Evacuation from Gallipoli 1915
In a well-planned operation, Allied forces withdrew from Anzac and Suvla between 15 and 20 December 1915. After the failure of the August Offensive, some senior officers began to question the value of remaining at Gallipoli. The British forces really needed reinforcements on the Western Front and at Salonika. In October, the British replaced General Sir Ian Hamilton with Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Munro. Munro immediately proposed evacuation.
On 22 November, the British decided to evacuate Anzac and Suvla. Planning moved quickly and efficiently. The evacuation of Anzac started on 15 December. Over 5 nights, 36,000 troops were withdrawn to the waiting transport ships. The last party left in the early hours of 20 December from North Beach at Anzac. British and French forces remained at Helles until 9 January 1916.
Gallipoli was a failure for the Allies, with some 44,000 soldiers killed in an attempt to take the peninsula from the Ottomans. Victory came at a high price for the Ottoman Empire, which lost at least 87,000 men during the campaign.
Situation on Gallipoli
After August, the British mounted no further major attacks at Gallipoli. The British Government grew alarmed at the failure to break through to the Dardanelles. Public criticism was mounting over the whole venture. When winter arrived in November, men froze at their posts and over 16,000 troops with frostbite and exposure were evacuated. It was decided that the campaign could not meet its objectives and the British Empire forces on Gallipoli should withdraw. Many thought withdrawal would result in heavy casualties. However, elaborate precautions were taken to deceive the Turks into thinking nothing unusual was happening.
Between 8 and 20 December 1915, 90,000 men were secretly embarked from Suvla and Anzac. On 8 and 9 January 1916, a similar evacuation was conducted at Helles. Only a handful of casualties were suffered in these well-executed operations.
Decision to evacuate
At about 1:40pm on 13 November 1915, a small boat arrived at North Beach. From it stepped Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. He had come to see the Anzac positions for himself.
As Kitchener walked up the pier with other generals, the men recognised him. They came running from all over and surrounded him on the pier. War correspondent 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 – CEW Bean's diary from the trenches, Sydney, 1983, p.176]
Kitchener spent just over 2 hours at Anzac surveying the Turkish line from Australian trenches inland of the Sphinx and at Lone Pine. After another 2 days consulting with senior commanders, he recommended to the British War Cabinet to evacuate Gallipoli (Anzac, Suvla and Helles).
In Kitchener's opinion, little progress could be made against the strengthening Turkish trenches without significant reinforcements and artillery resources. This was especially so at Anzac where another surprise attack, such as the August Offensive, was virtually impossible. Moreover, local commanders were extremely worried about the problems of supplying Gallipoli throughout the winter with its many severe storms.
Plan for a quiet withdrawal
After much discussion, on 8 December the British War Cabinet finally decided to end the campaign. Unknown to them, senior officers like the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, General Sir Charles Monro, had anticipated this decision. An evacuation plan was already in operation.
Could the Anzacs just sneak away, unseen? There was a view that any evacuation would result in heavy casualties but, in the event, there were virtually none.
At Anzac and Suvla, an Australian staff officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Brudenell White, devised a plan to gradually withdraw men and equipment while convincing the Turks that everything was normal.
The troops carried out 'silent stunts' to trick the Turks.
Nearly all firing from Anzac ceased to make the enemy think preparations for winter were underway. At the end of the stunt, an irregular rifle and artillery fire of the sort to be expected by the Turks was kept up. Hopefully, the enemy would not interpret these silences as a withdrawal.
A lot of equipment was taken away at night, but some material was still brought ashore at the Anzac Cove and North Beach piers during the day to maintain the appearance of normal operations.
According to the evacuation schedule, the troops would leave Anzac in three stages.
First and second stages
The 'preliminary stage' was set in motion while awaiting word from London that the British Cabinet had approved Lord Kitchener's recommendation to evacuate. In these early days, the Allies only removed enough men and equipment to make it look to the Turks as though a garrison was preparing for a defensive winter campaign.
After receiving Cabinet approval, the 'intermediate' stage commenced. Now the Allies reduced the number of soldiers on Anzac to a point where they could still hold off a major Turkish attack for about 1 week.
During the first two stages, the Anzac garrison was planned to fall from 41,000 to 26,000 troops.
On 17 December, just 2 days before the final evacuation, a famous cricket game at Shell Green was played while Turkish shells passed overhead.
By 18 December, at the end of the second stage, only 20,277 soldiers were left at Anzac.
The last AIF troops were withdrawn over 2 nights in the 'final' evacuation - 18 to 19 December and 19 to 20 December 1915.
Leaving from North Beach
Although Anzac Cove was used, the main evacuation points were the piers at North Beach. So many Australians spent their last moments on Anzac at North Beach, where they caught their last glimpses in the dark of the Sari Bair Range as they pulled away from the piers.
Activity at Williams' Pier
During the evacuation, movements to the piers took place in the 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 CEW Bean, The Story of Anzac, Sydney, 1924, Vol II, pp865-866]
Quietly moving mules
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 Corps brought material for evacuation to Williams' Pier.
Once on flat ground and heading south for North Beach, the mule columns passed a stretch of coast opposite the Sniper's Nest where they might be heard by Turkish patrols. Mules were constantly going up the line with supplies so there was nothing to tell the enemy that they were now returning, equally heavily laden.
The Indian mule handlers were so skilled that hardly any noise was made. After seeing a mule column, an Australian wrote in 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 CEW 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.
Reactions to the evacuation
The objectives of the first two stages were kept secret from all but those who needed to know. 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.
I hope our poor pals who lie all around us sleep soundly, and do not stir in discontent as we go filing away from them forever.
[New Zealand soldier at the evacuation of Gallipoli]
Charles Bean noticed soldiers in the cemeteries, alone or in groups of two or three, tidying up graves.
Bean tells us their reaction to the news of the evacuation:
For days after the breaking of the news there were never absent from the cemeteries men by themselves, or in twos and threes, erecting new crosses or tenderly 'tidying-up' the grave of a friend. This was by far the deepest regret of the troops. 'I hope,' said one of them to [General] Birdwood on the final day [19 December], pointing to a little cemetery, 'I hope they won't hear us marching down the deres [valleys]'.
[Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol II, Sydney, 1924, p.882]
As he left, Padre Walter Dexter went through the cemeteries and gullies scattering silver wattle seed:
If we have to leave here. I intend that a bit of Australia shall be here.
Last troops to leave Anzac
On 19 December, the British cruiser HMS Grafton lay in off North Beach ready to take the soldiers on board. The ship was ready to open fire on any enemy attempt to hinder the 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.
On 19 December, only 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. They tried to convince their watchful enemy that things were proceeding as normal.
At 2:15pm, 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 only 1500 troops left in all those miles of dark trench.
As the last contingents made their way to the piers, small rear parties manned the trenches, firing occasional shots and making enough noise to convince the enemy that the whole garrison was still there.
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 4:00am on 20 December 1915, a handful of men were left at North Beach. Among these was the commander of the 'Rear Party', Colonel John Paton, from Waratah, Sydney. At 4:10am, Paton, having waited 10 minutes for any last Anzac straggler, declared the evacuation complete and the last steamboat sailed off.
The Anzacs had successfully left Gallipoli with hardly a casualty. Anzac and Suvla were deserted. On the night of 8 January 1916, the British left Helles; the Gallipoli campaign was over.
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,
[Guppy, quoted in B Gammage, The Broken Years – Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin Books, 1975, p.110]
One last look at North Beach
The panorama appears to have been taken from the Milo, a barge sunk at the end of Williams Pier to protect it from storms, or the deck of a ship anchored off Williams Pier in the centre of North Beach because the view looks directly towards the Sphinx. Towards to the left, Walker's Pier is loaded with crates of supplies, with Walker's Ridge above it. Also to the left, beyond the pier and above the beach, are the white tents of the hospital. On the slopes above the pier are the terraced trenches and walkways and the tents of the labour corps camp. Above Williams Pier in the centre of the photograph are the extensive stacks of supplies, separated in rows to give soldiers some protection from the constant shelling. Smoke, most likely from shellfire, is visible above the beach and on the slopes to the left. The terraced walkways and trenches extend quite a way up the central slopes and around Mule Gully, with some white tents visible high on the slopes. Further on the right is Plugge's Plateau, and close to the beach are more hospital tents and the 5th Field Ambulance camp. Along the beach to the far right of the panorama is Ari Burnu.
This photograph of North Beach was chosen for the 8th interactive panel on the Anzac Walk on Gallipoli. From the point of view of the British Empire and dominion forces on Gallipoli, no operation was so successfully carried out as the evacuation from 8 to 20 December 1915.