If you had gazed down on 13 November 1915 at about 1.30 pm from where you are standing you would have seen a tall man in the uniform of a British Field Marshal striding up one of the piers at North Beach. Behind him came a gaggle of generals and commanders, including Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, for this was Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, Secretary of State for War in the British Cabinet and overall commander of the British Empire’s armies in the field. Word quickly got around just who the famous visitor was and soldiers ran to the pier to cheer. Kitchener made his way through the crowd stopping to chat to this man and that man all the while telling 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’.
With Kitchener in the lead, the entourage now made its way up the ‘dusty, precipitous road’ to Walker’s Ridge and a trench looking out towards the Nek and up to Chunuk Bair. Then he went to a nearby position known as Bully Beef Sap and was shown the Anzac line – Pope’s Hill, Quinn’s Post and Lone Pine. Kitchener had come to see the situation at Gallipoli for himself. By 3.30 pm he was gone and by late November the British War Cabinet, after hearing from Kitchener, had decided to evacuate the three British positions on Gallipoli – Suvla, Anzac and Helles.
The decision was based on a number of concerns. Winter was coming and early gales had already shown that nature was capable of having a devastating effect on the precarious man-made piers of Gallipoli. On 27 November torrential rain turned the trenches into rivers and this was followed by high winds and snow. Sergeant Cyril Lawrence wrote in his diary:
Just fancy yourself, standing in a trench, a piercing wind roaring along it, the snow driving down it in great gusts. Everyone and everything coated white, your frozen feet over your boot tops in half frozen slush … Your feet and hands are paining you. Someone runs along the trench with your day’s rations – a tin of Bully Beef and three hard biscuits. Water is short so you only get a half a cupful of tea with the information that this is to do for the day, as they are unable to land water.
[The Gallipoli Diary of Sergeant Lawrence of the Australian Engineers, Sir Ronald East (ed), Melbourne 1983, p 118]
Up at the British positions at Suvla, 30 men were found in a trench frozen to death.
The Turkish Army was also preparing for the day when it could crush the Anzac position. At the end of September 1915, Bulgaria entered the war on the side of Germany and Turkey, making it possible to send heavy guns and ammunition overland to the Turks. By the spring of 1916, the Anzac positions, and those of the British at Suvla and Helles, might have been pulverized into submission by siege artillery. In general, it was felt that nothing more could be achieved at Gallipoli so evacuation plans were drawn up and quickly implemented.
In stages, and at night, more than 41,000 men were shipped quietly away from Anzac. If the Turks had realised what was happening during this time, thousands of casualties might have been inflicted on the departing garrison. So great efforts were made to deceive the ever-watchful Turks that their enemies were merely preparing for winter. The Turks became accustomed to a lessening of activity through so-called ‘silent stunts’ during which there was no firing from the Anzac line and it might seem that a live and let live policy was being adopted. After 27 November, firing and bombardments were resumed as normal. On the final day of the evacuation – 19 December – various ruses were used. One group was ordered to hang around on Artillery Road where they should be observed ‘obviously loafing and smoking’. Others had a cricket match on Shell Green to convince the Turks life was proceeding normally on Anzac.
What greatly distressed the Anzacs was having to leave their dead comrades behind. As the evacuation proceeded, little groups of men could be seen tidying up the cemeteries and individual graves. On the final day General Birdwood came ashore to say his personal farewell to Anzac. One soldier, pointing to a cemetery, said to him, ‘I hope they won’t hear us marching down the deres [valleys]’.
Much of the evacuation was conducted from the piers of North Beach although Anzac Cove was used as well. Motor lighters took men and equipment out to waiting warships and transports which then left for the base at Lemnos Island. On the night of 15 December, the men and mules of an Indian Mountain Battery came down to North Beach from the hills to the north:
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 as they walked except for the slight jingle of a chain now and then … I doubt if at 1,000 yards [914 metres] you could see them at all – possibly just a black serpentine streak.
[Unnamed diarist in Charles Bean, Story of Anzac, Vol 2, p 866]
The fleet that came to take the final parties away on the last two nights – 18–19 and 19–20 December – sailed from Imroz Island. As the warships and transports came in to anchor off the Anzac shore, nobody there could hear the normal rattle of the anchor chains. Instead, these were lowered silently by the sailors. With the fleet was the cruiser HMS Grafton and one of its crew recorded the event:
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 a destroyer has been lapping against our side like the wavelets on the edge of a pond.
[Unnamed diarist in Charles Bean, Story of Anzac, Vol 2, pp 888–9]
On the last night of all small rear parties manned the trenches. Men ran around firing rifles and making enough noise to convince the Turks that the whole garrison was still there. Among the last to leave and head for North Beach was New Zealander Private Joe Gasparich, Auckland Infantry Battalion:
I walked through the trench and the floor 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 … I was on my own at last.
[Gasparich quoted in Chris Pugsley, Gallipoli:The New Zealand Story, Auckland, 1998, p 341]
At 4.00 am on 20 December there was one steamboat left at North Beach. Waiting beside it were Captain C M Staveley, The Royal Navy Anzac Beach Commander, and Colonel John Paton, commander of the Anzac rearguard, of Newcastle, New South Wales, and other officers. They waited for ten more minutes for stragglers then cast off, Paton being the last to leave. Anzac was deserted.
Ah, well! We’re gone! We’re out of it now. We’ve some-
where else to fight.
And we strain our eyes from the transport deck, but
‘Anzac’ is out of sight!