Today, 20th December 1915 marks the 100th anniversary of the final evacuation of troops from the Anzac Sector of the Gallipoli Campaign.
A few weeks earlier in 1915 a tall cross-eyed gent came ashore. He was greeted warmly by the Anzacs, he was afterall a ‘soldier’s soldier’, he was Lord Kitchener. He had come to spend two hours getting a hands-on appraisal of the situation. It was his decision whether or not the brave Anzacs would winter it out. The troops had already suffered the onset of a harsh and early Winter, flash floods and snow had greeted their every move. It was time to do something, make a decision.
Before Kitchener came out to inspect the Anzac Sector he had already instructed the Gallipoli commanders that they needed to construct bombproof underground shelters, large enough to house troops over the Winter, and similar to those built on the Western Front. In fact the Light Horse had built 22 such shelters prior to the evacuation, for which I’ve personally tried to locate to this very day.
Back to our story. Kitchener,after his short visit and with further consultation with his commanders on the ground had decided that there was absolutely no strategic advantage to be made by staying. The August Offensive had dried up any possible surprise attacks. The Turks had strengthened their defences all along the lines, basically it was an exercise in futility. These resources were badly needed back in the ‘real show’ on the Western Front.
A very bright Australian officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brudenell White came up with a plan that would lull the Turks into a sense of security with long regular periods of no firing, ‘Silent Stunts’, followed by regular gunfire, so the Turks knew when to expect the silence and the fire.
An evacuation schedule planned for the leaving of Anzac in three stages. In the ‘preliminary stage’, to be set in motion while awaiting word from London that the British Cabinet had approved Lord Kitchener’s recommendation to evacuate, men and equipment would be taken off consistent with a garrison preparing for a purely defensive winter campaign. After Cabinet approval, the ‘intermediate’ stage would commence, during which the number of soldiers on Anzac would be reduced to a point where they could still hold off a major Turkish attack for about one week. During the first two stages, the Anzac garrison would fall from 41 000 to 26 000. These 26 000 would then be withdrawn over two nights in the ‘final’ evacuation on 18-19 and 19-20 December 1915. In the event, by 18 December at the end of the ‘intermediate’ stage, there were only 20 277 soldiers left at Anzac.
A game of cricket was played on Shell Green in an attempt to distract the Turks from the imminent departure of allied troops on 17th December. Major George Macarthur Onslow of the Light Horse in batting, is being caught out. Shells were passing overhead all the time the game was in progress. Leading to the famous photograph of the event
The silence and the secrecy continued, the first two stages of the operation were barely noticed by the troops. Charles Bean the Australian Historian and my personal hero wrote as he followed one of the Indian Mule trains heading back to the sea
‘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 C E W Bean, The Story of Anzac, Sydney, 1924,
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. Many men spent time tidying the many cemeteries knowing they’d be leaving their mates behind.
By the night of the 20th there were 1,500 men holding the trenches from Hill 60 in the far north to Bolton’s ridge, the southernmost point of the Anzac zone. Slowly they too made their way down the deserted trenches and loaded onto barges and boats for the final journey from the place they called home for more than 8 months.
The Anzac’s had devised rifles and mines to go off using tin cans with dripping water to fool the Turks.
Captain Charles Littler
By 4.00 am, 20 December 1915, new information that has come to me via a relative of a lesser known officer at the time a Captain Charles Littler that it seems that Charles was more likely to be the last man off ANZAC.
Charles was known as the ‘Duke of Anzac’. Personally he was known to speak his mind and this in turn affected his chances for promotion. I will write a dedicated post about Littler and hopefully the world will know of the great injustice made to Charles and his family. Thank you to Guy Littler who has published an article with The Gallipolian magazine.
A handful of men were left at North Beach. Among these was the commander of the ‘Rear Party’, Colonel J Paton, from Waratah, Sydney. At 4.10 am, Paton, having waited ten minutes for any last Anzac straggler, declared the evacuation complete and sailed off. The Anzacs had successfully left Gallipoli with hardly a casualty.
Postscript.. New postscript regarding the information made available to me by Mr. Guy Littler, the grandson of Captain Charles Littler which changes the history of the 'Last man to leave Anzac' There has always been speculation about whether or not the Turks knew of the evacuation. Fact is that the Turks were more than happy just to see the backs of the Anzacs. The Campaign dragged on until early January at which time the British evacuated Cape Helles. They weren't so lucky and the Turks shelled the retreating British. But no amount of cajoling by the Turkish officers could convince the troops to attack the troops. As I said, they were just happy to see them leave