Robert Fisk: Lessons from the ghosts of Gallipoli

Ataturk's words were the most compassionate ever uttered by a Muslim leader

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Wellington reminds me of Maidstone, Kent, when I was a little boy; the 1912 façades of so many New Zealand shops, the narrow streets, the trolley buses, the giant coins, the slightly old-fashioned English, the demand for doughnuts and hot-cross buns. Everyone in Maidstone used to call each other "mate" - yes, I know this is an Australian expression as well - and older men in Wellington wear ties, just as my Dad did back in the 1950s.

My grandmother Phyllis used to run a string of cafés in Kent - my grandfather Arthur was her baker at the Bridge Café in Maidstone which was located inside a genuine Tudor house, torn down after they sold it, to be replaced with a concrete box insurance agents - but my first home in Bower Mount Road was built of lavatory brick, like so many houses in New Zealand.

True, there weren't many Maoris in Maidstone but the cinemas were as art deco as Wellington's. In Maidstone we had the Granada, which showed Hollywood films.

I remember Kirk Douglas in The Vikings and the first cinemascope feature film, The Robe, in which Roman legionary Richard Burton walked happily to his execution because of his belief in Christ, and Charlton Heston in the interminable Ben Hur and Hercules Unchained, the first of the cheapie sand-and-sandals epics. Then there was the Regal Cinema, a snogging flea-pit showing B-movies with glimpses of bare breasts. When the Regal burned down one night, I went to watch the Maidstone fire brigade dousing the flames. Phyllis thought it must have been God's punishment for the bare breasts.

In Wellington, there's an Embassy Cinema and a Paramount Cinema - both dead ringers for the old Regal - and they've shown Munich and Shrek and George Clooney's Syriana, which some younger New Zealand cinema-goers found too complicated to understand. And I have to admit that last weekend the Paramount was showing a 13-year old, two-and-a-half hour documentary film called Beirut to Bosnia in which a certain Robert Fisk walks into a burning Bosnian mosque - on 11 September, 1993, for heaven's sake - and comments on the soundtrack that "when I see things like this, I wonder what the Muslim world has in store for us".

The trolley buses in Maidstone were vomit-coloured double-deckers whose wooden frames creaked each time the electric current clicked up to 30 miles an hour. The single-deckers in Wellington boast no wood but at least one church, Old Saint Paul's built in 1866, is constructed entirely of wood and contains the same brass plaques that I used to read along the aisles of All Saints Church. "To the Glory and in Memory of Richard John Spotswood Seddon, Captain, New Zealand Expeditionary Force," says one. "Killed in Action, Bapaume, France, 1918, aged 37. Faithful Unto Death." Another carries the name of a more familiar battlefield. "In Loving Memory of 2nd Lt S O'Carrol Smith, 9th Battalion Rifle Brigade. Fell at the Battle of the Somme, 25 August 1916, aged 25."

And of course, I remember that 2nd Lt Bill Fisk of the 12th Battalion, the King's Liverpool Regiment, wore his regimental tie for the rest of his life to remind him of the Somme. He arrived there in August of 1918 to fight across the same mud in which 2nd Lt O'Carrol Smith was killed, and just three months after Captain Seddon died at Bapaume which was in turn close to the village of Louvencourt where 19-year-old Bill Fisk spent the night of 11 November 1918. Bill Fisk used to attend the Maidstone cenotaph ceremonies each year, his blood-red poppy in the buttonhole of his huge best black coat although he later refused to wear his Great War campaign medal, the one with "The Great War for Civilisation" engraved on the back.

And then in Wellington's Old Saint Paul's Church, I come across the name of the Turkish bloodbath I have all along been waiting for: a brass plaque with a cross on the top and these words: "In Memory of Sgt W R Richardson, Killed at Gallipoli, 5 December 1915, Aged 31." He died only days before Winston Churchill's military adventure ended in ignominious withdrawal. A short walk to the state-of-the-art and decidedly un-Maidstone-like city museum establishes that William Richardson, service number 13/2243, was the son of Charles Thomas and Charlotte Richardson of Wellington and is buried at Gallipoli's Embarkation Pier Cemetery.

Gallipoli was the West's greatest 20th-century defeat at the hands of a Muslim army. You must have a heart of stone not to be moved by New Zealand's casualties at Gallipoli. Out of 8,450 soldiers sent to fight in Turkey, 2,721 were killed and 4,752 wounded. What other nation can claim an 88 per cent casualty rate in battle?

While I'm looking at the plaques in Saint Paul's, an elderly lady walks up to me, Joy McClean and, out of the blue, says: "My father was at Gallipoli. Yes, he was fighting Muslims but to him I think they were just the 'enemy'. He was fighting for his country, wasn't he, for what he thought was right." And I ponder the remark of this gentle old lady until her mood changes. "There used to be 300 Muslims here," she says. "Now there are 3,000." And then I feel the darkness of these last words. September 11, 2001 has begun to shadow even this faraway wooden church.

I drive out to the south coast of New Zealand's North Island to escape that shadow. For on a cliff face remarkably similar to the hillside upon which the Anzacs landed is a memorial to Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Yes, he was a secularist, a chain-smoker who banned Arabic script and the veil, a man who closed down the last caliphate but was a Muslim nonetheless. And there on a marble plaque is his address to the grieving New Zealand and Australian families who first went to Gallipoli to mourn their loved ones in the 1930s, the most compassionate words ever uttered by a Muslim leader in modern times:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well."

And I find myself wondering what Osama bin Laden would think of that.

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