from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume V page 1035
'The Miraculous Withdrawal from Gallipoli'

The Great Episodes of the War


In the third week in December, 1915, the situation of the Australasian and British forces clinging to their twelve-mile front in Northern Galhpoli seemed desperate beyond parallel. We had lost about one hundred thousand men in vainly trying to break through the enemy's fortressed crescent of heights, and in stubbornly holding on to our precarious position. The most distressing feature of our increasing list of losses was that disease began to disable our forces at a far more rapid rate than did the enemy's weapons. Nearly half our total losses were due to sickness. This, in turn, was due to our inferior military situation. The Turks were superbly entrenched on a great amphitheatre of dominating hills. From the mountain clump of Sari Bair to the rugged crest of the Kavah Tepe range the hostile artillery observation officers had points one thousand feet above sea-level from which to direct their guns. The principal hills on our northernmost sector, such as Chocolate Hill and Green Hill, were less than two hundred feet high, and even the highest Anzac trenches, that rose six hundred feet, were closely overshadowed by the sombre mountains held by the Turks. Only by entrenching in folds of the broken ground, where howitzer shells alone could be pitched on to our dug-outs, were our troops able to escape sweeping destruction. The enemy was everywhere firing down on them, and at one critical spot, known as Sniper's Nest, the Turk remained, after eight months' desperate efforts to push him back, within less than half a mile of our landing beach.


Lord Kitchener at Anzac

Such was the military situation, as Lord Kitchener saw it in November, when he climbed to Russell's Top at Anzac. But the hygienic situation was still worse. In the heavy rainy weather, with fierce sou'-westerly gales, the heights of Gallipoli streamed with water. Tracks running up between the bushes and hummocks of rock changed from dry footpaths into torrent beds, and as our trenches were everywhere below the Turkish lines, our great system of linked earthworks served to drain the mountains. Here and there a battalion, clinging to a trench blasted in the rock on the edge of a precipice, still lived in want of water; but, as a general rule, our deeply-dug lines were exceedingly wet. Our sappers had to use high and ingenious skill and immense labour in order to carry off the mountain flood-water, and prevent the trenches becoming strong, swirling watercourses. Then, as winter deepened, the climate on the northern rocky shore of Gallipoli became extraordinarily severe for so southern a region. Some of our sentries were found frozen to death at their posts. Practically all our positions were fully exposed to the bleak, north-easterly*winds sweeping from the remote Russian steppes across the Balkans, where the winter rigours of the Siege of Plevna were still remembered.

After studying all the conditions, Lord Kitchener agreed with Sir Charles Monro, the new commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, that it would be best to retire. This decision was strengthened by the need for veteran troops of the finest quality in the new Balkan theatre of war, to which the 10th Division, the spearhead in some of the Suvla Bay battles, was first despatched. But when a complete retirement from both Suvla Bay and Anzac had been ordered, the task of carrying it out appeared superhuman.

On Sir William Birdwood, who directed the operations of retirement, the burden and the gloom were very heavy; for this gallant general, who had led the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps from the first landing battle, was still confident that he could win to the Narrows and decide the fate of the Ottoman Empire. All he wanted was a large reinforcement. But the defection of the Bulgarians, the wavering of the Greeks, and the overthrow of the Serbians had made Gallipoli a theatre of war of secondary importance. We had decided to hold the entrance to the Dardanelles, beneath Achi Baba, and thus facilitate the operations of our submarine crews in the Sea of Marmora, while the old and new armies on the northern coast moved to the more vital region of Salonika.

The German Staff thought that our main force in Gallipoh was trapped. We were supposed to be in the position of a man who had got a wolf by the ears, and was holding on in despair because he could not safely let go. The Turks were of the same mind as the Germans, and in some fairly well-informed circles in London there were very dark apprehensions. How many men a hundred would it cost us to evacuate our position? Some put it as high as twenty-five, and it was generally expected that there would be a terrible rearguard battle with some eighty thousand Turks, roused to the full height of fanatic courage by the spectacle of our withdrawal.

The Conception of the Bluff

But Sir William Birdwood and Admiral Robeck did not fear anything of this kind. Their chief anxiety was the weather. If only the sea was calm, so that the heavy guns and other ponderous material could be shipped quickly and easily, the general and the admiral rather looked forward to a farewell scrap with "Johnny Turk." Happily, the weather on the critical night, Sunday, December 19th, 1915, was serene, and though the moon, being nearly at full, cast an unwanted amount of light, the operation was conducted with marvellous success.

By way of a beginning, a rearguard battle, on an economic scale, was arranged. By the work of many nights, the sappers built a series of mines in front of our lines, and our machine-guns were so arranged that their comparatively small sections could sweep every yard of the ground. Then, out at sea, the naval gunners stood by large stores of shrapnel shell, with the ranges exactly fixed, ready at a wireless signal to maintain a fire curtain, twelve miles long, from Suvla Point to Gaba Tepe.

But though the Turks had German observation officers at the principal points, and well-trained observers of their own race, with good night-glasses, peering from the mountain tops, no attack was launched. At one spot the Turkish trenches were only seven yards from ours, and the moonlit sea and the beaches were crowded with our warships, transports, small boats, and retiring troops. The men came down in thousands from the hill tracks, and wound in thousands across the plain by Salt Lake. But neither German nor Turk divined the meaning of the continual movements going on beneath their eyes. Great guns were lowered to the beaches, hoisted by derricks into lighters, and thence lifted on to steamers. All the ammunition was re- shipped. The machine-gun parties were removed, and after some quarrelling among the men of Anzac for the right to be the last to leave, all the battalions were embarked.

More than Success

At half-past three on Monday morning the last of the Australians fired a forty-five- feet-deep mine under the Turkish trenches, as a farewell act of battle, while volunteers with fuses set light to some large dumps of bully beef, and by five o'clock on the dark, midwinter morning the evacuation was complete. The total casualties were one officer and four men wounded.

It was one of the most surprising feats in the history of war. Even when every Briton and Australian was safe aboard ship, and our naval guns were destroying the breakwaters and landing-stages, the Turks did not stir from their trenches. They did not know, when dawn broke bright and clear, that no enemy faced them. Their guns bombarded the bonfires, shelled our battleships, and peppered the abandoned front in an erratic way.

It was mainly Staff work of an extraordinary excellence that extricated the Australasian and British forces from an apparently hopeless situation. What can the members of the German Staff do when men like Sir William Birdwood perform miracles? Some happy day we shall know what Enver Pasha said to his German generals when they told him that our Suvla-Anzac forces had escaped from long- prophesied, certain destruction without a single death.


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