An “underwater museum” was recently opened to the public to see warships in Turkey sunk during the 1915–16 World War I campaign.
As part of efforts to draw tourists to the region, tourism officials have transformed the century-old wrecks of the British and French ships sunk during the battle for Gallipoli in the Dardanelles Strait into a “museum under the sea,” according to the London Times.
The area of the “underwater museum” that has been opened to the divers at the bottom of the Dardanelles Strait in western Turkey had been closed to the public as it is dotted with mines and unexploded ordnance. It had also since been marked off by divers.
The divers who visit will be allowed to venture down to see the fourteen ships that sank in 1915 when Ottoman and Allied forces faced off on the Gallipoli peninsula. These ships included the HMS Majestic, a 421-foot British battleship. The ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 27, 1915.
It was a deadly victory by the Central Powers. This event went on to impact the lives of future world leaders Winston Churchill and Mustafa Kemal. The Gallipoli Historic Underwater Park opened this month near the Turkish seaport of Canakkale, at the peninsula that has been the “graveyard of navies stretching back to ancient times”, as per AFP.
It is next to the ancient Greek ruins of Troy. The last great battle for its adjoining Dardanelles Strait leading from the Mediterranean toward Russia was a fiasco for British and French forces.
They beat a retreat after months of fighting in the battle. This claimed tens of thousands of lives. And while the Allies eventually won the war, their sacrifices in the 1915 battle were a touchstone moment in the formation of national consciousness in modern Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand.
The British and French troops landed on Gallipoli on February 17, 1915. Whereas the actual combat did not begin until April 25, pitting Allied troops from France, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand against the Ottomans, and Germany and the Allies planned to march up the peninsula. They also intended to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires (now Istanbul), and open a path to the Black Sea that would give Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea.
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They gave up after nearly nine months of grueling warfare. This led to the killing of more than 100,000 on all sides, according to different estimates, reported AFP. According to AFP, April 25 is still honored as Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. Both their joint Army Corps lost an estimated 11,000 lives in the campaign.
“I dived into the remains with an Australian: a shipwreck which may not mean much to us aroused his interest,” diving instructor Ercan Zeybek said. “It was an emotional moment for him.”
Churchill was the then first lord of the admiralty. Conceived by him, the operation’s bitter trench warfare resulted in massive casualties on both sides, and the Allies abandoned the campaign eleven months later, in January 1916. The disgraced Churchill then retreated from politics for nearly twenty years, making his return to office in 1940. He led Great Britain to victory in World War II as prime minister.
The Allies’ failure at Gallipoli owed it to Ottoman commander Kemal. He succeeded in preventing British and French forces from advancing past their beachheads in several key battles and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, he helped in establishing the Republic of Turkey as a secular state. Kemal adopted the surname of Atatürk, or “Father Turk.”
Unlike now, access to the wrecks required a special permit until 2017. Ismail Kasdemir, who heads the area’s Canakkale Historical Site, said, “There was history and treasure lying underwater for more than 100 years.” At that time, he began pushing the idea of opening the seabed to the broader public. “The diving community was curious,” Kasdemir added.
Canakkale is already a global tourist attraction for those intrigued by remnants of the legendary city of Troy. The city rests on the Dardanelles’ eastern bank. “You can already smell the history above the water,” Derya Can, told AFP at the underwater park’s unveiling. Can has set multiple free-diving records.
Now Turkey is opening the site up to the world’s divers just in time for the country’s centenary celebrations in 2023. It is a place where history and politics seem inextricably interlinked. “It’s like a time machine that takes you back to 1915 and World War I,” says Savas Karakas, who was one of the first to inspect the wrecks when they opened to the public this month. Karakas is a diver and documentary maker.
Some of the wrecks are in relatively shallow waters of less than twenty-five feet. while others are deeper at around sixty to a hundred feet, and one sunken ship HMS Triumph rests 230 feet below the surface.
Yusuf Kartal, an official with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, told TRT World Karya Naz Balkiz that the underwater park is “a different world.” He added, “You see the submerged ship[s]as they were 106 years ago and experience the chaos of war secondhand.”
Divers pose on a boat over the Gallipoli Historical Underwater Park off the coast of Seddulbahir, a village on the Gallipoli Peninsula which tourists can now visit.
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Despite the continued threat posed by unexploded mines and ordnance, Turkish authorities decided to open the area to divers. Kartal says to Joshua Hammer of the New York Times; “In the whole Dardanelles we have many thousands” of live torpedoes, most “require a serious jolt to detonate.”
The government’s decision as well as the broader practice of diving into wartime shipwrecks has drawn criticism, the London Times reports. This criticism comes from those who consider the sunken vessels military graveyards.
Plans to turn the wrecks into an underwater park took shape in 2017, according to Smithsonian Magazine. This was following the centennial of the 1915–16 campaign and the officials had hoped to open the park this summer. However, they were forced to delay until October by the resurging Covid-19 pandemic.
As per Smithsonian Magazine, today, residents of Turkey view the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli as a defining moment for the end of the empire. They see it as the birth of a new nation.
Karakas, whose grandfather was wounded at Gallipoli, remembers seeing scars from the battle on his loved one’s hands, “I was always scared of them,” Karakas tells Reuters. The Turkish photographer who lives in Istanbul added, “But when I come to Gallipoli and dive, the rusted metal and steel of the wrecks reminds me of my grandfather’s hands.”
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“When I dive, I remember this hand. The rusted steel feels like the hand burnt by shells from those ships, so it’s like holding my grandfather’s hand,” he told AFP. “Now, divers will be able to survey the underwater history.”
“It’s a good opportunity for us to remember our past,” says professional underwater photographer Ethem Keskin of the wrecks. “I thought about the moment they sank and you feel the stress of war.”
Turkey wants its peninsula to be the new go-to destination for divers, who look forward to connecting with events that shaped the present world.
Similar to Gallipoli, there are other hotspots like it which include the Chuuk Lagoon in Papua New Guinea that is famous for its World War II wrecks. Another is the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It still suffers from the ills of US nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s.
“Now Gallipoli is becoming an alternative,” says Karakas whose name Savas (meaning “war” in Turkish) honors the Gallipoli campaign, where his grandfather was wounded. “This is history, and each shipwreck is like a medal on our chest.”
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