Today marks the 100th anniversary of the evacuation from Gallipoli in Turkey.
The strategy to invade in April 1915 was intended to allow Allied ships to pass through the Dardanelles channel to capture Istanbul and ultimately knock Turkey out of the First World War.
Eight months later winter starts closing in on the Gallipoli peninsula, enthusiasm for the Allied campaign is cooling. Sleet and snow cover the hills; a storm floods dugouts and washes away trenches spreading waterborne disease. Instead of suffering from the heat, soldiers suffer from frostbite.
In November, the British minister for war, Lord Kitchener, visited the peninsula to see firsthand whether troops should stay or go. The conditions there are more difficult than he had imagined so on return to London he reports back to the War Committee and in December, Cabinet orders that the troops get out. Australian General Brudenell White oversees the evacuation, setting chief engineer Captain Alexander Jackson (Jack) Cunningham MC [from the Anglesea Honour Board] the task to build a light pile footbridge to the S.S. Milo and step ladders along for men stepping down into boats. Jack wrote in his diary that ordnance had been packing up a lot of stuff, rumours were strong but he believed it seemed hardly credible there would be an evacuation. The rumours were confirmed, when he received the orders that he and his men had to prepare the SS Milo as a point of evacuation by blowing holes in her side. From this day on most of the remaining troops on Anzac became aware that a full withdrawal was in progress. Charles Bean wrote:
“The cemeteries of Anzac were never without men, in twos and threes or singly, ‘tidying’ up the grave of some dear friend, and repairing or renewing little packing-wood crosses and rough inscriptions.”
Soldiers slipped away in boats at night. Although Anzac Cove was used, the chief evacuation points were the piers at North Beach such as the pier to SS Milo built by Jack and his men. It was at North Beach, therefore, that many men spent their last moments on Anzac and caught their last glimpses in the dark of the Sari Bair Range as they pulled away from the piers. Stores were surreptitiously destroyed or removed, ammunition buried. Engineers were instructed to blow heavy guns to bits – in explosions no louder than gunshots.
At 4am on December 20, Jack was one of the last to slip away from Gallipoli, he had to ensure that the piers stayed intact for the withdrawal of all men. His role had been crucial to the successful evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Anzacs left behind dumps of tinned meat and biscuits and more than 8000 Australians and around 2700 New Zealanders who died in the fighting.
Within a couple of weeks, all British and French troops had also left Cape Helles.
The Allied forces have battled on the peninsula for eight-and-a-half months; more than 40,000 of their men died: British, French, Indian, Canadian and soldiers from Nepal and Ceylon. The Turks lost twice as many soldiers defending the invasion; more than 86,000 dead.
Within months of sailing from Gallipoli, the first Anzacs arrived in Europe on March 7, 1916 where they started fighting again, this time in the main theatre of World War I, the Western Front.