War history: How the Allied forces secretly removed tens of thousands of troops from Gallipoli before winter set in
12:00 05 December 2015
Galloway’s resident military historian Mike Peters explains what happened as the Dardanelles felt the approach of winter back in November 1915.
The rapid deterioration of weather conditions signalled time was running out very quickly and, unless something was done soon, casualties among the men of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force were almost certainly going to become unmanageable.
In late November, 1915, Lord Kitchener visited the peninsula to see conditions for himself. He reluctantly authorised the planning of an operation to evacuate Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. Now the real work began. Just how could such a withdrawal be made without incurring huge losses?
An aggressive Turkish opponent confronted the Gallipoli planners with the huge challenge of extracting 14 divisions of allied troops and their heavy weapons and stores by sea, whilst under constant surveillance. The allies were penned into small tracts of land by the Turks and the terrain, and the weather continued to worsen with the passing of each day, as did the state of the sea in the straits.
The first thing was to deceive the Turks and convince them the allies were settling in for a long winter. This deception plan started with a steady reduction in activity around the allied trenches. This was intended to reinforce the idea that little was happening; actually, every night, ships and boats were lifting soldiers and equipment off the beaches to safety.
The second element in maintaining secrecy was to withdraw men without them compromising the plan once ashore in Egypt, or their first port of call. Orders were circulated stating that the MEF was drawing down numbers for the winter. The number of men reduced over the days until it reached 20,000 defenders. Meanwhile, the illusion of larger numbers was maintained through the day and any attempt at reconnaissance by the Turks was vigorously driven off.
The plan for evacuation was revealed on December 13 to those remaining. The target date for withdrawal was set for December 18. The timetable was meticulously planned and closely supervised by General Birdwood’s staff.
Sadly, there was no capacity on the ships to carry away the hundreds of mules. Allied commanders could not leave such valuable assets behind for the Turkish army to capture. All the mules had to be shot before the evacuation was complete.
The illusion of active, fully-manned allied positions had to be maintained at all costs. As the evacuation gained momentum there was a diminishing number of defenders left to prevent a Turkish push breaking through to the beaches. If this were allowed to happen, the remaining troops would almost certainly be killed or captured.
The last troops to pull out would leave all kinds of devices behind to maintain the impression the allies were still in place. The most famous of these was the rifle rigged by string and pulley to fire into the Turkish lines once a counterweight bucket filled with water from a dripping source. These ingenious contraptions were spread around the forward trenches and fired at irregular intervals.
There were other devices: lights at night and powerful mines timed to explode after the evacuation was complete.
On the first night, more than 9,000 men were successfully lifted off the beaches at Anzac and Suvla. This was achieved in spite of a huge fire breaking out in one of the supply dumps. The fire was contained and denied the Turks whatever stores were lost. Many of the massive stacks of ration and ammunition boxes close to the beaches had been hollowed out, to maintain the impression of well-stocked winter supply dumps.
Emotions among the departing troops were mixed. Many wanted to stay and fight; others were relieved to get away from the harsh living conditions. All were sad to leave the graves of fallen comrades behind. Individuals found time to visit the graves of friends and spent time tidying them up and ensuring they were marked properly. Sadly, many of the wooden crosses would later be taken by Turkish peasants and used as firewood.
As he marched past General Birdwood in the dark, one soldier expressed the sentiment felt by many about leaving his mates behind: “I hope they don’t hear us marching down the deres (a gully)”.
Silence was vital. The floor of each trench had been covered with soft soil or blankets to deaden the sound of boots, and each soldier had wrapped strips of blanket around his boots to muffle their footsteps. The routes were marked by a combination of flour trails and dimmed lights in cut-out biscuit tins.
If the Turks raised the alarm at this final stage the results would be catastrophic. In the event, the last 10,040 defenders maintained absolute discipline and escaped without detection and without a single casualty. The operation was an overwhelming success surpassing even the most optimistic expectations of those who planned it.
So Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay had been abandoned. There was still a large Anglo-French force in place at Helles. How could they escape? Surely the miracle of December could not be repeated?
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