A 'duty clear before us' – North Beach and the Sari Bair Range

Chapter 7: Evacuation - page 1

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Thus to leave you–thus to part

The Evacuation of Anzac, December 1915

Enlarge Lieutenant-General Birdwood, Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, Major-General Godley and Major-General Maxwell, 13 December 1915.
Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, Commander, Mediterranean Expeditionary force; Field Marshal Lord Kitchener; Major-General Alexander Godley, Commander, New Zealand and Australian Division; and Major-General John Maxwell at North Beach, 13 November 1915. [AWM A00880]

At about 1.40 pm on 13 November 1915 a small boat arrived at North Beach. From it stepped Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the British Army. He had come to Anzac to see the positions there for himself. As he walked up the pier with other generals, he was recognised and men came running from all over towards the pier where they surrounded the great man. Charles Bean watched Kitchener walk up from the pier:

The tall red cap [Kitchener] was rapidly closed in among them-but they kept a path and as the red cheeks turned and spoke to one man or another, they cheered him–they, the soldiers-no officers leading off or anything of that sort. It was a purely soldiers’ welcome. He said to them, ‘The King has asked me to tell you how splendidly he thinks you have done-you have done splendidly, better, even, than I thought you would.’

[Kevin Fewster, Frontline Gallipoli – C E W Bean’s diary from the trenches, Sydney, 1983, p.176]

Kitchener spent just over two hours at Anzac surveying the Turkish line from Australian trenches inland of the Sphinx and at Lone Pine. Two days later, after further consultation with senior commanders, he recommended to the British War Cabinet that Gallipoli–Anzac, Suvla and Helles–be evacuated. Without significant reinforcement and the bringing in of considerable artillery resources, little progress could, in his opinion, be made against the strengthening Turkish trenches. This was especially so at Anzac where a further surprise attack, such as had been conducted in August against Chunuk Bair and Kocacimentepe, was virtually impossible. Moreover, local commanders were extremely worried about the problems of supplying Gallipoli throughout the winter with its many severe storms.

Enlarge New Zealand engineers building a road at Destroyer Hill.
The smouldering remains of an accidental fire which began in the supply dump on North Beach at about 1 am on 18 December 1915, the day before the final stage of the evacuation. The fire, at first thought to have been deliberately started by treachery, threatened to alert the Turks to the evacuation in progress and led to shelling from the Turkish guns at the Olive Grove. [AWM G01302]

Once the decision had been taken, the biggest problem was how to leave the peninsula without arousing the suspicions of the Turks. A detailed evacuation plan was devised by an Australian, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brudenell White. This involved elaborate deception operations such as the so-called ‘silent stunts’ of late November where no artillery fire or sniping was to occur from the Anzac lines. It was hoped that this would accustom the Turks to the idea that preparations were underway for the coming winter. Hopefully, the enemy would not, therefore, interpret these silences as a withdrawal. Right to the end, great care was taken to keep up the kind of irregular rifle and artillery fire from Anzac that would be expected by the Turks.

An evacuation schedule planned for the leaving of Anzac in three stages. In the ‘preliminary stage’, to be set in motion while awaiting word from London that the British Cabinet had approved Lord Kitchener’s recommendation to evacuate, men and equipment would be taken off consistent with a garrison preparing for a purely defensive winter campaign. After Cabinet approval, the ‘intermediate’ stage would commence, during which the number of soldiers on Anzac would be reduced to a point where they could still hold off a major Turkish attack for about one week. During the first two stages, the Anzac garrison would fall from 41 000 to 26 000. These 26 000 would then be withdrawn over two nights in the ‘final’ evacuation on 18-19 and 19-20 December 1915. In the event, by 18 December at the end of the ‘intermediate’ stage, there were only 20 277 soldiers left at Anzac. Although Anzac Cove was used, the chief evacuation points were the piers at North Beach. 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.

Enlarge Williams' Pier North Beach, December 1915.
Williams' Pier, North Beach, December 1915, with the Sphinx in the background. At this time the preparations for the evacuation of the Australian and New Zealand troops were well under way. [AWM C01621]

During the evacuation, movement to the piers took place after dark. An Australian observer watched a busy night scene at North Beach:

I went down to see the sending away of the British Labour Corps [the ‘Old and Bold’] and Egyptians and Maltese. Flares were burning on Williams’ Pier and Walker's Ridge. Baggage was piled on the wharf–mostly field ambulance; four gun-teams made their way through the crowd out towards the left; ammunition was being carried in on gharries [a type of horse-drawn Indian carriage] and taken on to the pier or stacked on the beach … truck-load after truck-load of warm winter clothing was being sent running down the little railway on Williams’ Pier.

[Quoted in C E W Bean, The Story of Anzac, Sydney, 1924, Vol II, pp. 865-866]