A hundred years ago this month, the evacuation of Gallipoli began. In contrast to the campaign, it was a model of planning and execution. Military historian Glyn Harper recalls the feelings of “the lucky ones” who got out.
The Allied offensive of August 1915 was the last major attempt to break the stalemate that had persisted since the landings on April 25. A series of attacks aimed to seize high points along the Sari Bair range, whose names – Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair, Hill 60 – have passed into history.
But its failure cost thousands of lives and, in three weeks, effectively destroyed the New Zealand infantry and mounted brigades as fighting forces. Embarrassed British authorities decided on evacuation.
In contrast to the rest of the campaign, the evacuation was meticulously planned, well controlled and flawlessly executed. Among elaborate deception measures was a 72-hour period of total silence in the last week of November, when no work was done and no shots were fired, in the hope of convincing the Turks that more troops were being landed for an offensive.
The two-week evacuation began on December 8 and ended on December 20, but the 3000 Anzac soldiers were most reluctant to leave. When the plan was confirmed, the New Zealanders reacted with a mixture of disbelief, anger and shame at leaving their mates behind.
“When we heard evacuation of the peninsula was being contemplated,” Joe Gasparich recalled in a 1982 interview, “we simply could not believe it. The very idea was rejected with much vehemence.
“Men thought of the sufferings undergone and sacrifices made and grieved deeply that all should be for nought. And worst of all was it that those who had died here should be abandoned to an enemy in a foreign soil.”
George Tuck wrote of his “everlasting shame” at the evacuation: “I am no lion heart; but I would sooner go over the ridge in frontal attack and all the chances of death with honour than do this bitter thing.” His only consolation was that “the Australasian troops did all – and almost more than all – that man could do”.
Garry Clunie expressed similar sentiments in a letter to his brother Will. “It was a hard knock to us [who] have been fighting there all the time and I don’t mind telling you that I think any of the old hands would have far rather had word to have another go at Hill 971 than to give it up all for nothing.”
Albert Newton of the Otago Battalion wrote to his family that, “It came as a blow to us when word came to get out, after the large number of brave men who had laid down their lives there and the hard struggle we had to take and hold the positions we had gained.”
Many of the New Zealand soldiers wanted to be among the last to leave and did almost anything to remain as long as possible. George Soutar, who left on December 14, had volunteered to stay till the last day, “along with EVERY other one of the boys”, but his feet were frost-bitten and he was ordered to leave.
As the ranks thinned, it became a lonely place to be. Clunie, who remained in the trenches until the last day, wrote that there was only one man at each lookout post and, with his nearest comrade two chains (40m) away, “I can tell you it was a long lonely watch.”
Gasparich, also one of the last to leave, described the last night as “a long lonely wait in the dark on one’s own … as the minutes slowly, very slowly ticked off”.
Frederick Tavendale of the Wellington Battalion also recalled the tension and the loneliness of those final hours: “Well, you were a bit nervous when you were on your own when you had been used to a crowd with you all the time. When you were on your own for the last quarter of an hour, it was a bit nerve-racking then and you were told not to run when we left the frontline.”
Glendwr Morgan, of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, was in the 6th Reinforcements. He was one of the last New Zealanders to land on Gallipoli and one of the last to leave. He recalled the strain felt on that last night. “It had to be entirely noiseless. Orders were in whispers and passing words in whispers. You were stealing away in the dark. Absolutely no lights or smoking. It was eerie and the tension was great. Much relieved when you got on to a lighter.”
James Rudd was also one of the very last men to leave and he had not expected to get away. “We were given a couple of hand grenades, which we hung on our belts, and were told to use when the Turks were close enough. We were, in fact, a suicide squad and no one ever expected us to get off.
“I remember getting onto the barge, Anzac Cove, sitting down by my old cobber, Jake Harris, and falling asleep leaning against him and he saying, and he seemed to be miles away, ‘Jimmy, you are one of the last blokes to leave the Gallipoli Peninsula.’”
As he was leaving, Malcolm Galloway paused at one of the field cemeteries. As the moonlight pierced the clouds, he noticed a cross in memory of Trooper Rupert Pyle, who had been with him in the rugby team that won the Wellington championship in 1910. Galloway couldn’t help thinking that Pyle had scored his last try at Gallipoli: “If ever I was near to weeping,” he would recall, “it was at that time.”
PLANNING AND LUCK
The complete success of the evacuation surprised many of those who carried it out. Roy Bruce of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, who left on the last night, said that the experience “will remain a memory all my life”.
“Why we were not discovered I do not know,” he wrote to his wife early the next month. Troops had been ordered to hold to the last and the hospitals were prepared for heavy casualties, so Bruce felt that the allies had escaped a potential bloodbath. It was, he wrote, “a wonderful piece of organisation and, backed by all the luck in the world, magnificently successful”.
John Thomson described the evacuation in his diary as “undoubtedly one of the most remarkable feats of the campaign”. Even the senior commanders were surprised at how smoothly the evacuation had gone. The Anzac artillery commander, Napier Johnston, described it in his diary as being “really … a wonderful evacuation”, and, ever the gunner, added “I am particularly pleased at saving all my guns.”
General William Birdwood, in command of the evacuation, although he had strongly opposed the decision to go, described the evacuation without loss of life as “rather a wonderful performance”.
Watching from a navy vessel off shore, Charles Pearce saw the stores at Anzac Cove set ablaze just after 4am on December 20. It was “a splendid sight to see the flames leap up simultaneously on the various beaches”. At 7.30am, the Turks commenced to shell the front-line trenches, “but soon found out that the birds had flown and opened up a heavy barrage on the beaches”. Pearce’s ship sailed away but not before giving the Turks “a few salvoes of 8” [from the eight-inch guns] as a parting salute”. They were the last shots fired at Anzac Cove.
An adapted extract from JOHNNY ENZED: THE NEW ZEALAND SOLIDER IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918, by Glyn Harper (Exisle, $55).
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