GALLIPOLI PENINSULA, Turkey (Reuters) - Thousands of Australians, New Zealanders and Turks gathered on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula on Thursday ahead of the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of World War One.
Security was especially tight as the former adversaries now face a common threat from Islamist militant violence.
A century ago, thousands of soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) struggled ashore on a narrow beach at Gallipoli during an ill-fated campaign that would claim more than 130,000 lives.
The area has become a site of pilgrimage for visitors who honor their nations’ fallen in graveyards halfway around the world on ANZAC Day every April 25.
The centenary is expected to see the largest ever commemoration, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Britain’s Prince Charles leading the ceremonies.
“The 100th anniversary is a very important moment because we’re at a time now where this campaign ceases to be about memory and slides into history,” said Bruce Scates, chair of history and Australian studies at Melbourne’s Monash University.
“All of the veterans have died, those with any living memory of the Great War have gone,” said Scates, the grandson of a Gallipoli veteran who has been advising the Australian government on how to mark the centenary.
Although the Allied forces also included British, Irish, French, Indians, Gurkhas and Canadians, Gallipoli has become particularly associated with the Australians and New Zealanders, marking a point where they came of age as nations less beholden to Britain.
Turkey and Australia now find themselves allies in a modern-day struggle. Australian police on Saturday foiled what they said was an Islamic State-inspired attack planned at an event to mark the centenary, a holiday in Australia and New Zealand.
Turkey, which borders Syria and Iraq and has been a major transit route for foreign fighters headed there, is also on alert.
“A terrorist movement calling itself Islamic State insults religion and mocks the duties of a legitimate state toward its citizens. In declaring a caliphate, this death cult has declared war on the world,” Abbott told a summit in Istanbul, organized as part of the commemorations.
Turks mark what they call the Canakkale war on March 18 -- the day in 1915 that saw the start of the main Allied naval assault on the Dardanelles Straits ahead of the ground invasion.
Some 130,000 soldiers perished during the campaign -- 87,000 of them from the Ottoman side -- before the Turks, under German command, finally repulsed an Allied campaign that was hampered by poor planning.
But it would prove to be one of the Turks’ few successes in the war. In November 1918, the Allied fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and took Istanbul without a single casualty.
“We might have endured painful wars 100 years ago, but now, 100 years later, is the perfect time to build peace. Let us not create a culture of hatred or contempt based on bad memories,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Istanbul summit.
For the thousands gathering at Gallipoli, the overriding message was one of reconciliation. Scates was visiting graveyards with Halil Koc, the descendant of a Turkish soldier.
“I was accompanying my grandfather in 1990 and we couldn’t convince him to hold an Australian veteran’s hand...But today, I can visit Turkish and Australian graveyards with the grandson of an Australian veteran as we walk arm in arm,” Koc said.
“This is a great message to the world.”
Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Crispian Balmer