Feeds:
Posts
Comments
Michael J. Whelan - poet, Tibnine Castle, South Lebanon 1994

Michael J. Whelan – poet, Tibnine Castle, South Lebanon 1994

 

GRAVEYARD SHIFT

 

On the rooftops in the night

under trembling flares

heavy raindrops curtain bomb

the ponchos of peacekeepers

on the graveyard shift,

standing fast like cold statues in the dark

scanning dead ground

through mist tinted glasses.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015, edited by Amos Grieg

 

Bunker S. Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Bunker S. Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

TANK

 (Civilians move to shelter in U.N. bomb shelters)

 

Thick black smoke

splutters out above the compound,

the beast is moving, ready to fire,

we hear it cough before seeing it

and the clanking of a metal monster on tracks,

exhaust clouds follow along the hill’s horizon

poisoning the sky behind the perimeter wire.

We know where it is – what it’s thinking

long before its deafening report

screams back across the valley,

sending the shaken to the underground.

 

 Michael J. Whelan

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015, edited by Amos Grieg

 

Early Bird minesweep Lebanon: Michael J. Whelan

Early Bird minesweep Lebanon: Michael J. Whelan

THE SNAKE ROAD

(Irish area of operations- south Lebanon 1990s)

 

It wound out like the long

wriggling body of a reptile, treacherous.

Most mornings it had to be swept for roadside bombs

by the Early Bird team, the snake could bite.

At dawn they would set out,

walking the length of the living thing

with electronic mine detecting gear, slowly,

the lead sweeper swinging the Valon

from left to right continuously,

like a doctor with a stethoscope

listening carefully on ear pieces for a change in tone.

Medics, bomb disposal and armed security elements

following at a safe distance

in case of booby-traps,

it happened many times,

all under the scornful guns of warring factions.

The only protection a blue flag

that didn’t always work.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015, edited by Amos Greig

Damaged house Kosovo, 2001. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Damaged house Kosovo, 2001. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

 

KOSOVO

 

Green shoots

why do you grow

in the rubble of this house,

while hearts are breaking,

does God not see

our tears falling on the ground

near the stony road

that ceases at one side of the river

and commences on the other,

where great armies once crossed

to be forgotten,

in this land that forged a village

and civilised it;

then forged the swords

that killed it,

where the blackbird died slowly

in the eagle’s grip,

screaming as the beak

pierced the flesh of its breast.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015, edited by Amos Greig

 

Flock of Gulls - Michael J. Whelan

Flock of Gulls – Michael J. Whelan

 

IRISH MARTYR’S IN LEBANON

                   (After conversations with Lebanese exiles -)

 

 Some words we don’t read them,

we taste them

deep into our souls,

some bring back our missing memories,

our loved ones to our hearts.

 

Many times I saw their wives and mothers

lay flowers in my country

near the places of their martyrdoms.

 

My heart is like a room

big enough to receive many visitors.

My heart is a wing

to fly your martyrs on,

to reach heaven

 

to make them meet at the river,

to hug and kiss their children,

to sacrifice and water their thirsts

of a land with pure blood

spilled far from home

 

flowing from peacekeepers

into the valleys of my country

where the cedar grows forever

and remembers everything.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015 edited by Amos Greig

 

United Nations Position - Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

United Nations Position – Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan 

CENTURIES KEEP WATCH

 

Inside our wire

a great anthill keeps the curved ground rising,

an army breaking the horizon

behind the sandbagged wall.

We are nothing to it

except when we too seek shelter

beneath the tremoring  ground

and  the big guns point our way.

 

Outside the bunker centuries keep watch,

while columns of soldier-ants

reach far into the future and the past,

their long black lines marching up

and down the mountain over this defence post,

conquering palisades, barbed wire and borders,

pouring through cracks in reinforced blast walls,

in and out like a two way shipping route

with the carved up parts of their enemies

and the spoil of a million wars.

 

If I was to smash this colony with my rifle

where then would the fair winds take its remains,

would it leave dust on the roof of my mouth,

its scouts swarming through my nights

in a rage of retribution?

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, Issue 34, July 2015  A NEW ULSTER magazine, Issue 34

 

Michael J. Whelan -'V' Beach Cemetery -Gallipoli, 2011 (Graves of Irish Soldiers killed in 1915)

Michael J. Whelan -‘V’ Beach Cemetery -Gallipoli, 2011 (Graves of Irish Soldiers killed in 1915)

GALLIPOLI: IRISH LANDSCAPES IN A DISTANT WAR

By Airman Michael J. Whelan MA – Irish Air Corps Museum

(This article was published in An Cosantoir – the magazine of the Irish Defence Forces in 2011 and appears here with the kind permission of the editor  – Sergeant Wayne FitzGerald)

 

 

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johhnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons aswell”

-Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, 1934[1]

 

Almost ninety-six years to the day of the anniversary of the initial amphibious landings of 1915 and one month prior to the annual ANZAC Day commemorations I toured the battlefields and cemeteries of the Gallipoli Peninsula and its famous nine month conflict. The peninsula, which incorporates many legendary sites in the historiography and national identities of Australia, Newzealand, Great Britain and Turkey is still a landscape virtually untouched by modernity, though it is still a landscape of the conflict that ravaged it and this is no more evident than in its place names. ANZAC [2]Cove, the Spinks, Lone Pine Memorial, the Nek, Walker’s Ridge, Plugges Plateau and Chunuk Bair are only some of those place names that have always had a special place in my imagination since I was a boy. But also and much more instinctively Suvla Bay, where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge fought and was wounded under the banner of the 10th (Irish) Division and ‘V’ Beach Cape Helles, where Irish soldiers came ashore as part of the regular British 29th Division on the morning of 25th April 1915 into well defended Turkish positions and suffering very heavy casualties in the process.

The objectives during the planning of the Gallipoli operations included the capture of the then Ottoman capital of Turkey Constantinople (now modern day Istanbul), securing sea supply routes through the Dardanelle Straits, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea to and from Russia. The occupation thereby breaking the deadlock on the Western Front and hopefully forcing Greece and other Balkan area territorial states to join the war on the Allied side, but the operation was a failure. Those battles fought and the place names that resonate in the consciousness of the peoples of Australia and Newzealand ever since have helped forge distinct national identities in those countries through commemoration and remembrance of those events and the trials and losses incurred by their soldiers, even though they were part of the invading Allied armies in a conflict which saw them shipped to Turkey during the First World War. Indeed many other nationalities fought here including French, British, Indians, Irish and other colonial troops, not forgetting the Turkish Soldiers of the then Ottoman Empire who fiercely defended their homeland. Gallipoli and the struggles encountered here resonate still in the collective memories of most of those countries but in Ireland, because of our own troubled history, it has until quite recently been forgotten and to a great extent written out of the national record of this countries part in the Great War. It has been described by some historians as being the victim of a national selective amnesia.

My one week journey in Turkey visiting Istanbul and Gallipoli began with a Turkish Airlines flight from Dublin Airport on the 18th March 2011, organised by Irish tour company Group Travel International who specialise in  heritage and cultural excursions. Our guide from Gemini Tours in Turkey was Salem and the first three days was spent with the group of approximately thirty people visiting historical locations in the greater Istanbul City area including Taxim Square, the ancient and wonderful Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace the former private residence of the Ottoman Sultans. One of the highlights of this part of the tour was a cruise down the Bosphorus River

Some of the group but not all had military service.  I was the only serving member of the Irish Defence Forces but there were representatives from the ONE-T and IUNVA, so there was enough contrast between military and cultural heritage for everyone’s taste including shopping in the famous Turkish Bazaars.[3] By day four, 21st March, we had arrived at Cannakle, the part that I had been looking forward to most of all.[4] As a student of history the crossing of the strategic Dardanelle Straits by ferry, (or Hellespont as it was known throughout classical and later periods) in the mornings and evenings from our accommodation on the Asian side to the battlefields on the European side only added to the feeling of discovery and how I was to read this beautiful landscape. Over the next two days we visited the ANZAC Sector commencing with Beach Cemetery, Brighton Beach, Shrapnel Valley, ANZAC Cove, Ariburnu Cemetery, Lone Pine Australian Memorial among others and the 57th Regiment Turkish Memorial and on the Helles sector we visited the massive Turkish memorial, ‘V’ Beach Cemetery, the Cape Helles Memorial and Lancashire Landings Cemetery also the Kirectepe Ridge, Asmak Hill 10 and Green Hill Cemetery. Wreaths were laid at the 10th (Irish) Division Memorial at Green Hill Cemetery (President of Ireland – Mary McAleese had visited this location in 2010). In nearly all cemeteries except those of the the Turks names could be found. The significance of these locations was not lost on the group as Mr Tony Roe (ex comdt-PDF) and myself explained that the cemetery place names denoted that they were positioned directly upon former trenches. Although the weather was inclement for most of the trip, very cold in Istanbul and the famous blustery winds and rains of Gallipoli had hit us through spots of drizzle, the sun also shone and illuminated the magnificent and peaceful landscape and it was at those moments that I reflected most on the soldiers and events that tore them and the peninsula apart in 1915.  As I toured the cemeteries I thought about those who have no known graves, Cannakle/Gallipoli is now a protected heritage park and for want of a better description, a mass grave. The official casualty figures for the battle in the table below are today thought to be very conservative. Only a small percentage of the many victims on both sides are buried in marked graves and the remains of those lost on the landscape continue to be washed down from gullies or disturbed my machinery to this day, many coming to the surface at official tourist and memorial sites and being damaged by traffic. The problem of human remains at Gallipoli has been highlighted by archaeologists and academics in recent years.[5]

GALLIPOLI CASUALTIES 25 APRIL 1915 – 9 JAN 1916.[6]

Percentages are of total WWI casualties.

 

DIED                                WOUNDED                    TOTAL

AUSTRALIAN 8,709 (15%) 19,441 (13%) 28,150 (13%)
NEWZEALAND 2,701 (17%) 4,852 (12%) 7,553 (13%)
BRITAIN 21,255 (3%) 52,230 (3%) 73,485 (3%)
FRANCE (EST) 10,000 17,000 27,000
INDIA 1,358 3,421 4,779
NEWFOUNDLAND 49 93 142
TOTAL ALLIES 86,072 97,037 141,109
TURKEY 86,000 (?)

 

 

Other than reading aloud Ledwidges poem ‘The Irish at Gallipoli’ and one of my own titled ‘Fallen Friends’ at the memorial to the 10th (Irish) Division the highlight of this leg of the tour for me was visiting locations linked to the Irish participation in the battle especially ‘V’Beach, where reminiscent of the D Day landings of June 1944, soldiers of the Royal Muster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Hampshire Regiment being part of a larger force from the British 29th Division came ashore from the converted collier River Clyde, which beached itself allowing troops to disembark through cut sally points in her hull, down along gangways and across lighters acting as a form of bridge to the sand and into the jaws of Turkish machineguns, artillery and mined kill zones over looking barbed wire obstacles on the beach. I stood in the water here, walked along the stone pier jutting in to the sea and crouched behind the shingle wall where they hid, tried to see cover and died in the hundreds. I walked through the battle step by step and saw where Corporal Cosgrove earned his VC for pulling mined barbed wire stanchions out of the ground under intense fire to allow a channel of advance off the beach and I saw where his friends are resting now. Of the 1,100 Dublin Fusiliers who fought at Gallipoli only 11 would survive unscathed. The surviving Dublin’s and Munster’s from the landings would eventually be combined temporarily to form the Dubster’s.  The landscape that haunted the survivors of Gallipoli has stuck with me too albeit for different and at the same similar reasons and like Francis Ledwidge I too put my thoughts to words in a poem after returning home.

 

 GALLIPOLI

Today I stood above the Aegean Sea

listening for echoes I could not hear.

The silent tempo of the ground

resonates still on unnatural landscapes.

The zig-zag lines where dead men toil

dug deep into blood smeared soil,

buried now with their bones

on beaches and gullies where once

they fought the Turk,

stormed the shores and hills as if thrown

against the wind by Agamemnon himself.

 

The silence bade me look towards Troy

across the Straits from Helles.

I still could hear no voice, nor thunder in the sky

except the launching waves pushing ancient

pebbles up the beach to rest,

where once they drowned the hearts of men.

 

Then behind me I could feel it,

the noise of peace and echoes of war

in a thousand monuments to the dead,

stretched out in marching order.

 

And there, watching me my shadow

took on the spectre of a ghost and spoke,

 

‘Like Hector I was the defender

brave and virtuous – but of Irish stock,

I am the soldier my country forsook.’

 

And in response I said

‘I have come at last to pay my respects,

I have come to take you home!’

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

 

 

NOTES:

I would like to thank Tony Roe and those other people involved for making possible my tour of Istanbul & Gallipoli.

           

[1]Memorial at Ariburnu Cemetary

[2] Australian-Newzealand Army Corps

[3] Organisation of National Ex-Sevicemen & Women, Irish United Nations Veterans Association

[4] Cannackle and Gelibolu are Turkish terms for Gallipoli

[5] Dr Peter Dowling, Heritage Officer, ACT Trust, lectured on ‘The Problem of Human Remains in the ANZAC Battlefields Area’ to the Canberra Archaeological Society in 2008. See lecture on YOUTUBE also at Gallipoli, 1915 on Facebook

[6] See above

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 190 other followers