From conception to evacuation, the Gallipoli campaign lasted just over a year. In late December 2014, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II asked the British Government for a diversion to help relieve pressure from Ottoman troops in the Caucasus. A War Council meeting in London on 2 January 1915 resolved to help and Lord Kitchener sent a telegram to St Petersburg promising to “make a demonstration against the Turks.”
Before the year was out, more than half a million men were killed, wounded or missing in action from the ensuing Gallipoli campaign. The casualties were almost evenly shared between the opponents but it was the British and her allies that had been defeated, with the final evacuations from the peninsula occurring on 9 January 1916.
I have been asked to speak a little about those successful evacuations today, on this the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign.
After almost 6 months of fighting, identified by most as even more fearsome than that on the western front, the campaign was going badly for the Allies. On 11 October, Lord Kitchener wrote to Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, with the question;
“What is your estimate of the probable losses which would be entailed to your force if the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was decided on and carried out in the most careful manner?”
Hamilton wrote back arguing against evacuation saying that;
“If they do this they make the Dardanelles into the bloodiest tragedy of the world” and he estimated the losses at around 25,000 men from Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay.
Sir Ian Hamilton was removed from his post and Lord Kitchener travelled to Gallipoli himself, including into the frontline trenches of the Nek, where so many of the Australian Light Horse Brigade had been needlessly butchered. He immediately concluded that the position was untenable stating that;
“The country is much more difficult than I imagined and the Turkish positions are natural fortresses which, if not taken by surprise at first, could be held against very serious attack by larger forces than have been engaged.”
As we know, the evacuation of Anzac Cove occurred without a single fatality despite the fears of the British commanders. Much of the success was due to the ingenuity of the soldiers on the ground. In the lead up to the evacuation, Allied troops would lull the Turks into a false sense of security by not returning fire for days. When eventually the Turks gained sufficient confidence and curiosity to venture into no-man’s land, the allies would open up with a furious barrage.
It was through this and other feints that allowed the homemade booby trapped guns and grenades camouflage the retreat of the diggers when it happened in the nights before 20 December 1915.
A few intrepid machine gunners were the last to remain. These machine gunners knew their chances of survival were slim if the Turks caught wind of what was happening and were prepared to fight to the death.
Harold Tooker, from Cawarral ,was one of these Machine Gunners and his diary extracts tell of the evacuation.
December 20th, 1915
Eventually there was only one boat left and every man was off the Peninsula except us. Two machine guns were to do what 40,000 men had been doing for eight months. If the Turks attacked we would have been annihilated.
At 4.30 a huge mine was exploded on Walkers Ridge and that was our signal. Although there wasn’t a man in our trenches, which the Turks didn’t know, as soon as the mine exploded they thought we were going to attack. They immediately opened a furious rifle fire.
We had all sorts of tricks left for the Turks such as time fuse bombs, old rifles loaded with a piece of string tied to the trigger for them to trip over, and blankets so arranged in front of our ‘bivies’ so that when the blankets were pulled aside to have a look, several bombs would go off.
Picking up machine guns, ammunition boxes and our own packs and rifles we actually ran to the pier about a mile. The weight each man was carrying was about 130 pounds. How we got there I don’t quite know but it's marvellous what one can do when it's life or death. Panting, gasping and dragging one man who had collapsed we struggled to the wharf.
We at last got to the boat and was either the third or fourth last off the Peninsula. I fell down, utterly exhausted.
When we got to the transport a sight met our eyes which will not easily be forgotten. The evacuation was completed from Lone Pine to Suvla Beach. It was a sad yet awe-inspiring sight.
I sat on the wet deck and looked back at Gallipoli where the Turks still kept up a heavy fire at our empty trenches and thought of what suffering, pain and misery our fellows had gone through and then have to leave.
Harold Tooker returned to Egypt, where he had been prior to Gallipoli, and remained there until February 1917. On February 27th 1917 Harold Tooker arrived home.
Now 100 years on from the Gallipoli campaign it remains a formative moment in the young nations of Australia and New Zealand, and the more ancient Turkish peoples. The Gallipoli campaign saw Australia grow up through its adolescent years as a nation. It also midwifed the birth of a modern, secular Turkish nation under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk.
So many Australians and New Zealanders have travelled to Turkey this year to peacefully respect the sacrifice of all nations during this horrific battle. While that pilgrimage has grown in numbers in more recent years, we should not forget that the bonds of mateship and mutual respect developed between our nations even during the battle, and manifested themselves immediately after its conclusion.
I want to finish today by reading a poem by an Australian war poet, under the pseudonym “Argent”, left for the Turks in the deserted trenches:
I reckon the Turk respects us, as we respect the Turk;
Abdul’s a good, clean fighter, we fought him, and we know.
And we’ve left him a letter behind us to tell him we found him so.
Not to say precisely, “Goodbye” but “Au revoir”!
Somewhere or other we’ll meet again, before the end of the war!
But I hope it’ll be a wider place, with a lot more room on the map,
And the airmen over the fight that day’ll see a bit of a scrap!
Lest we forget.