Leaders pay tribute to Gallipoli fallen on centenary

Stuart Williams
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A picture of Captain Herbert Hunter from 7th Australian Infinity is seen on a wall at the Helles Memorial prior a memorial service marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gallipoli in Canakkale, on April 24, 2015

A picture of Captain Herbert Hunter from 7th Australian Infinity is seen on a wall at the Helles Memorial prior a memorial service marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gallipoli in Canakkale, on April 24, 2015 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

GALLIPOLI PENINSULA (Turkey) (AFP) - Turkey and the former World War I Commonwealth foes of the Ottoman Empire on Friday joined together to honour the tens of thousands killed at the Battle of Gallipoli 100 years ago in one of the most futile yet emblematic campaigns of the conflict.

The ceremonies were being held the same day as centenary commemorations for the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire with several world leaders opting to attend the events in Yerevan instead as history cast a dark shadow.

The Battle of Gallipoli ended with up to half a million casualties and achieved little. But it played a crucial role in forming the national conciousness both of modern Turkey and the young nations of Australia and New Zealand.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a ceremony at the memorial for Ottoman troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula that the world needed a message of peace "more than ever" in the 21st century.

"I repeat once more on behalf of all -- before the memory of hundreds of thousands of young men lying in this small peninsula -- our determination to work to let peace and prosperity prevail in the world," he said.

The British heir to the throne Prince Charles and his son Prince Harry then paid tribute to the fallen soldiers at the British memorial on the peninsula at a ceremony attended by Erdogan, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand Premier John Key.

Charles imagined how "deep dark and foreboding fears" of the troops "would be realised all to often and all too soon" as they met early deaths.

A salute was fired by the Royal Navy Ship HMS Bulwark, which Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated may be sent towards Libya to rescue migrants who hit trouble travelling to Europe.

- Shadow of Armenia -

While Turkey has boasted that about two dozen heads of state are attending, several key leaders including French President Francois Hollande and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin were instead at the Armenia commemorations.

Armenia says some 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a campaign of genocide by the Ottoman authorities during World War I. But Turkey has always rejected the term genocide, while acknowledging that massacres occurred.

The juxtaposition of the dates of the Armenian killings and Gallipoli campaign has aroused heavy emotions, with Armenians accusing Turkey of shifting the main Gallipoli commemoration event forwards by one day from April 25 to deliberately overshadow Yerevan ceremonies.

Erdogan, who this week had bluntly said Armenia was "not on the agenda" at Gallipoli, made no mention of the issue.

- ' Keep link to the past' -

The nine-month battle saw German-backed Ottoman forces resist Allies -- including Australian, British, French, Irish, Newfoundland, New Zealand and Gurkha troops -- trying to seize the peninsula on the western edge of Turkey to break through to take Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

The final surviving Allied troops would be evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916 after a campaign that became a symbol of wasteful failure in World War I, with many killed by disease as well as fighting.

Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders have made the long journey to join the tributes to their forefathers, milling around the ferry docks where souvenir sellers offered scarves and T-shirts promoting the modern day friendship between the ex-foes.

"It means so much to come back and give them the respect they (the troops) deserve," said Marjorie Stevens, 87, from Adelaide in Australia, who had been planning the long trip for 12 months.

"It's hard to keep back the tears and it's so important to keep the link to the past."

Estimates of the numbers killed in the conflict differ, but most sources say at least 45,000 soldiers lost their lives on the Allied side and a higher number, around 86,000, on the Ottoman side.

World War I eventually ended in defeat for the Ottoman forces but the Gallipoli battle is of huge importance for Turks as the troops' resistance helped lead to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923.

A key Ottoman commander at Gallipoli was a lieutenant colonel named Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, who would emerge as the founder of the Turkish Republic and who remains its national icon.

On Saturday, the focus in Gallipoli shifts to the dawn services to remember the estimated 8,700 Australian and 2,800 New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives thousands of miles from home in a sacrifice that helped forge their own national identities and is still remembered as Anzac Day on April 25.