The night sky at Gallipoli, 25 April 1915

As New Zealand and Australian soldiers were waiting to come ashore during the early hours of Thursday the 25th April 1915 some of them may have glanced at the night sky as they strained to catch any details of the shore line they were about to land on. Meanwhile in the hills above the landing beaches the Turkish soldiers defending their lands would be watching the black shadows in the distance to their West in the Aegean Sea and maybe, they too, glanced up to see the night sky on this fateful morning 103 years ago. Amongst some of the 16000 New Zealand and Australian troops that came ashore that morning some may have been astronomers, so it’s interesting to think about what they would have seen in the night sky from both the perspective of the attackers and the defenders.

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The Night Sky just before the landings at Gallipoli (Credit: Sky Safari)

For the ANZACs on the troops ships they would have been facing East, watching the intended landing area. It’s hard to tell what the weather would have been like, but that tie of the year is reasonable pleasant and the weather is usually settled. From photos taken latter in the day there appears to have been a bit of cloud about but shadows are evident so we can assume that observers in the early morning may have had some views of the night sky unimpeded by cloud. They would have seen what we call the Summer Triangle, made up of the bright stars of Altair, Deneb and Vega. Of course these troops from the Southern Hemisphere would not have been familiar with Vega as it only just appears on the horizon in the Southern latitudes. Assuming there wasn’t much light pollution then they may have seen the Milky Way stretching over the areas they were about to land on as our galaxy would have dominated the Eastern horizon and be seen to hugging the horizon at about 3am.

The prominent Northern Hemisphere constellations of Aquila, Cygnus, Sagitta and Lyra would have marked Gallipoli in the distance. To the North they would have seen the distinctive W of Cassiopeia not far above the horizon. For those who had binoculars they may have trained them to the sky and seen the Dumbbell Nebula as fuzzy looking blob as they scanned the stars, they may have also swept past the globular clusters of M71 or M56, though both would be quite tricky in the binocular issued back then. To the south they may have seen the constellation Ophiuchus and some of the bright globular clusters such as M10, M12, M14, M107 or M9. All of those clusters are brighter than M71 or M56 so might have been a bit easier to see. Given the lack of light pollution in that part of the world back in the early part of the 20th century then the galactic centre may have also been visible even though it was close to the horizon. For those troops that were still on the troop ships by 4am they would have easily spotted the distinctive star fields and shadows of this part of the Milky Way. Directly to the South East, though probably to recognised, they may have glimpsed what we call the Milky Way Kiwi, upside down and just above the horizon.

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Troop ships towing NZ troops to the landing site (Credit: NZ History)

It would have been an unfamiliar sky for the troops from the Southern Hemisphere, the constellations that they may have recognised on the Southern horizon would have appeared upside down and the familiar Southern Cross would have been nowhere to be seen. They may have recognised Libra, Virgo, Leo and Cancer to the West and maybe even Hydra sitting underneath them. No planets would have been visible at that time in the sky to the East that they would have observed. It’s hard to comprehend what would have been going through the minds of those soldiers, so far from their homes and under an unfamiliar sky. On those troop ships were three of my relatives who did not come home and made up 3 of the 2779 New Zealand soldiers who died at Gallipoli.

Every war has at least two sides and on land awaiting the amphibious invasion were the Turkish soldiers. Amongst their leadership was the famous Turk, Kamal Ataturk who would go on to lead Turkey and turn it into a modern nation from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. These soldiers, were of course, under a familiar sky with the constellations appearing the right way up to them. To the North West, high in the sky, would have been Ursa Major, that familiar constellation to those from the Northern Hemisphere that is akin to the prominence of the Southern Cross for those from the Southern Hemisphere. Hanging above the Allied troop ships and battleships in the Aegean Sea would have been Leo, Cancer and Hydra, hugging the horizon. On the horizon would have been the two stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Maybe some of the Turkish soldiers would have been browsing the night sky with their binoculars and come across the Beehive Cluster in Cancer. Just to the left of Castor and Pollux Neptune would have been sitting, probably not visible to anyone, but the only planet in the sky to witness the mayhem about to be unleashed on that particular peninsula.

On this ANZAC Day in 2018, we remember the fallen of all wars.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.