The evacuation of Gallipoli went like clockwork
Name: Stewart Boyden
Unit: 19th Battalion AIF
Location: Gallipoli, France and Belgium
Stewart Boyden was a good letter writer. He wrote often to his parents back in Sydney, expressing his feelings and his faith in God.
After some time on Gallipoli he became disillusioned about the war, particularly when his brother Rex was badly wounded.
In a letter to his father written some time after the evacuation of Gallipoli, he looked back on his time on the Peninsula with some bitterness.
"One feels he is but a pawn in the game, to be wiped out if necessary & never missed; at times on the peninsula that thought used to get me down and make me feel frightfully depressed, the awful sights and the utter callousness would get on one's nerves & grandeur & glory of war seemed to die out.
"One saw it only in its awful nakedness & there were times when I sort of felt that we were forgotten; that we had been left there to be gradually killed off - for of course we knew the utter hopelessness of the whole thing, although of course we were not allowed to say as much in any of our letters. But when I used to get your letters I felt as if you were there watching me father, & I was proud to know that I had a chance to prove that I had a bit of real stuff in me, as long as you were proud of me, what mattered if I was but a pawn to others.
"Well we didn't do much I suppose but we were willing to do all they gave us to do, & although we were never in any terrific battle as battles are known today, yet there were times when we knew what it felt like to be preparing for such, for when we first heard whispers of evacuation & later were told that the 5th Brigade were chosen for the post of honour, which was to hold on until everyone else was off, I can tell you, very few of us thought that we should ever get off. The best I think any of us hoped for was to be wounded & fall into the kind hands of some Turk.
"I shall try & give you an account of my own personal experiences as regards the evacuation, although I really think the papers gave a very accurate account of the whole thing & until I read those accounts I knew very little of it - after Lord Kitchener had visited us, we knew that something out of the ordinary was going to happen, & needless to say, we all thought there was going to be a general advance.
"Rumours of all sorts were floating round, the strangest being that they were issuing white patches to sew on our backs (these were always issued prior to a charge) so that I for one made up my mind that we were in for it & to be candid didn't feel too happy at the thought, for to advance from our position we knew to be next to an impossibility, for we had only to look over our parapet to remind us of what had happened to that last lot of gallant fellows who had made the attempt, for there were hundreds of skeletons in tattered uniforms still lying where they had fallen, which always made me think of the 'Valley of the Bones'.
"However, the day set for the charge came & went & we were still behind the trenches for which I thanked God - it was shortly after this that a whisper came of a possible evacuation, but none of us for the moment believed that there was any truth in it. The whole thing seemed too absurd, too impossible.
"However, a week after the first whisper it did look as though something of the sort was going to happen, for they were no longer landing fresh stores & what surprised us more, they were beginning to take off stores & then we were told that there were to be no more mails either inward or outward.
"Then word came that all work was to cease, that no more tunnels were to be dug; then we saw tons of explosives being landed which the engineers began to use by laying mines in all the tunnels. These mines were connected by wires to a switch-board on the beach, then all down the roadway leading to the beach, barricades were built.
"Still officially none of us could hear of anything, no one knew of such a thing as an evacuation. Everyone still laughed at the idea. Then we heard that most of the field battalion had gone, but what surprised us most of all, was, that any man who reported to the doctor that he was feeling a bit off colour, was sent away even without being examined; whereas just before this, men were so short that nothing less than a serious wound or illness could get them away.
"Then at last news came, the Colonel called all the officers together & told us that it had been decided to evacuate ANZAC, but how or when it was to be carried out he did not know, the men were not yet to be told. Shortly after this it became generally & officially known that the 5th Brigade were to be the last to leave as they held the key of ANZAC.
"This was Tuesday when we were first told & rumour came round that we would be leaving the following Monday, this rumour it appears was purposely started to put away spies that were about off the scent, for of course as you all know the evacuation took place on the Sunday night - on the Thursday we got our orders, the first of the 5th brigade were to leave their post at 6pm Saturday night; the first lot were called 'A' party the next 'B' party were to leave 6 pm Sunday. 'C' party 10pm & 'D' party the last to leave at 2am Monday. Now the question arose as to what parties we would be allotted, we all volunteered to stay to the last, but I was ruled out as being married & had to leave with the first party, as all married men were sent by the first party.
"The officer to leave last of our battalion was Capt Heritage. Mr Taylor left with the 2nd party. After our orders were received we all packed up & our things were sent away on the Thursday night, then came a time of waiting such as none of us ever want to go through again; we thought Friday would never end, Friday night we expected an attack. But strange to say the Turks were quieter than usual, during Friday night a great number of troops were taken off & the position on our right & left were greatly weakened.
"Saturday morning came & we were all greatly excited, for the Turks started to shell us pretty heavily but there were no casualties in our battalion; however we fully expected an attack after the shelling but none came. I thought Saturday, Dec 18 1915 would never end. We were all ready to move off ages before the time. At 5 o'clock Mr Taylor took over from me & I withdrew my men from Monash Gully - every one had their boots muffled, each man was inspected to see that he had nothing on him that would rattle or show, as the moon would rise about 6 o'clock. Needless to say there was no talking or smoking allowed - at 6 o'clock sharp word came along to move & I had to stand on one side to allow the battalion to pass; they had to pass in single file, owing to the narrowness of the trenches - I thought the last man was never coming & I shall never forget the weird sight of each man going so silently, that they looked more like ghosts than human beings - it reminded me of the old song "The deathless army" that part:
'Solemnly silently through the night,
grim set faces and eyes so bright,
for a phantom host was marching there'
"It was wonderfully carried out, there wasn't a hitch; we all thought that there would be a terrible congestion at the entrance to the main communications trench, that is where all the other communications trenches lead into, but everything was so beautifully timed & worked out, that although there were hundreds of troops from all directions meeting at the one spot; there wasn't the slightest delay.
"All this time the troops remaining behind kept up the usual fire & bombing, so that all around everything was as usual - we had about a mile & a half to go from our trenches to the beach & as I said before everything was so beautifully timed & carried out, that you would have thought only our battalion was leaving, for practically without a halt, we came straight down from the trenches across the beach out on to the wharf & straight to the punts that were waiting for us.
"Although we were all cool & collected outwardly our nerves were on edge, for every minute we expected the attack to come. I expected every minute to hear the old familiar burst of shrapnel, for even on ordinary nights they shell the beach pretty furiously - for you have heard of "Beachy Bill" the gun that has accounted for hundreds of lives; he fires 5 shells every 1/2 hour regularly. The very spot where we had to embark is the place he gets them.
"But God was with us as everyone felt - for the first time in the memory of most of us "Beachy Bill" remained quiet, only firing one shell that night, which fell short.
"But Oh: those few minutes that we waited for the punt to push off everyone's heart was in their mouth, for we were in the range of "Beachy Bill"; (there is about 200 yards danger zone & everything within that range is completely wiped out if a shell is fired) & I thought we would never get across it; but once the punt was across I breathed again, and my whole heart went out in gratitude to God for we were now safe.
"Just as we were leaving the shore, one stray bullet plopped in the water about a foot from me, for I was sitting on the side of the punt; up to the present that is the last shot I saw fired with intent to kill - and as on the night we landed we heard the rifle fire getting louder as we approached, so this night we heard it gradually fading away - we had no idea where we were being taken to, but we didn't care, for after 4 months hearing continually noise of battle, we now had the peaceful silence & no one but those that have experienced it could tell you the relief it was. Oh! how thankful I was to God for sparing me to come through it all.
"We were taken about a mile out, when we were taken aboard a British battleship & by 8 o'clock we were steering, with all lights out for Lemnos Island. The officers on board did all they could to make us comfortable, gave us a hot meal & even lent their cabins to us. When I turned into bunk & for the first time for 4 months, knew the feeling of sheets & a soft pillow, for 5 hours I slept soundly & when I awakened we were in Lemnos harbour.
"There we disembarked & were once more able to walk on land without fear of shot or shell - thanks be to God - and so ended the battle of ANZAC."
The material for this article was supplied by Ron Boyden of the ACT and Mrs Elinor Walker of New South Wales