TRAVEL / In the trenches of thyme: Herbs conceal the smell of death on the killing ground of Gallipoli, Ross Davies found

THE FIRST surprise, perhaps, was going to Gallipoli at all. Other Great War battlefields are closer, and I don't even have any family who fought there. But then a chance came to see the place in the company of the historian Martin Middlebrook, author of the magisterial The First Day on the Somme.

A few days before I was due to leave, a friend remembered talk of his wife's grandfather, Leslie Cornell, having kept a Gallipoli diary. Mr Cornell is now dead but happily his journal survives. My friend copied it for me just in time for take-off.

Gallipoli is a narrow, mountainous peninsula which forms the European Turkey side of the Dardanelles. Taking advantage of the outbreak of hostilities, the Ottoman empire (as it then was) had attacked the Black Sea ports of Russia (then our ally) late in 1914. Britain and France therefore declared war on the Turks. In April 1915, British, Empire and French troops - among them 18-year-old Sapper Cornell - landed on the southern tip and the east coast of the pensinsula. The plan was to push north to capture Constantinople by land, and knock the Turks out of the war.

The Allies evacuated Gallipoli 37 weeks later in a bloodless manoeuvre that was to be the model for Dunkirk. But the 37 weeks themselves were the model for every Great War disaster that followed: wasteful, grinding, bloody trench warfare. Some 250,000 Allied men were killed and wounded, more than one in every two of the men sent to the Dardanelles. The Turks say they lost as many, although some historians think the true number might be 500,000. Nobody is sure, because no one counted the Turkish dead. Most of our own men lie in unidentified graves, for their bodies either could not be retrieved before the withdrawal, or could not be identified when the victorious Allies returned to clean up at the end of the war. Many more have never been found at all.

The sepia photographs in the popular pictorial histories of the time show a tatterdemalion army of mules and men - strapping and near-naked Anzacs (Australians and New Zealanders) and puny, snaggle-toothed Tommies from the British slums, volunteers fetched out by Kitchener's 'Your Country Needs You' poster. They were an army of ragamuffins, clinging to tiny gullies on the seaward side of baking, lunar mountains that seem to rear straight up out of the Aegean. You can almost smell them. They put up a good fight, but were no match for the incompetence of their commanders - or for the savagery of the climate.

Heatstroke, dysentery and dehydration by day, frostbite by night; raving for water in flyblown trenches one week, men were drowned in them by flash floods the next. Yet the Dardanelles are also the Hellespont, which Leander swam for love of Hero. In 1810 Byron emulated him. It's where Alexander crossed to ravage Asia, and coming from the opposite direction, Xerxes built his bridge of boats in order to plunder Europe. On a clear day, you can see Troy. Gallipoli was indeed a campaign to attract literary men: it was on the voyage here that Rupert Brooke ran out of teatimes with honey, bitten on the lip by a mosquito.

I read Leslie Cornell's journal on the plane, and soon I was standing on 'S' beach at Morto Bay, where he had landed. We'd had a short drive from the ferry, because we were staying at Canakkale, a half-hour's cruise distant, since there aren't many hotels on Gallipoli. A tiny strip of blazing white sand, a jumble of rocky scrub sloping gently upwards inland, and to the right, a steep headland baked in the sledgehammer heat, the still air laden with the tang of rosemary, thyme and wild fig. There are wild tortoises (or as wild as tortoises get) in the head-high parched grass, and - if you're unlucky - the odd scorpion or tarantula.

No. 1669 Sapper Cornell had more immediate worries when he landed on 'S' Beach, just east of Cape Helles. He has stomach-ache and diarrhoea when he comes in with the invasion fleet at dawn on 25 April: well out to sea, he and a party of South Wales Fusiliers transfer from a battleship, HMS Cornwallis, to a tug, and from the tug to a rowing- boat. The Cornwallis, along with other British, French and Russian battleships, then begins to blaze away at the Turks, who blaze back. This goes on until midday. 'Am getting used to the shell bursts, have to carry on and not notice it,' Sapper Cornell notes, as the rowing-boat nears the shore.

Men are being wounded and an officer is killed before Cornell's boat beaches. His pal Linggood is hit in both legs as they scramble from the boat. Once ashore, fusiliers bayonet-charge the Turkish front trench and fight their way up the headland to take out the gunnery observation post at its summit.

Cornell and the other sappers, meanwhile, have to stay on the exposed beach to unload stores from the boats. Shells burst in the water all around them, snipers' bullets zip past. Not until dark can the engineers dig in. The shells continue to rain down only yards away. At 11.30pm, the Turks counter-attack but are beaten back. Then it rains.

Sapper Cornell's journal, like the campaign itself, begins in Boy's Own Paper glory - it was much, much worse on other beaches nearby - but diary and battle both soon bog down into a war of attrition. The Allies are unable to push far inland, the Turks unable to drive them into the sea. By the end of the first week, the advance falters, and Sapper Cornell and his mates are stuck in trenches it is suicide to leave in daylight. 'Any amount of ours were wounded, and the stretcher-bearers could not get up to carry them off. It was a shocking sight to see them struggling back along the beach, very bad wounds.' Before long, Sapper Cornell is spending much of his time making crosses.

'S' Beach, Morto Bay and indeed much of the Gallipoli peninsula are much as they were before the shooting started. Despite its miles of idylllc beaches and quiet pine forest, the peninsula is not being developed. Part of it is being kept as a national park in memory of the fallen of both sides: Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular post-war Turkish state, came to prominence during the Gallipoli fighting, when he rallied Turkish troops reeling from the Allied landings.

On the headland under which Sapper Cornell crouched, however, there is one change. A glum monolith now straddles the summit. It's the monument to the Turkish dead, and at its foot there is an ill-lit museum. As my eyes adjusted from the harsh sunlight to the gloom, I found myself being grinned at by a glass case of Great War false teeth. What next, I quailed? A skull, that's what's next. And in its crown was a neatly drilled hole the size of a new five-pence piece: it seems to be the work of one of the other exhibits, a shrapnel shell which explodes in the air, hailing lead shot the size of ballbearings on the men below.

Following Sapper Cornell around Gallipoli, it became clear that today's visitor can see more of the peninsula than he ever did. And, away from the trenches he dared not leave, into the open country beyond the clifftop gullies the Anzacs were pinned to, Gallipoli is surprisingly beautiful. Rolling hills and pinewoods alternate with fields of wheat, sesame and aubergine, themselves studded with olive groves and the (very) occasional hamlet. Above all, the heavy scent of herbs, flowers and blossom - cornflower, lavender, oleander, rock rose. And everywhere, as if a reminder of what happened here: poppies, poppies, poppies.

Further north on the Aegean coast, at the bay now officially called Anzac Bay as a gesture of reconciliation by the Turks, the hills that rose out of the sea are separated from it by a new road, and are lunar in shape only. Bare in the photographs of 1915, they were set ablaze by shell fire, the vegetation chopped down for cooking fires or chewed up by mules. Now the slopes are a riot of strawberry trees and aromatic, multi-coloured scrub.

High above Anzac Cove and its beach, which is now littered with sea urchins rather than with shell cases, I parted company with Sapper Cornell for a while, and went in search of The Nek, the narrow ridge which is the scene of the heartbreaking and deadly bungle in Peter Weir's film Gallipoli. On 7 August 1915, four waves of Australians were sent over the top into machine-gun fire as a diversion from a 'real battle' elsewhere.

How can it all be so small, you find yourself wondering? The ridge is only 30 metres wide in parts, linking one Turkish-held hill with an Anzac one. The trench itself is tiny, and there are dizzying views - and drops - on either side. The trench would have been washed away by now, had not the choking scrub rooted in its sides. Or should such places be allowed to vanish? As for the men, they're buried in a War Graves Commission cemetery right where they fell - in an area the size of three tennis courts. Of the 316 graves, only five are identified. The men lay where they fell until the Allies were able to return three years later.

There is one kind of happy ending to bring back from Gallipoli, Sapper Cornell's. Duty took him out of the trenches one moonlit night to repair the barbed wire, and a sniper hit him in the thigh. Being night-time, it was possible to get Sapper Cornell back to the trench, and soon he was on his way to hospital in Alexandria. His was a 'Blighty wound', an honourable ticket home.

Gallipoli is both heartbreakingly tragic and beautiful. Battlefield beachcombers could search its gullies for weeks. But it would be a rash souvenir- hunter who did so alone. For all its beauty, Gallipoli is still a wild and lonely place. Meet with an accident in those hills, and it could be a long time before help came along. Gallipoli has had victims enough.

Visits to Gallipoli can be arranged by Middlebrook- Hodgson Battlefield Tours, 48 Linden Way, Boston, Lincolnshire PE21 9DS, tel: 0205 364555.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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