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On the morning of 8 May 1915, after a night march towards the line, a British soldier awoke from a short and unsatisfactory sleep. Field guns were sounding the reveille. Emerging from his damp earth hole, the soldier found himself at the foot of a tumulus on a wide open plain.

The morning was sunny and the countryside beautiful, with its trees and wildflowers. In the warm sun we soon recovered from the cold and noisy night, and our surroundings reminded us of country scenes in England.

The British soldier was Second Corporal 10 Alec Riley (Opens in a new window), a signaller with the East Lancashire Division. The territorials had been landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula to reinforce the Allied expeditionary force at Helles.

The Lancashire Fusiliers of our division were advancing, and we went to the top of the tumulus to watch them. The white smoke became so thick that we could not see much; but against it and amongst it we could see red flashes of bursting shrapnel, and occasionally we saw men moving about. Our battery ran short of shells, for it was firing six rounds per minute per gun. Men were detailed to carry 18-pounder shells from the ammunition wagons in the rear to the battery. The noise was deafening, particularly when the naval guns started. From the discharges of the nearest guns we felt the wind blowing on our faces and up our sleeves. Ammunition wagons came up at the gallop. When the firing died down our heads ached with noise and excitement. Whatever else it had done, it had made a mess of the ground.

Riley had viewed the battle from the top of an ancient mound that is said to be the tomb of Protesilaos, a Greek warrior who fell in the Trojan War. Protesilaos brought 40 black ships to Troy, says Homer in the Iliad. When the Greeks made their landing, Protesilaos was the first to die, ‘killed as he leapt from his ship’. The story derives a modern poignancy from the tomb’s location, just a mile or so from V and W beaches, where soldiers of the 29th Division assaulted the shore from their ships on 25 April 1915.

To the British Army, the mound was called Mole Hill, but its proper name is Karaağaçtepe (elm tree hill). The isolated tumulus stands on a relatively flat plain north of the village of Sedd-el-Bahr (Seddülbahir). The Krithia road is a quarter-mile to the east. Kirte Dere, the watercourse known as Krithia Nullah in its upper reaches, passes some 20 metres to the southeast. The mound itself is 100 metres long, 80 metres at its widest, and some 8 metres tall.

Image: Mole Hill today, viewed from the south. (Jonathan Brown, ‘Homeric sites around Troy’)

Climb the modest summit of Mole Hill and you will see the distant heights of Asia Minor to the south and east. Before the mountains lies the Troad, whose shore you might glimpse, and the waters flowing from the Dardanelles strait. Dominating the view today is the gigantic stone memorial called Abide (Çanakkale Şehitleri Anıtı) that commemorates the Turkish soldiers who fought and died at Gallipoli. The war memorial, completed in 1958, stands high above Morto Bay (morte eaux, still waters) and the entrance to the Dardanelles (ancient Hellespont).  On that headland, a city once flourished, benefiting from its position at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula (Thracian Chersonese) and the protection afforded by the precipitous cliffs (notably escaladed by the South Wales Borderers on 25 April 1915).

Image: Map showing the relative positions of the Protesilaos mound (left), north of Sedd-el-Bahr, and the acropolis and necropolis of Elaeus (right) on the high ground east of Morto Bay. (Robert Demangel, ‘Le tumulus dit de Protésilas’)

The city on the headland was established in the second half of the 7th century BCE by colonists from Greece who, mindful of the Homeric geography all about them, consecrated the polis to Protesilaos. They called their city Elaeus (elaía, olive) and its valley slopes support olive groves to this day. (In 1915, the escarpment above Morto Bay was called Falaise des Oliviers, olive bluff.)

When the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480–479 BCE, the city of Elaeus was plundered by Artayctes. The Persian governor defiled the sanctuary of Protesilaos by consorting with women in the temple and turning the sacred grove to agriculture. When Greece repulsed the Persians, Herodotus tells how Artayctes was crucified on the hill above Madytos (Eceabat) while his son was stoned to death in front of him. The humiliation of Artayctes at the Hellespont concludes Herodotus’ cautionary history of east-west conflict.

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great stood on the shores of Europe at Elaeus and looked to Asia. He must have had Herodotus in mind when he made sure to sacrifice at the tomb of Protesilaos before crossing the Hellespont in conquest. Mindful of vainglorious Xerxes who had ‘yoked’ the strait with a bridge near the Narrows, Alexander chose instead to sail from Morto Bay, sacrificing a bull midway across the channel, and pouring libations into the sea to propriate the gods. Arrian of Nicomedia, upon whose history we rely for this story, states that Alexander, in full armour, was the first to step from the ships onto the shore of Asia Minor.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, European travellers to the Troad knew of the Protesilaos mound. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was the first to excavate, in 1882.

Schliemann set four workmen to sink a three-metre-square shaft in the middle of the summit. They reached a depth of 2.5 metres, finding stone tools and axes, a ‘pretty’ bronze knife and large quantities of pottery similar to that found in the first two layers of Troy. But archaeological surveys have long been a front for military intelligence gathering, and a suspicious Ottoman governor soon put a stop to Schliemann’s work.

I had done exceedingly well to hurry on the work, for the commandant of the fortress of Seddul Bahr reported my doings to the military governor of the Dardanelles [Djemal Pasha], who not being able to conceive how a man could waste his time excavating a lonely hillock, suspected that I was merely using the excavation of the Protesilaus-tomb as a pretext for making plans of the fortress of Seddul Bahr, and investigating the lines of torpedoes recently sunk in the Hellespont; and so he issued an order to suspend the excavation.

Image: Engraving of the tumulus of Protesilaos that accompanied Schliemann’s description of his excavation in 1882. The Byzantine terracing is visible. (Dr. Heinrich Schliemann, ‘Troja’)

Some thirty years later, a French army was in occupation of Sedd-el-Bahr. In May 1915, its soldiers were entrenching on ground forward of the headland above Morto Bay (Eski Hisarlık, old fortress) when they struck stone-slabbed tombs. The soldiers had found the necropolis of Elaeus (called Éléonte by the French). The general staff of the Corps expéditionnaire d’Orient, inheritors of the Enlightenment ideals of Napoleon Bonaparte, ordered a formal scientific excavation of the site. (Napoleon’s expeditionary force to Egypt in 1798 had included 167 engineers, artists, cartographers, botanists and mathematicians in order to study every aspect of Egyptian history and culture.)

Between 8 July and 12 December 1915, a small team of four archaeologists, supported by soldier labour, worked under the guns of the Ottoman artillery to excavate 56 burials from the Elaeus necropolis (located about a third of a mile north of the Abide monument on the eastern slopes of Suleiman Reiss Dere). The graves were of two types, stone sarcophagi and large funerary jars or pithoi. They contained numerous grave goods, including drinking vessels and statuettes. A detailed report, more than 100 pages long, was presented to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in January 1916.

No archaeological survey appears to have been undertaken at Mole Hill in 1915, but it is worth noting a Greek inscription, carved on pure white marble, that was found in perfect condition by a British Army NCO at Helles. The soldier made a copy of the inscription and sent it home to Cardiff, where it came to the attention of the classical scholar Gilbert Norwood. He found it to be a dedication by the city of Elaeus to Attalus II, king of Pergamum, called ‘Philadelphia’, whose troops had defended the city from Thracian invaders coming down the Gallipoli peninsula. The people of Elaeus, wrote Norwood, had been ‘saved from fire and the sword.’ Not so fortunate was the British soldier, killed by a shell on 27 December 1915, eleven days after writing his letter. Norwood never learnt what became of the stone or where it had been found. The British soldier who copied the inscription was Company Sergeant Major 65530 Richard Lloyd Jones, 136 Army Troops Company, Royal Engineers, who lies in Lancashire Landing Cemetery (L.21).

Image: The trench driven through Mole Hill by French archaeologists, circa 1921–1923. Note the railway and mule employed to carry off the spoil. (Robert Demangel, ‘Le tumulus dit de Protésilas’)

Archaeologists returned to the Gallipoli Peninsula after the First World War under the auspices of the French army of occupation. Excavation at Mole Hill, directed by Robert Demangel of the French School at Athens, began in July 1921 but was hampered by poor weather and politics. (Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist forces were in the ascendant and a confrontation at the Dardanelles precipitated the Chanak crisis of 1922.) The archaeologists had also to deal with the detritus of a more recent war – trenches, left-over barbed-wire, half-collapsed dug-outs, unexploded projectiles, even an ammunition dump dug into the mound that had to be blown up. The most productive work was conducted in the spring and summer of 1923.

Image: Mole Hill viewed from the southeast, circa 1921–1923. The trench cut through the mound is especially visible here. (Robert Demangel, ‘Le tumulus dit de Protésilas’)

At first, a series of shafts were dug into Mole Hill. Then the French team attacked from the base, driving a three-metre-wide trench right through the mound. A second trench was dug perpendicular to the first. 

The brutal intervention uncovered not a warrior’s grave but a prehistoric site inhabited for several millennia before the period of the Trojan War. The oldest occupation of the site, represented by four layers from 7.3 to 11.5 metres in depth, was dated between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE. Neolithic tools like axes, mallets, mortars, scrapers, sharpeners, grinders and polishers were found. Also uncovered in the dig were pre-Hellenic hearths with ash, bones and pottery. 

By the Middle Bronze Age, the mound had been abandoned and was not occupied again until the late Byzantine period, when the southwest slope of the mound was inhabited for a time, furnishing the masonry terraces spotted by Schliemann.

Image: Byzantine remains on the southwest slope of Mole Hill, circa 1921–1923. The soldiers are probably from the 12th colonial infantry regiment. (Robert Demangel, ‘Le tumulus dit de Protésilas’)

Demangel’s detailed report was published in a large-format, illustrated book in 1926. ‘The tomb said to be of Protesilaos’ was intended as the first of four volumes by the archaeologists of the Corps d’occupation français de Constantinople. Sadly, the second volume, whose subject was the necropolis of Elaeus, never saw the light of day, although progress reports were printed in various journals. (In total, 709 tombs were excavated at Elaeus, with 1,200 artefacts preserved in the Louvre in Paris, and a further 300 in Istanbul.)

Image: Byzantine capital (marked ‘+’ in the centre of the photograph) decorating a British artillery officer’s command post near Mole Hill, circa 1921–1923. (Robert Demangel, ‘Le tumulus dit de Protésilas’)

The ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne between the Allied Powers and Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist government saw the work of the French archaeologists stopped in August 1923. The modern nation state of Turkey succeeded the Ottoman Empire and sovereignty over the Gallipoli Peninsula was ceded to it. The Allied occupation forces completed their withdrawal on 2 October 1923.

In May 1930, Alec Riley, the British Army signaller who had climbed the tumulus to watch the Lancashire Fusiliers enter battle, returned in civvies to the Gallipoli Peninsula to explore independently the battlefield he knew 15 years before. This time, he was aware of Mole Hill’s mythic past, for he quotes Schliemann’s description of the tumulus and recounts its place in history (see ‘The silent nullahs of Gallipoli’ in Gallipoli Diary 1915 (Opens in a new window)).

Riley may be associating the sacrifice of Protesilaos with the Gallipoli landings when he includes this stanza from the poem ‘Laodamia’ by William Wordsworth:

The wished for wind was given:—I then revolved
The oracle, upon the silent sea;
And, if no worthier led the way, resolved
That, of a thousand vessels, mine should be
The foremost prow in pressing to the strand,—
Mine the first blood that tinged the Trojan sand.

However, Riley’s description of the hill itself is typically phlegmatic.

When I saw it last, it was a rough weedy mound with two wide cross-cuttings through it made by excavators.

Due to military restrictions, archaeological research only resumed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the 1980s, when Mehmet Özdoğan undertook a surface survey of prehistoric and early historic sites that included Karaağaçtepe (Mole Hill). More recently, Onur Özbek and Reyhan Körpe of 18 March University in Çanakkale have conducted non-invasive surveys of the mound. These scholars confirmed the site’s Neolithic and Byzantine heritage. However, what little stratigraphic integrity remained after the excavation in the 1920s has been lost through farming and illicit digging by treasure hunters.

Today the name Mole Hill is unfamiliar to even the dedicated student of the Gallipoli Campaign. Army headquarters sanctioned the name for general use on 7 November 1915, giving its location on the 1:20,000 campaign map as 17.V.6, but ‘Mole Hill’ is rarely seen on campaign maps.

Image: Mole Hill features on this map taken from Arthur Gaskell’s history of the Royal Naval Division’s medical unit at Gallipoli, published in 1926. (‘Journal of The Royal Naval Medical Service’)

As for its Homeric past, archaeology discounts Mole Hill as the tomb of Protesilaos. Neither it nor any of the mounds excavated on the Troad have revealed the remains or burial goods of a Greek or Trojan warrior. The Neolithic tumulus was probably co-opted by the citizens of Elaeus as a monument or memorial to Protesilaos, the hero slain ‘before his time’. That first memorial has now been joined by so many more.

Alec Riley’s Egypt (Opens in a new window) and Gallipoli (Opens in a new window) diaries are now available in all formats — ebook, paperback and hardback. 

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