Evacuation: a successful strategy at last – but soaked in blood and wreathed in the ghosts of sacrificed comrades
After facing the unpleasant truth about the Gallipoli tragedy, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, visited Anzac for two hours on the afternoon of November 13. Understanding the stalemate and conscious of the approaching winter, he recommended withdrawal.
The cost of evacuation had been estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 but elaborate plans were devised by Australian Brigadier General Cyril Brudenell White to lull the suspicions of the Turks. ‘Silent stunts’ were interspersed with shooting and shelling, movements were designed for show signs of preparing for winter but 15,000 troops, mainly support units and reserves, were withdrawn at night before December 18, when 20,277 soldiers were left.
So secret was the operation that it was not until the second week of December ordinary soldiers realised a full-scale evacuation was in progress. Men’s reactions varied, but a common sorrow was the thought of leaving behind their dead comrades. Charles Bean noted many soldiers spending time tidying up Anzac graves in small cemeteries.
More than 20,000 soldiers slipped silently away from Gallipoli on the nights of December 18-19 and 19-20. Sporadic gunfire continued from the empty trenches as rifles set in firing positions were triggered by carefully placed cans of stones with dripping water and burning candles.
At 4.10 am on 20 December, the last men to leave Anzac Cove, a small party waiting for stragglers, boarded their boat and pushed off into the darkness.
Private John Turnbull: So as the troops won’t lose their road to the beach, rice and flour and oatmeal have been sprinkled along the paths and tracks. We have orders to wrap sandbags over our boots and so deaden the sound as we move off. We move out with fixed bayonets, having rags wrapped over our bayonets so as not to shine.
Company Sergeant Major Joe Gasparich, Auckland Infantry Battalion, was among the last to depart in the early hours of 20 December: I came down – I got off my perch (the firing step) … I walked through the trench and the floor of the trench was frozen hard … and when I brought my feet down they echoed right through the trench, down the gully, right down, and you could hear this echo running ahead … Talk about empty, I didn’t see a soul … It was a lonely feeling. Gasparich, quoted in C Pugsley, Gallipoli – The New Zealand Story.
A. P. Corrie: Do not be disheartened because Anzac is evacuated. We hold Helles. The evacuation was a wonderful feat, done under cover of night. Apparently the Turks did not ‘jerry’ though it lasted just a week. Our warships shelled the shore from time to time. Ships’ searchlights played on the Turks’ lines, and the shore held by them, and presented night operations by the enemy. Our aeroplanes always chased the Taubes off when trying to reconnoitre in daytime. The debt we owe the navy we shall never forget, though we cannot repay it. But whenever in transit we pass a ship o’ war we sing ‘Sons of the Sea’ after the salute and the Jack Tars cheer lustily. Australians have made a name for courage which the Tars admire, and all Tommy, Tar and transport sailors commend Australia for the splendid way she fitted out her sons and the care she continues to take of them.
One man (Simpson, formerly a Brisbane open-air evangelist) failed to reach the pontoon at William’s Pier, which brought off to the transports those left to fight (though not required) a rear guard action. We suppose that he got baffled in the maze of trenches, or fell and was rendered hors-de-combat. The report, which is unofficial, may turn out to be untrue. (NOTE: the story was untrue). However, the Turks play the game and he will be treated well as a prisoner of war.
All the many Australian soldiers I met are in fine feather. They know that regret is vain, and are ready to be up and doing with a heart for any fate. The evacuation will give impetus to recruiting in Australia. If a man’s imagination, which tends to depict in lurid colours the horrors of war, were not so vivid and misleading, those of nervous temperament would not hesitate. War is not as ghastly as it is supposed to be. It has its compensations commensurate with its dangers. A young man – any man under 50 – who fails to get a look in at this, the greatest of all wars, will be a loser. If he gets back whole (the chances in his favour are 80 to 100) he will have had experiences that are unique. If he gets ‘potted’ he will not fret and those left will meet the loss with ‘Can a man die better?’ etc. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
Ashleigh (or Stanley) Perry, December 21, from Lemnos: We got away from Gallipoli alright, only one shell being fired at us, and that went over our heads. The getting away of all chaps was indeed a smart bit of work. M.C., Maryborough WBB Historical Society, Letters from the Front Line
After eight futile months and more than quarter of a million Allied casualties, the battered evacuated Anzacs had a small solace – a successful strategy at last – but it was soaked in blood and wreathed in the ghosts of sacrificed comrades.
Secrecy also surrounded the Allied withdrawal from Helles in January but by January 7 Liman Von Sanders, the German officer commanding the Turks, realised what was afoot. The British were bombed and at dusk Turkish soldiers streamed out of their trenches. The first wave was mown down by the 19,000 British troops still remaining; the second wave refused to go out to face the same fate. The British had bought themselves more time and the last of the Allied troops cast off before daylight on January 9. As they left, an explosion destroyed ammunition and stores.