December 1915 – Gallipoli

The smouldering remains of an accidental fire which began in the supply dump on North Beach at about 1 am on 18 December 1915, the day before the final stage of the evacuation. The fire, at first thought to have been deliberately started by treachery, threatened to alert the Turks to the evacuation in progress and led to shelling from the Turkish guns at the Olive Grove. [AWM G01302]

HMS Cornwallis, the last ship to leave Gallipoli in the evacuation of 19-20 December 1915, returns fire to the Turkish guns shelling her as she prepares to sail. In the background stores at Suvla Bay, set alight to prevent their use by the Turks, can be seen burning. [AWM H10388]

Escaping Gallipoli was going to be just as dangerous as invading it. The challenge was to remove 80000 men, 5000 animals, 2000 vehicles and 200 guns from Anzac and Suvla. If the Turks found out, tens of thousands of Allied troops could be slaughtered on the beaches.

The soldiers would leave over a number of nights. Boats would creep in, load men, and disappear. Before the dawn mists lifted, the beach had to look the same as it had on the previous day. The Turks needed only to break through at one Anzac point to expose the deception. And we know from Mehmed Fasih’s diary that they suspected something was up.

Allied command estimated losses of between 20 and 50 per cent during evacuation, which would equate to at least 16000 men being killed or captured. The plan was kept from the Anzac troops. Senior commanders feared that the Turks might hear the news. In some places the trenches were so close that the Turks could hear the Anzacs talking. But no orders could stop gossip. Few Anzacs swallowed the official line that troops were being thinned for the winter period.

Some Anzacs relished a potential end to bad food and raging disease. But others now considered Anzac their property, the muddy holes their homes. They had staked their territory and their mates had died defending it. ‘If it were true! God!’ wrote Cyril Lawrence of the rumours on 10 December. ‘I believe that murder and riots would break loose amongst our boys . . . Oh, it couldn’t be; how could we leave this place now after the months of toil and slavery that have gone to the making of it?’

Monash described the news as ‘stupendous and paralysing’. There was talk of disobeying orders to stay in the trenches. The 2nd Brigade was said to beg for one final ‘go’ at breaking the stalemate. Lawrence felt ashamed. ‘Better to struggle and die fighting our way ahead than to sneak off like a thief in the night,’ he wrote.

The evacuation was better planned than any Allied attacks at Gallipoli. Monash issued each 4th Brigade soldier with a card detailing his task, time of departure and route to the beach. Trails marked by salt or flour would guide the men to the beach. The last to leave were to pull across barbed wire behind them.

Tricks were staged to suggest that all was normal. Those silent periods that Fasih wondered about in November? They were ‘silent stunts’, aimed at getting the Turks used to lulls. Most medical staff left early, but their tents remained on the beach. Men were ordered to loaf around and smoke where Turks could see them. On the afternoon of 17 December, Light Horsemen played cricket on Shell Green. A famous photo depicts a soldier belting a front-foot drive while three shrapnel shells burst in the background.

All went well at first. Men and supplies and mules left each night. Some Anzacs may have grumbled but they co-operated with their orders. At least they’d enjoyed decent food, wine and clothing from the stores opened up on the beach. The weather stayed calm and the Turks tried no surprises. On the last two nights, only 20000 men defended Anzac. Now for the tricky part.

The front-line trenches were the last to be evacuated. Trench floors were ploughed or laid with blankets to silence footfalls. Lance Corporal W. C. Scurry, of the 7th Battalion, invented a self-firing rifle to give departing soldiers a head start. A kerosene tin was punctured so that it dripped water into a tin below. After about twenty minutes the lower tin overbalanced, tripping a piece of twine that triggered the rifle to fire.

After dark on 18 December, half the remaining men left on a smooth sea. The situation grew more tense. If the Turks attacked now, they would break through. Men tidied the graves of their mates and bade them farewell. An Australian nodded towards a cemetery and told Birdwood: ‘I hope they won’t hear us marching back to the beach.’ Some smashed what they couldn’t take, so that the Turks couldn’t use anything.

One soldier set a table for four, with jam, bully beef, biscuits, cheese and tobacco. He left a note. ‘There are no booby traps in this dugout’, he wrote. This was not quite true. He had opened some rifle shells, poured out the black gun powder, and mixed it into the packets of ready-rubbed tobacco. Another soldier left a note telling the Turks, ‘You didn’t push us off, Jacko, we just left.’

By 11 pm on 19 December, less than 2000 men held the entire Anzac line. Sergeant Cliff Pinnock had survived the Nek charges on 7 August. Now he was among the last to leave Gallipoli. Pinnock was set to leave the front-line for the beach in a few hours. The moon shone and the temperature dropped. Pinnock’s feet froze. He didn’t think twenty pairs of socks could warm them. ‘The last day was simply awful,’ he wrote. ‘I never in all my life want to go through such another day.’

Pinnock had been instructed not to fire unless he was certain he saw a Turk. The problem was that he thought he saw Turks everywhere. ‘My God, I would have given anything in the world to have been able to open up and let go a hundred or so rounds just to ease my nerves,’ he wrote. ‘At 12 o’clock I was in that state that I dared not look at any object for more than a few seconds, if so I could clearly imagine I saw a man rise and place his rifle to his shoulder.’

At 2.15 am, Pinnock was ordered to march the 4 kilometres to the waiting boats. There had been 36 000 Anzacs here a few weeks earlier. Now there were a few hundred. Some were so exhausted from the nervous strain that they had to be prodded to stay awake. No one spoke as Pinnock’s group trudged to the beach. The men had rigged rifles to fire when trench candles burned down. As they walked, they heard the guns going off. The Turks opposite returned fire.

Men from the 24th Battalion stayed at Lone Pine until the end. The last group was about to leave, at 2.40 am, when an officer found a man on the parapet taking ‘just one more pot at them’. The officer heard explosions and found an Australian throwing the new Mills bombs. ‘It’s a pity not to use them,’ the Anzac said. ‘They’re great.’ An officer thought he saw two Turks emerging from a tunnel, until one man said: ‘A bonzer night. It’ll be a pity to leave the old joint.’

Pinnock clambered into a boat that moved off for Lemnos as spent bullets plopped into the sea all around. A few hours later, he bribed a ship steward and had his first bath in months. He soaped off his lice and threw his stinking clothes out the porthole.

The last boat left Anzac at 4.10 am. Private F. Pollack, of the 13th Battalion, was nearly left behind. He awoke in a dugout to find the area deserted. He raced to the beach. It was deserted. He rushed to North Beach and caught one of the last boats.

Underground explosions, set off at 3.30 am, killed seventy Turks at the Nek, and prompted Turkish fire right across the line. The Turks did not discover the evacuation until after dawn. Only two men were wounded in the Anzac evacuation, including one hit in the arm by a spent bullet as he left the beach. At Suvla, and later Helles, there were virtually no casualties.

Almost every major event had got away from the Allied commanders since 25 April. Only in the leaving of Gallipoli could they claim a triumph. Monash watched from a ship as the Nek exploded like a volcano of dust. He felt that the evacuation was ‘a most brilliant conception, brilliantly organised, and brilliantly executed – and will, I am sure, rank as the greatest joke in the whole range of military history.’

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