Saturday, November 26, 2011

Simple Human Kindness in World War I


The Australians Make Friends With the Turks in Gallipoli

As awful as war is, it's still being fought by human beings, and they don't just check their humanity at the door. Sometimes, right in the heat of battle, sympathy and simple human kindness breaks through. Spontaneous truces occur when groups of soldiers decide they just can't take it anymore.

In the heat of World War I, the British decided that they needed to invade Turkey. It was a ballsy decision, considering that doing so would result in a bloodbath the likes of which the world had rarely seen. So, rather than suffer the senseless death of tens of thousands of British soldiers, they decided on a different tactic: Send in Australians.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) were shipped out to Turkey to seize the Gallipoli peninsula, a task which basically relied on their ability to sprint across the beach and absorb two dozen bullets each before falling over. But the Australians -- who were more than used to living in hellish conditions -- held their own. Although they were unable to drive back the far superior numbers of the enemy, they killed or wounded up to 10,000 Turks while losing only a few hundred of their own.

But then a remarkable thing happened. With the blazing heat of the Turkish beach working on the corpses of thousands of fallen soldiers, both sides simultaneously came to the conclusion that this was a bunch of bullshit. At the very least, someone should give all these dead people a respectful burial.
A view of the scene in front of the Australian lines at Johnston’s Jolly and along Second Ridge on the morning of 24 May 1915. [Sydney Mail 6 October 1915]

On May 24, 1915, a daylong ceasefire was arranged between the troops. The Allied troops and Turkish troops came out of their trenches together to bury the dead. It was hard, sweaty work, but in between, the soldiers struck up quite a remarkable friendship. They started by exchanging greetings and cigarettes before they began to swap badges like players at the end of a soccer game. Thousands of Turkish civilians came out to watch the spectacle from the surrounding hills. For the first time in recent memory, it was kind of like, you know, there wasn't a World War going on.When it came to 4 o'clock, the Turks approached one of the Australian commanders, Captain Audrey Herbert, asking him for orders. He then retired both the troops and walked down the lines and made the two sides shake hands. When a dozen Turks popped out of their trench, Audrey taunted them, saying they would shoot him the next day, to which they replied, "God forbid! We would never shoot you.
"Twenty minutes later, all jokes aside, the indiscriminate killing began again, as though this eerie interlude had never happened.

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