defences and under-resourced armies proved their undoing and they were forced to concede defeat.
Our tour party to the Gallipoli peninsula - a four-hour coach journey from the centre of bustling Istanbul, is dominated by Antipodeans, 11,000 Australian and New Zealanders died in the battle. Refreshingly, there are four twentysomethings in the group wanting to pay their respects. None of them have an old relative to honour, but simply feel the need to be there.
One of the more worldly-wise Aussies in our party, Sandra, from Melbourne, tells me in hushed tones that many feel it’s their “rite of passage” and that, after declining interest in the war in the 1980s and 90s, youngsters are now flying over to Gallipoli “in their droves”.
In fact, so many wanted to visit Gallipoli and take part in official commemorative services on the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day that a ballot had to be held a year ago to restrict numbers.
A part of me wishes more British youngsters felt the same need.
As we reach Anzac Cove, excited chatter quickly gives way to hushed reflection.
The story goes that a ship carrying Aussie soldiers missed its landing spot, the aptly named Cape Helles, because of high winds and strong current, and pitched up at a beach several miles away. Under the cover of darkness, dozens of soldiers tried to make their way up the impossibly steep bank to confront the enemy and were mowed down by machine gun fire. Wave after wave of soldiers tried to reach the summit against impossible odds, before finally getting a foothold and digging in.
Standing on the water’s edge in the midday sun, with the lack of birdsong adding to the melancholic mood, I look up and a chill goes through me. An experienced climber would have struggled to scale the peak, never mind soldiers with all their kit.
A lone female voice sums up all our feelings when she splutters in her Aussie drawl: “Deeeearr God, they didn’t stand a chaaance.”
It is little surprise there has been mutual respect between Turkish and Australian/Kiwi soldiers ever since. More than 650 of the fallen are buried at the immaculate Lone Pine Cemetery, on the hill overlooking the bay, with more at other sites every few hundred metres or so. The British are mainly honoured at the huge Cape Helles Memorial, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, while towering bronze monuments pay homage to the Turkish soldiers.
Grisly reminders of the fearsome fighting still litter the peninsula, including ivy-covered trenches so close to each other that you could throw something from one side to the other. And across the water at Canakkale, on the Asian side of Turkey, remnants from the battles are respectfully laid out in outdoor and indoor museums, alongside a fully operational replica of the minelayer, Nusret, that claimed three British battleships at the outbreak of the conflict.
The night before the tour, I’d booked into the beachside Iris Hotel, a few miles from Canakkale, and watched, with an icy beer in hand, as huge oil-laden tankers carved their way through the perilous deep-blue Dardanelles waters. I could just make out the Helles Memorial statue and Turkish flag some two miles away.
In front of me, youngsters from Australia, Turkey, Germany and the UK mingled freely on colourful windsurfers and kiteboards on a beautiful, breezy, sun-kissed autumn evening.
I just wish my grandfather and some of his brave pals had been there to see it so that I could raise a toast and thank them.
They may have lost the battle, but their efforts were, ultimately, oh so worth it.
• Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Direct Traveller (0844 414 3071, directtraveller.com) which offers a five-day tour taking in the highlights of Istanbul, battlefields and memorials of Gallipoli and ancient city of Troy, from £315 per person, including bed and breakfast accommodation, transport, entrance fees, guide and three lunches/one dinner.
Atlasglobal (atlasglb.com) flies daily from London Luton to Istanbul Ataturk, with one-way fares starting from £68.