We still marvel at how some 36,000 Anzacs evacuated Gallipoli
‘My goodness, if the Turks don’t see all this as it goes along, they must be blind,’ wrote war historian CEW Bean in his diary. ‘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.’
The successful secret evacuation of Anzacs from Gallipoli from 15 to 20 December 1915 saw some 36,000 troops evacuated from the peninsula. Despite concerns that the withdrawal of troops could result in heavy casualties, there were virtually none.
Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, recommended the evacuation soon after visiting Gallipoli on 13 November 1915. He arrived on a small boat at North Beach to see the Anzac positions for himself. As the troops eagerly surrounded Kitchener on the pier, 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’.
Yet after two hours of surveying the Turkish line from the Australian trenches inland of the Sphinx and at Lone Pine, and two days of consulting with senior commanders, Kitchener saw that it was virtually impossible for any progress to be made against the strengthening Turkish positions. Moreover, local commanders were extremely worried about problems supplying Gallipoli given the severe storms of that winter.
Australian staff officers began planning for the Anzacs to evacuate unseen. The masterful strategy played out almost seamlessly; from the staged withdrawal of troops masked as preparation for a defensive winter campaign, to the quiet moving of columns of mules carrying their evacuation materials.
Many Anzacs were dismayed to be leaving their fallen mates behind.
On 19 December, as he waited to leave, Company Quarter Master Sergeant A L Guppy, 14th Battalion, of Benalla, Victoria, confided his feelings about the withdrawal in 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,