If Anzac Day, in the ironic way of these things, is the commemoration of a failed campaign – a triumph of endurance and mateship, but a military disappointment nonetheless – it seems to me we should also remember the sheer skill and ingenuity with which the evacuation of the troops from Gallipoli was conceived and carried out. It's often been said that, if the landing had been planned with the same degree of care, the story might have been very different.
Crescent moon over Gallipoli. Dawn, Anzac Day 1995.
From the middle of November 1915, even before the final orders for the evacuation came through, Brudenell White and his staff had been preparing the ground for the grand deception with which they hoped to mislead their Turkish opponents as to the Allies' real intentions.
For several days the forces at Anzac and Suvla pulled what they called a 'silent stunt.' Artillery on the ground and the guns on the battleships went quiet. No shelling. No firing or bomb-throwing in the trenches up on the ridges. No sniping ... except, occasionally, at some obvious target. But just when the enemy was being lulled into a false sense of security, and even venturing out of their own trenches to see if the Anzacs had gone, the Allies opened up with a heavy bombardment. 'We're still here, Jacko.'
These silent stunts were pulled quite regularly thereafter. Several hours of silence at night followed by a resumption of hostilities ... really intended to get the Turks used to prolonged periods of quietness, and not be initially surprised by or suspicious of the long silence that would come with the final withdrawal.
It was into this situation that the soldier I'm writing about came ashore at Anzac in early December – on the very day that London decided to proceed with the evacuation. He was attached to the headquarters of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade at the southern end of the enclave: and his task was to help remove surplus stores, evacuate the sick and many of the support staff by night in boats out to the waiting ships.
Plugge's Plateau, Gallipoli, 2012, showing 'The Sphinx'.
The troops up in the trenches were also thinned out – though at first, men thought the brass were just reducing forces for a winter garrison. They kept working on the production of “The Anzac Book”, written and produced by the men at Gallipoli.
It wasn't until a week before the final departure that most realised what was happening, and feelings were very mixed. On the one hand, many realised the futility of staying on in the present stalemate. On the other, it seemed like a betrayal of those who had died; and the remaining days were often spent off duty tending to the graves of dear mates who had already gone.
C.E.W. Bean reports one of them saying to the GOC, General Birdwood, near the cemetery, 'I hope they don't hear us coming down the deres.'
And General Birdwood could only concur.
Normally, when planning an orderly retreat, the tactic would be to withdraw the front line to the centre, and so on back until the evacuation was complete. But that couldn't happen at Anzac, for if the enemy once gained the seaward side of the second ridge they could fire at will down on the beaches, and turn the evacuation into a rout, just as Hamilton feared.
The strategy, then, was to hold the front lines but to fool the Turks into thinking they were still fully manned, even as they were in fact being heavily reduced. Hence the virtue of the 'silent stunts'. Over ten days the forces at Anzac and at Suvla were halved from 40,000 to 20,000 men. And, with the weather holding, they were to be taken off over the last two nights, 18 and 19 December.
Everything was done to maintain the appearance of normality. Men gathered briefly in places where the enemy could see them. Others went round the same circuit of trench and open ground carrying empty supply boxes. Some famously played a cricket match (very briefly) on Shell Green.
It worked. On the night of 18 December, half the remaining garrison was taken off without incident.
The big question was, would the same luck hold for the final night?
Crescent moon over the Gallipoli cliffs, Anzac Day 1995: author photo.
Plugge's Plateau, Gallipoli 2012: author photo.