On the morning of the cease-fire we set off to meet the Turkish delegation in the poppy field above the beach. We mounted a plateau and advanced through gullies filled with thyme. I always liked the smell of thyme. Ahead of us, a voice attached the word Anne, Turkish for mother, to the morning air. “Anne,” he said, as if the mother in question had just entered a room where she had every right to be. I asked Ricky Rumbold why it took wounded men so long to die. He said men would will their own deaths but their bodies rebelled, refusing to lie still, reluctant to decompose.
I didn’t think we would get any rain today. In fact, I knew we wouldn’t. Today there would be nothing but death bathed in soft sunlight. The overnight showers had cleared the biscuit-colored dust that hung over the peninsula. When word of the cease-fire spread through the niches and dug-outs the ANZACs had hewn into the Gallipoli rock, few wanted to emerge into the light; none trusted the intensity of the new silence. For a month these men had been looked down upon, sniped at from poppy-covered peaks. Now they moved slowly towards the beach like the first bathers of summer, shredding tatty remnants of uniform as they went.
I bent down to pick up one of the purple flowers and held it to my nose. I knew we were close. I could smell it on the droplets forming on tulips and bluebells, on the flame-colored fruit of a pomegranate tree. The men excreted it through their pores. It was a sticky smell like charred syrup.
We moved into a larger area of scrubland and saw the Allied trench line facing an open area of two or three hundred yards. Two days had passed since the Turks tried to drive the ANZACs from the cliff face into the sea. Forty thousand men sneaked across two gullies in full view of howitzer and machine gun. Gluttony broke out in the Australian and New Zealand ranks. They fired indiscriminately before becoming ruthless, waiting for the officers to appear and assemble their men before slaughtering them wholesale in neat, packaged platoons.
Men lay in mounds on the wet earth. Some had sunk to their knees, leaning and clinging to their brethren, freeze-framed in a drunken proposal. Ricky Rumbold and I clambered over and around them, tripping and stumbling, and laughing as one of us almost fell, only to be swooped up by the other.
I had met Ricky Rumbold the day before when he was perched on the blubbery crest of an abdomen belonging to a sergeant of the Turkish 57th. “This one will be all right for a day or two, mate, but then you have to watch out or they can explode.” Ricky Rumbold was my very own ANZAC guide. I introduced myself. He couldn’t believe my name. “Aubrey? That was the name of me sister’s cat!” He shook my hand. “You here to parley with the enemy, mate?” Yes I was. “You watch them Turks don’t give you any of that goat’s cheese, you’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle for a week.” Thanks. “You should get some of their baccy, mate. It’s better than the shite they give us here.” Yes, I would try. So why hadn’t this man been buried? “Can’t do anything, mate, till Birdy gets here and you’ve finished pow-wowing with the Turks.” Birdy? “Jesus Creepers, mate. General Birdwood.” Oh that Birdy. “Yeah that Birdy. He’s all right for a pomme. His dick’s a bit shriveled up – we all had a gander when he came swimming with us. But he’s got a lotta balls.”
Ricky was running a book on the nearly dead. For cigarette stakes he gave odds on how long a fallen soldier could stay in voice – two fags could win you twenty if a recognizable ‘mother’ or a specific girlfriend lasted the day. One man growled Fatma as if berating a troublesome wife, another called Allah, Allah, Allah, with the staccato rhythm of a steam train. I taught Ricky the meaning of a high-pitched yardim, help, which was attracting some late interest. He offered me a free wager, “what with you providing inside information as it were,” but I politely declined.
In the poppy field the Turkish delegation was standing in a half circle, smoking and biting into pistachio shells. The senior ranking officer, who wore more gold lace than his colleagues, introduced himself as Essad Pasha and saluted. The second officer called himself Arif, had acne and picked at his ear between sentences. The third, a captain, kept back from the huddle we had formed amid the scarlet flowers, drinking tea from the tulip-shaped glasses the Turks had secreted in their packs. We chatted about the weather, the King and the Sultan in that order. But this captain seemed content to gaze off into the distance so it was a surprise when he said during a lull in our small talk, “They have to be buried today. They can’t stay there. Our religion won’t allow it.” His voice was as soft and tired as a bruised peach.
He took one step towards our group, parceling his gaze among us. He was taller than his colleagues; lean, sharp-shouldered under worn beige. His green eyes and smooth features looked incongruous among his swarthier Anatolian colleagues.
The captain turned and pointed to the gullies below. I followed his outstretched arm over the scarlet smear of the poppy field, past blasted tree stumps and charred scrub, down to where his soldiers lay on beds of thyme. The captain held all this in his splayed fingers like a green-eyed sorcerer conjuring faces from the earth. I asked him where we would bury the dead. “Where they fell. We will dig mass graves. And if necessary, we will carry them, body by body, until we find a place to dig.”
“I’m not sure the cease fire will last that long,” I said.
The captain smiled. “Then, why are you here?”
We were to meet the generals so they could listen to our plans and claim them as their own. We would have to go back through the gullies to reach the path to the cliff-top. The Turks agreed to blindfolds at the cliff-top. It wouldn’t do for them to see the trenches on the ANZAC bridgehead. We would remove the blindfolds only when we were safely down the other side of the cliff and inside the officer’s mess on the beach at ANZAC Cove.
The Turks gave us cologne-scented handkerchiefs to hold over our mouths and noses. The captain led the way, stooping to pick up the odd personal effect: a small Koran, a hunting knife, a strip of brightly-colored turban, a pocket-watch proudly ticking, before placing it next to the nearest body. Meticulous, he was slowing down the war to see what it was all about. I shuffled along in his wake, a child trailing through a museum of bloated relics.
Ricky Rumbold walked a step behind me. The quiet was overwhelming. Instead of the guns and the flares and the screams of men and animals, we heard the insidious lapping of the sea, the intimidation in the breeze, the faint threat of returning bees.
The captain bent over another man and extracted a letter protruding from a torn pocket. The corners of the letter were neatly bloodied as if the writer had dipped them in sealing wax. I waited for him to replace it but instead he folded the paper, turning the stained corners inwards and slipped it into his own pocket. For a moment his green eyes settled on me and I heard his question again, “Then, why are you here?” I could have told him I was here to crawl out to the foremost trenches during the battle and translate the statements prepared by the mandarins at the Foreign Office, entreaties to win over the wily Turk. Or to weave tales of German treachery and dastardly deeds, claiming to be a friend of the Sultan, urging my enemy to join us in holy war against the Kaiser. I was here to stand guard with my dictionaries and grammar books while decorated generals came into my tent and examined my arsenal of words.
At the cliff-top we stopped to blindfold the Turkish officers, Ricky Rumbold placing Arif’s spectacles, absurdly, on the outside of his blindfold. Then we heard a voice coming up from the earth. A man was singing in Turkish, a scratchy tenor recalling streams and swings, the glimpse of a loved one in a summer meadow. I realized as I listened that I had heard this refrain before. The captain’s ears pricked like a dog’s and I saw him mouth the lines:
I used to think there was no friend for me in this world
But as I offer myself up for you, I know I’ll never be alone
The captain smiled. It was the saddest smile I had ever seen, heightened not diminished by the cloth over his eyes. A smile of quiet times, a simple reflection of one man’s love for another. A smile that didn’t belong here, I thought ungraciously. The song too with its uncontaminated pleasures didn’t belong to a voice that chafed at the melody like army wool on a rash.
The singing stopped. “Strewth, that bloody singing corpse,” Ricky Rumbold said in my ear. “He’s a tough one, I’ll give him that. I had twenty fags riding on ‘im being done.”
We began our descent, treading tiny steps down the goat tracks as a line of ANZACs bearing kerosene tins of water struggled in the opposite direction. They had hewn themselves into the rock here, a sheet of iron or a layer of earth for a roof, an extra shelf chiseled into the rock to hold their rations, a piece of blanket for a curtain, a coffee-tin to house a pink oleander or tulip. Now, sunbathing on the cliff, they watched us struggling down. For men who herded cattle for a living across vast spaces where the sky nuzzled the earth we had become the morning’s entertainment. Blind man’s bluff in a freakish circus with no safety net.
When we reached the beach, Ricky Rumbold smiled broadly and winked at me. “Hey! Whoa! Hold up there! Two steps to the left, unless you wanna lose your feet!” The Turkish officers obliged as Ricky plotted a course through imaginary mines and barbed wire. The captain shuffled, sidestepped, and sighed.
We ushered the Turkish officers into the mess tent and removed their blindfolds. I recognized Birdwood from his photograph in the newspapers. “A word,” he said, and held open the tent flap to let me back outside. He was slighter than I expected, watery blue eyes in a pockmarked face. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked me.
“Yes, thank you, sir. But perhaps you have access to a more recent map of the terrain?”
“If we had ‘access’ to a ‘recent’ map of the peninsula, we wouldn’t have landed here in the first place, lieutenant-colonel.”
“No. I suppose not, sir.”
“Still, I am sure we can rustle you up one of our most ‘recent’ maps, from about 1865. How does that sound?”
“I’m not sure sir. Does it bear any resemblance to what’s here now?”
“My dear boy, you would be better off with a map of Piccadilly Circus.”
The general smiled. “You have been chatting to the Turkish officers. What do they say about the attack?”
“They’re all a bit stunned, sir. Understandable, really.”
“Well, lieutenant-colonel, we were all a bit ‘stunned’ to find ourselves attacked by forty thousand Turks.”
I was still working on a rejoinder to this when Birdwood turned on his heels and went back inside the mess tent.
The negotiations went well. We sat in the officer’s mess on soft armchairs, while servants hovered with trays. We smoked cigars. The Turkish officers produced cheese, olives and cucumbers. The cucumbers, especially, were well received. We ate and smoked. A bottle of Napoleon brandy was passed around. General Birdwood led the negotiations for our side, after shaking hands solemnly with Essad Pasha. General Bridges should have been there also, but he had managed to get himself shot on Friday morning. General Birdwood removed his cap to reveal slicked back iron-grey hair. The captain watched the proceedings keenly, his green eyes darting around the room, but almost inevitably settling on me. Disconcerted, I struggled to translate, once or twice asking Essad Pasha to repeat himself. We agreed that the cease-fire should last until six that evening. Three zones were to be marked out with white flags for the burial of the dead. One (by far the largest) was for the Turks, one for the Allies, and the third was for those only God could identify. Priests and imams were to wear white armbands as they worked. Everybody was to dig. Nobody was to shoot.
We stood to attention and saluted. We shook hands and wished each other well. It had all been very civilized. I felt like I was leaving my club in the Strand, waiting for the footman to fetch my hat and coat. Suddenly, an Australian soldier burst into the mess tent, wild-eyed. “Which one of you bastards has my kettle?” he demanded. We stared. Ricky Rumbold guffawed outside. I didn’t look at General Birdwood.
I came alive as we buried the dead. I flitted between both camps, conveying requests, allaying suspicions and soothing egos. I supervised the digging of the communal grave. I directed the stretcher bearers. I carefully marked out the white flags. I was respectful to the officers and affable to the men. I decided when everybody could rest and when they could eat. I checked that the troops who were not needed remained below their parapets. I supervised the gathering of rifles into a huge pile and appointed the roughest looking soldiers I could find to guard it. I peered into dead soldiers’ faces and gave them a nationality. I introduced priests to imams and translated the Koran and the Bible for each when we could not tell where a man was from. I was magnificent. I was God for the day in a land God had forgotten.
My only regret was that I could not find the captain. I wanted him to see me in action, to stand and watch me in that remote way of his, observing how soldiers scurried to my command. He would understand then why I was here and that this was not the time for pieces of cloth or still-ticking watches.
At 5:15 we could see stretches of thyme. At 5:30 we discovered the Turkish watches were eight minutes fast. Frenzied activity. They would have blown us away like flies for being unpunctual. Then I saw the captain staring at the earth and I went over to him, holding out my watch, hoping he hadn’t heard about the time difference. There were fifteen minutes before the cease-fire ended. The captain was bent over a body. I thought nothing of it at first. After all, he tended to so many on our walk to the cliff. But when I approached and heard the pale voice, the fragment of lyric, I knew he had found the boy who defied Ricky’s odds.
But as I offer myself up for you, I know I’ll never be alone
He was a young officer, too young for the stripe on his shredded uniform. The captain was hunched over him like a doctor or priest. I bent down beside them. I watched the captain administer to the boy, folding his arms over his chest and passing the two remaining buttons of his tunic through their holes. He smoothed the boy’s brow with the backs of his fingers. The boy’s mouth formed silent shapes and the captain prayed the poetry of the Koran. I looked at my watch. Five minutes. “We have to get back behind the lines,” I said, and put my hand on the captain’s shoulder and felt the bone. I waited for his weary acquiescence but it was as though I wasn’t there.
The captain placed the Koran, a cube of black leather, in the boy’s right hand. He got to his feet, straightened his tunic and adjusted his cap. But when he leaned into that familiar, unhurried stride, it was not towards the Turkish lines but over to where his shovel lay.
Three minutes. I imagined the men calling me back behind the lines, the arms waving above the parapets, the anxious whistles. The captain walked back towards the body, shovel slung over his shoulder like a rifle.
“We’ve done it,” I said. “Don’t you see?” I turned my back on him and advanced five steps towards the lines. I knew all about this moment because I had pictured it throughout the day. I would head to the left and the captain to the right like gentlemen and ladies at a cotillion. I looked hard for someone to recognize on our side, but all I could see was a shifting mass of khaki and grey.
On the sixth step I stopped and looked back at the captain. He stood with his shovel pointing at the sky. One minute. It was a time for shameless running, head bent low, a time to remove one’s scent from the hungry guns. But the captain would not move.
A Turkish sniper fired from a distant hill. There was a moment of pure silence. I stood sideways on, a shoulder and a cheek for each side of the war. I was still waiting for someone to call my name. The Australians replied with a volley of hatred. I looked down at my feet and scratched the earth with the tip of my boot. It was smooth and flat. When I caught the captain’s eye, he nodded thoughtfully at the place to dig and walked towards me, holding out the shovel.
Andrew Bynom has written both contemporary and historical fiction set in Turkey, especially Istanbul. His work has been published in The Tusculum Review and Armchair Aesthete. He recently finished a novel, The Executioner’s Race, in which tulips and calligraphy intertwine. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois.