Gallipoli and the Anzacs

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North Beach and the Sari Bair Range,
25 April–20 December 1915

The evacuation of Anzac, December 1915

Thus to leave you–thus to part

General Birdwood, Lord Kitchener, Major-General Godley and Major-General Maxwell at North Beach

Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, Commander, Mediterranean Expeditionary force; Field Marshal Lord Kitchener; Major-General Alexander Godley, Commander, New Zealand and Australian Division; and Major-General John Maxwell at North Beach, 13 November 1915. [AWM A00880] ... Enlarge photo

At about 1.40 pm on 13 November 1915 a small boat arrived at North Beach. From it stepped Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the British Army. He had come to Anzac to see the positions there for himself. As he walked up the pier with other generals, he was recognised and men came running from all over towards the pier where they surrounded the great man. Charles Bean watched Kitchener walk up from the pier:

The tall red cap [Kitchener] was rapidly closed in among them-but they kept a path and as the red cheeks turned and spoke to one man or another, they cheered him–they, the soldiers-no officers leading off or anything of that sort. It was a purely soldiers’ welcome. He said to them, ‘The King has asked me to tell you how splendidly he thinks you have done-you have done splendidly, better, even, than I thought you would.’

[Kevin Fewster, Frontline Gallipoli – C E W Bean’s diary from the trenches, Sydney, 1983, p.176]

Kitchener spent just over two hours at Anzac surveying the Turkish line from Australian trenches inland of the Sphinx and at Lone Pine. Two days later, after further consultation with senior commanders, he recommended to the British War Cabinet that Gallipoli–Anzac, Suvla and Helles–be evacuated. Without significant reinforcement and the bringing in of considerable artillery resources, little progress could, in his opinion, be made against the strengthening Turkish trenches. This was especially so at Anzac where a further surprise attack, such as had been conducted in August against Chunuk Bair and Kocacimentepe, was virtually impossible. Moreover, local commanders were extremely worried about the problems of supplying Gallipoli throughout the winter with its many severe storms.

View from water to North Beach with smoke in the foreground

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] ... Enlarge photo

Once the decision had been taken, the biggest problem was how to leave the peninsula without arousing the suspicions of the Turks. A detailed evacuation plan was devised by an Australian, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brudenell White. This involved elaborate deception operations such as the so-called ‘silent stunts’ of late November where no artillery fire or sniping was to occur from the Anzac lines. It was hoped that this would accustom the Turks to the idea that preparations were underway for the coming winter. Hopefully, the enemy would not, therefore, interpret these silences as a withdrawal. Right to the end, great care was taken to keep up the kind of irregular rifle and artillery fire from Anzac that would be expected by the Turks.

An evacuation schedule planned for the leaving of Anzac in three stages. In the ‘preliminary stage’, to be set in motion while awaiting word from London that the British Cabinet had approved Lord Kitchener’s recommendation to evacuate, men and equipment would be taken off consistent with a garrison preparing for a purely defensive winter campaign. After Cabinet approval, the ‘intermediate’ stage would commence, during which the number of soldiers on Anzac would be reduced to a point where they could still hold off a major Turkish attack for about one week. During the first two stages, the Anzac garrison would fall from 41 000 to 26 000. These 26 000 would then be withdrawn over two nights in the ‘final’ evacuation on 18-19 and 19-20 December 1915. In the event, by 18 December at the end of the ‘intermediate’ stage, there were only 20 277 soldiers left at Anzac. Although Anzac Cove was used, the chief evacuation points were the piers at North Beach. It was at North Beach, therefore, that many men spent their last moments on Anzac and caught their last glimpses in the dark of the Sari Bair Range as they pulled away from the piers.

Williams’ Pier North Beach, December 1915.

Williams’ Pier, North Beach, December 1915, with the Sphinx in the background. At this time the preparations for the evacuation of the Australian and New Zealand troops were well under way. [AWM C01621] ... Enlarge photo

Indian Cart Corps with their mules in Mule Gully

Members of the Indian Mule Cart Corps with their charges in Mule Gully, near the New Zealand supply dump, looking towards Destroyer Hill, Sari Bair Range. [AWM C00900] ... Enlarge photo

An Australian officer head bowed at a grave site

An Australian officer visits a comrade’s grave on Gallipoli. [AWM G00419] ... Enlarge photo

During the evacuation, movement to the piers took place after dark. An Australian observer watched a busy night scene at North Beach:

I went down to see the sending away of the British Labour Corps [the ‘Old and Bold’] and Egyptians and Maltese. Flares were burning on Williams’ Pier and Walker's Ridge. Baggage was piled on the wharf–mostly field ambulance; four gun-teams made their way through the crowd out towards the left; ammunition was being carried in on gharries [a type of horse-drawn Indian carriage] and taken on to the pier or stacked on the beach … truck-load after truck-load of warm winter clothing was being sent running down the little railway on Williams’ Pier.

[Quoted in C E W Bean, The Story of Anzac, Sydney, 1924, Vol II, pp. 865-866]

At night, from the positions north of Walker’s Ridge stretching through the ranges to Hill 60, mule columns looked after by men of the Indian Mule Cart Corps brought material for evacuation to Williams’ Pier. Once on flat ground and heading south for North Beach, these columns passed a stretch of coast opposite the Sniper’s Nest where they could undoubtedly be heard by Turkish patrols. However, as the mules were constantly going up the line with supplies, there was nothing to tell the enemy that they were now returning, equally heavily laden. Moreover, so skilled were the Indian handlers that hardly any noise was made. Encountering a column, an Australian confided to his diary:

At once I thought–‘My goodness, if the Turks don’t see all this as it goes along they must be blind’. But as I went along behind them I began to notice how silently these mules behaved. They had big loads, but they were perfectly quiet. They made no sound at all as they walked except for the slight jingle of a chain now and then … . I doubt if you could have heard the slightest noise … . I doubt if at 1,000 yards [915 metres] you could see them at all-possibly just a black serpentine streak.

[Quoted in C E W Bean, The Story of Anzac, Sydney, 1924, Vol II, p.866]

Although much equipment was removed from Anzac, a great deal, especially foodstuffs, was left behind or destroyed.

So well were the objectives of the first two stages kept secret from all but those who needed to know, that it was not until the second week in December that the ordinary soldiers realised that a full-scale evacuation was in progress. Charles Bean felt that everyone knew by 13 December. Men’s reactions varied, but a common sorrow was the thought of leaving behind their dead comrades. Bean noted how many now spent time in the small Anzac cemeteries tidying up the graves.

On the nights of 18-19 and 19-20 December the final 20 000 Anzacs were taken off. On 19 December, the British cruiser HMS Grafton lay in off North Beach ready to take the soldiers on board and, if necessary, to open fire on any enemy attempt to hinder this final withdrawal. An observer on the Grafton noted:

It is about 9 o'clock. An ideal night for the job. No ships (only a few lights) visible at Suvla. One ship about a mile on our port beam. Barely a wrinkle on the water. Soft air from the north. Moon at present quite invisible. The wash of the destroyer has been lapping against our sides like wavelets at the edge of a pond.

10.00 pm- Three ships just gone in …

10.35 pm- Five trawlers coming out with cutters in tow.

HMS ‘Cornwallis’, the last ship to leave Gallipoli.

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] ... Enlarge photo

On 19 December just 10 000 men held the lines of trenches from Bolton’s Ridge in the south to Hill 60 in the north. The day was spent in constant activity aimed at convincing their watchful enemy that things were proceeding as normal. At 2.15 pm the British started a feint attack at Helles to distract the Turks. At dusk the rear guard began leaving for the beach until finally there were but 1500 left in all those miles of dark trench. 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) [and] 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, London, 1984, p.343]

By 4.00 am, 20 December 1915, a handful of men were left at North Beach. Among these was the commander of the ‘Rear Party’, Colonel J Paton, from Waratah, Sydney. At 4.10 am, Paton, having waited ten minutes for any last Anzac straggler, declared the evacuation complete and sailed off. The Anzacs had successfully left Gallipoli with hardly a casualty.

On 19 December, as he waited to go, Company Quarter Master Sergeant A L Guppy, 14th Battalion, of Benalla, Victoria, confided his feelings in verse to his diary. His words probably spoke for them all:

Not only muffled is our tread
To cheat the foe,
We fear to rouse our honoured dead
To hear us go.
Sleep sound, old friends- the keenest smart
Which, more than failure, wounds the heart,
Is thus to leave you- thus to part,
Comrades, farewell!

[Guppy, quoted in B Gammage, The Broken Years – Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin Books, 1975, p.110]