The West

Anzacs part of Turkish legend
Eceabat mayor Adem Egder and brother Zihni at the house they grew up in. Picture: Steve Ferrier/The West Australian

When Mehmet Kurtdere was a boy, he and the other farmers' sons from the tiny Turkish village of Bigali would venture over the ridgeline near their home and look for treasure in the old trenches above Anzac Cove.

The rugged slopes and shingle beaches of Gallipoli, where tens of thousands of young men once fought and died, were "special" for Mr Kurtdere.

They were the places where his grandfather's stories came to life.

Waiting with rifle in hand when the first Diggers stormed the beaches in the dark before dawn on April 25, 1915, Mr Kurtdere's grandfather was shot twice by the Australian invaders.

But he lived to regale his grandson with tales about the Anzacs.

"He used to tell me the story," Mr Kurtdere said.

"He was a Turkish solider, 25 years old. He said he saw the Australians jump out of the boats, thousands of them. He said they were like ants."

In Bigali, 97 years after the Diggers stormed the beaches, the Anzac legend still looms large.

In the village coffee house, Mr Kurtdere, now a 51-year-old farmer, said the Anzac story was entwined with his people's own legends, their family histories and their childhoods.

"The Australian people in Turkish people's hearts, have a very special place," he said.

"When the Australians came, my grandfather started shooting, single shots. He was with 20 men.

"The Australians killed all but three of them. He said they cut them down like wheat. But he never hated the Australians. He still loved them. He never said a bad word."

Mr Kurtdere's father, Hussein, 80, agreed.

"My father respected the Australians," he said. "He felt bad for both sides. He said it was the war that was very bad."

In the sleepy town of Eceabat down the road, brothers Adem and Zihnia Edger and their childhood friend Zafer Akay sat on the street where they used to listen to "the old people" tell their stories about the war.

The legacy of the Anzacs also lived on in their family histories.

Old artillery shells, bullets and coins wrested from the dirt on the slopes of Gallipoli have been given pride of place in the foyer of the hotel the three men run together.

The brothers even have the rifle their grandfather Ayet used during World War I.

"It was made in 1892," Adem Edger said. "It still works."

On the family farm, the Edgers keep a big chestnut stallion named Murat that Zihnia Edger says is a descendant from a warhorse the Diggers left behind when they withdrew from Gallipoli.

Considering the Anzacs were forced to leave their mounts in Egypt, it is an unlikely claim, but Zihnia remained convinced there was Light Horse in his stallion's lineage.

"Some of the horses they took away, some of them stayed," Zihnia said.

"I believe he is the baby of the Australian horse."

Lt-Col. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Ottoman army officer who famously led the defence of Gallipoli and went on to become Turkey's first president, kept his headquarters in a house in Bigali.

The nine-month campaign at Gallipoli that brought Australia into nationhood also shaped the man who would bring modern day Turkey into being.

The coming of age on the battlefield was as hard for the Turks as it was for the Diggers.

"My father was very hungry," Hussein said. "They ate garbage on the road. They had fleas everywhere. A lot of people died in the winter or from dysentery."

Adem, who served three terms as Eceabat's mayor, was the driving force behind a $1 million commemorative sculpture on the town's foreshore.

Anzac and Turkish soldiers straddle the plinth together.

"They are friends," Adem said.

"The old people are all gone now. We don't want to forget the history. It is your history and it is mine."

Joseph Catanzaro

The West Australian

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