Well, I’ve landed my man safely on Gallipoli … and in a surge of creative and decisive action on the battlefield that is my keyboard, have just as safely got him off again. On the last night, and on the last ship to leave: 20 December 1915.
The Ariburnu cliffs looking down to Anzac Cove (author photo).
It took a fair bit of heavy struggle to set up the military and literary situation for this part of the new book, for I’m a reasonably slow writer averaging only two to three hundred words a day. But once I was able to start dramatising the marvellous story of the last two days of the Evacuation from Anzac and Suvla the excitement fairly seized me, and I finished over two thousand words in not much more time than it took to complete the final withdrawal itself.
With the 98th anniversary of Anzac Day coming up on Thursday 25 April, we Australians concentrate on the heroic but ultimately futile and poorly planned operation of the Landings on the beaches of Anzac. On how the troops coming ashore under heavy fire were faced – unexpectedly – with cliffs, ravines, and three very steep ridges. On how a few of them got to the top of the third ridge on the first morning, and looked down on the waters of the Dardanelles…
Until the Turkish counter-attack drove them back to the second ridge. Where they dug in and clung tenaciously and valorously for the next eight months: the Turks unable to drive them into the sea, the Australian and New Zealand battalions unable to advance very much further inland, for their enemy held all the high ground.
Eight months of killing. Of constant bombardment and sniper fire, for nowhere on the relatively small enclave of Anzac was safe. Of summer heat, and flies, and the stench of death, and lousy food (mostly bully beef and hard biscuit you could break your teeth on). Of vermin. Lack of water (sometimes rationed to only two cups a day). Disease: dysentery and enteric, that caused far more casualties than enemy bullets and shrapnel. Of sudden winter cold and snow. Frostbite and trench feet, and not enough warm clothes.
All of this was endured with a courage and solidarity that resonated from the beginning within the nation – to the point where in Australia, at least, I believe Anzac Day has become our true national day. As the historian of Gallipoli, Les Carlyon, has pointed out, people do not go on pilgrimage – to Anzac Cove, to the shrines of Remembrance and war memorials in every small country town – on 26 January, the official Australia Day.
Yet however brave, the Gallipoli campaign was in truth a failure, as General Bridges, who commanded the 1st Australian Division recognised on the evening of the first day when his troops had been forced back to the second ridge. He actually advised immediate withdrawal. But it was too late. There were not enough ships. And the order came back from the GOC, Sir Ian Hamilton, that there was nothing for it but to dig in and stick it out.
Which is what they did. For those eight dreadful months, during which over 100,000 men on both sides died: Turkish, British, Australian, New Zealand, French, Indian and other Allied soldiers.
Not until November, when the need for additional troops became more pressing in Europe, did the higher command recognise, or at any rate act on the wisdom of Bridges’ observation that first night. Orders were issued to set in train plans for the Evacuation. Even then, Hamilton feared that half the army could be lost during a withdrawal.
In fact there were only two minor casualties. The strategy developed by the Australian chief of staff, Brigadier-General Brudenell White, was brilliantly conceived and executed. It was the principal success of the Gallipoli campaign, from an Allied point if view.
The trouble is that not enough people know about it in any detail – not like they do the landings. Sir John Monash, who commanded the 4th Australian Brigade, called the Evacuation one of the greatest jokes in military history. It was certainly a triumph of deception and stealth. And as a novelist and biographer, I’m fortunate that the soldier I’m writing about was there to play his own small part in it.
I’ll share something of it with you next time.
The Ariburnu cliffs, Gallipoli 2012: author photo.