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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 207

Senator MICHAEL BAUME (1.11 p.m.) —Those of us who have visited Gallipoli—and I am fortunate enough to have been there—would be saddened by the devastating fires that took place there late last month. The fires have had an appalling effect on the area. I must say they have called into question the merit of the large volume of pine plantations that the Turkish government, for very sound reasons, had put in that area. Nonetheless, I want to say that my visit to Gallipoli was arranged by the Turkish authorities and I am very grateful to them for having done that. That visit took place in January and the hospitality was astounding. I am assured that all Australians who visit the area receive outstanding hospitality from the Turks. They regard the area as very important to their own history because it was as a result of Kemal Ataturk's successes there against the Allied forces that he was able to get the status to become the most outstanding Turkish leader of modern times, and to revolutionise that nation and bring it forward so dramatically into the 20th century. Senator Short visited it only recently and he also enjoyed that hospitality.

  My guide last January was Mr Graham Lee, an Englishman, now living in Canakkale, which is across the strait on the Asian side from Gallipoli, across the Dardanelles. Mr Graham Lee is at the local university there. His encyclopedic knowledge of that campaign made him an outstanding guide. We became good friends, such good friends that he has written me a day by day account of the fires. I think it is important and I would like to read it into the record because it seems to me that not enough is known in Australia about those fires and their devastating impact on this enormously important part of Australia's heritage. Graham Lee's account reads:

Mon 25/7/94 (late evening)

Nobody paid much attention this afternoon when smoke from a small field fire appeared on the hills over the Dardanelles. Only last week another stubble-clearing operation by a local farmer had got out of hand and resulted in an area of farmland on the plateau behind the village and fortress of Kilit Bahir being burnt.

As day turned into night however, crowds strolling along the seafront at Canakkale, the main town in the area, stared over the water as a huge conflagration ranged out of control along a 20 km front on the far side of the Gallipoli peninsula.

The whole horizon glowed red under a dense black cloud as fire consumed the heavily forested hills and valleys interspersed with recently harvested wheat fields and olive groves.

A surreal atmosphere prevailed; people continued buying icecream and chatting along the sea front cafes, speculating about the villages, the farms, the cause.

Towards midnight as the inferno caught groups of tall trees the sky lit up brightly and through the dense smoke red gashes of heat were seen at intervals crawling their way upwards towards the ridge on which stands the New Zealand Memorial, a testament to the bravery of the men who fought to their last drop of blood on that parched crest during the vital and decisive battle of 6-10 August, 1915.

This summer temperatures were high, as normal, and the humidity above average and the winds sweeping south down the Dardanelles fiercer than for a few years.

Pushed by the wind the fire surged down the peninsula, away from the town of Eceabat and towards the sea on the other side, the Gulf of Saros, where the Anzacs landed.

Throughout the evening streams of empty trucks from the naval base at Canakkale raced along the seafront to be shuttled over to the other side of the Straits.

Titbits of information began filtering over. The Director of the National Park had been killed. Villages were being evacuated. Eight soldiers had been killed. Crowds began gathering near the ferry turnstiles awaiting relatives fleeing from the other side.

In the indistinct confusion of hills that criss-cross the peninsula it was impossible to discern which villages were at risk and which might already have been engulfed by the flames. Most endangered were Kocadere and Bigali. Here was based in 1915 the reserve division under the command of Mustafa Kemal—

that is Kemal Ataturk—

As news came in of landings in the early hours of April 25, Mustafa Kemal quickly mobilised his troops up to the ridge to confront the Anzacs advancing on the other side, hindered by the steep dead-end gulleys and thick prickly scrub.

Now covered with pine forests planted after the area was declared a national park in the 1950's, locals were well aware that once the trees were alight the red-hot pine cones would shoot like a fireball distances of 50 metres or more.

With the whole horizon alight to the northernmost extent of the Gallipoli National Park it seemed possible that the roaring winds would drive the fire southwards all the way to the tip of the peninsula 30 km away where further cemeteries and memorials commemorated the losses of the British and French.

Tues 26/7/94.

With morning the scene appeared calm, smoke arising from only one distant hill but by afternoon the inexhaustible wind had picked up the fire once again and white smoke was billowing into the air along a front at least seven km long, further away this time, somewhere near Anzac Cove.

Newspapers were devoid of any mention of the fire but local and national television gave extensive coverage, bemoaning the fact that the April 5 economic measures prevented planes from being used in the firefighting. The emergency services were totally reliant on fire tenders, and bulldozers. Over one thousand soldiers had been sent over to assist.

Throughout the day came clarification and more rumours. It was the Director of Forests, not the National Park, who had died the previous night, overcome by smoke as he was directing operations. The missing soldiers had been found but over 250 people were unaccounted for. Generally the fire had been contained but the danger was far from over. Attention focused on the Kabatepe headland, ironically the original intended landing place for the Anzacs.

The previous evening hundreds of campers at the official forest camp site at Kabatepe had hurriedly abandoned their belongings in panic and been directed to head south, in a convoy of vehicles on a roundabout route that would bring them round to the safety of the other side of the peninsula. Today some of them returned, three university students luckily finding their tent untouched but reporting many others burnt to the ground.

The Kabatepe Museum, where Anzac and Turkish veterans had met once again in emotional reunions on the recent anniversary celebrations, was either untouched or a burnt out shell, opinions differed.

The only remaining danger was at Kumkamp, a campsite and cluster of beach huts and summer houses about eight km south of Kabatepe.

Wed 27/7/94.

A day of mourning and reflection. The funeral of the Forests Director attended by hundreds of people. There were no other confirmed deaths, but four or five others were still lost unaccounted for, almost certainly overcome by the flames in the chaos of the first evening.

The fire was reported to have destroyed three quarters of the trees in the Gallipoli Peninsula National Park.

A lesson had been learnt, the hard way, and from now on it is likely that the less combustible oak will be planted in reforestation programmes in place of the pine.

Even while the fire at Gallipoli was in its dying stages, other forest fires had broken out elsewhere, a particularly one at Balikesir just a few hundred kilometres away.

The source of the fire, personally witnessed though not officially confirmed, was the stubble burning, most likely without the official sanction that is required and certainly against logic given the strength of the winds that day, by a previous `muhtar' (village headman) at the village of Yalova, north of Anzac.

Tours of Anzac were resumed today and backpacking Aussies and Kiwis were at last able to confirm the true extent of the damage.

Kabatepe Museum was intact but closed. The Anzac cemeteries and memorials at Ari Burnu, Anzac Cove and Beach, where John Simpson is buried, were largely unscathed but the bushes on the surrounding hillsides were now ashes. Shrapnel Valley, the main supply route up to the front line from which Simpson and his donkey ceaselessly ferried the wounded back to the shoreline, was completely gutted.

The Lone Pine tree itself was miraculously saved from the inferno but the trees all around the Australian Memorial were devastated and the grass right up to the steps of the memorial itself were singed.

All along the ridge it was the same—cemeteries at Quinn's Post, Courtney's Post and the recently-erected spectacular monument to the Turkish 57th Regiment unaffected—while the once-green valleys on either side now black and lifeless.

No hunting for souvenirs today. Aussies and Kiwis on previous visits had often been able to find shell cases, shrapnel and even live bullets by poking around in the topsoil.

I might say I was fortunate enough to have done that with my wife when I visited the area in January. The letter goes on:

Too risky today. One of the hazards the firemen faced had been explosions going off all over the Anzac area as 79-year-old bullets and shells lying just beneath the surface ignited in the intense heat.

At Chunuk Bair no damage to the New Zealand or Turkish memorials but the wood of the reconstructed trenches encircling the hilltop were now blackened embers.

. . . . . . . . .

Sat 30/7/1994 (Canakkale, Turkey)

Canakkale abuzz with activity—military helicopters overhead, fleets of green number-plated official vehicles—as the President of Turkey flies into town to view for himself the scene of the biggest fire in Turkey for fifty years that destroyed an area viewed in the hearts of the people as a priceless national heritage.

The labour of 27 years was reduced to ashes in just 48 hours blackening an area of 3,000 hectares . . . and causing four trillion Turkish lira worth of damage (30,000 lira equals one American dollar) and one confirmed death. Five soldiers and three fire watchmen are still unaccounted for.

For Australia and New Zealand too the event touches a nerve in the national consciousness, with memories of the Sydney fire still vivid in people's memories as the Gallipoli National Park is a resting place of thousands of Anzacs who lost their lives amongst the scrub-covered ridges and valleys during that ill-fated misadventure of 1915.

. . . . . . . . .

On the day following the outbreak of the fire (26/7) the staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, responsible for the upkeep of memorials on the peninsula, raced over to try and save the Anzac complex, as they call it, consisting of wooden hut accommodation for visiting dignitaries, nurseries and a stonemason's yard. There they battled all day alongside the soldiers to save the complex from the flames advancing on it from three directions. As the fire neared they were forced to put on stonemasons' face masks and take refuge from the smoke in the sea just a few metres away. When it was clear the huts were out of danger the Commission staff, headed by Englishman John Price, who had only just taken over the post of Local Supervisor in April, made their way further north up the coastal road to inquire about the safety of the residents of several summer houses near the water's edge. They appeared safe but combustible household items were dragged into the sea as a precaution.

So unpredictable was the fire however that, advancing from several different directions at the same time, some of those same houses were later engulfed.

Possibly some of the worst damage to Anzac memorials occurred in this area where a cluster of cemeteries marked the northern limit of what is known as `Old Anzac', manned in particular by the New Zealanders until the landings in Suvla Bay on August 6 1915 when the Anzac front line was extended to incorporate that area. `Canterbury', `No. 2 Outpost' and `New Zealand No. 2 Outpost' were all burnt though there was no structural damage. Throughout nearly the whole of Anzac however the robust stone walls (ha ha walls) and gulleys to channel away rainwater seemed to have minimalised damage to the cemeteries.

Throughout that Tuesday, nothing was certain. 40 dozers, 80 fire engines, 60 graders and more than 100 various other vehicles joined in trying to prevent the flames spreading as the fire advanced on many fronts.

. . . . . . . . .

Estimates of the area burnt in the previous week in the Kilit Bahir fires vary between 200 and 350 hectares.

The Kabatepe Museum, whose exhibits of war relics including badges, shrapnel fragments, bullets, billy cans and rusted weapons must have been seen by thousands of Australians since it opened in 1985, reopens to the public as normal tomorrow.

There is much more of this from Graham Lee. I am grateful for his full briefing on this to me, and I hope that a magazine like Reveille might find it useful to reprint this material which is so important to us, and bears such relevance to what is a major heritage matter.